Software exec pays it forward
Dion Nugent is the founder and CEO of Forté Holdings, a health care technology company located in the El Dorado Hills Business Park. He fulfilled a boyhood dream in 2005 when he became a volunteer firefighter.
He said he was surprised to discover that the software programs used in the engines, on the ambulances and in the firehouse were out-of date and often ineffective.
“We’re routing calls with our iPhones in the back [of the engine] while the guys in front are trying to make the mapping software work,” he said.
A multi-year project to automate the Patient Care Report paramedics fill out for each patient was going nowhere. In 2010 Nugent decided to get involved.
He’s launching a fully integrated patient care reporting system that will revolutionize the way paramedics collect and disseminate patient information. It runs on Apple’s iPad or Google’s Droid, and interfaces with the other systems on the ambulance and in the firehouse, and allows real-time video conferencing between the ambulance and the doctors waiting at the E.R.
“iPCR,” was created locally in just eight months. The county joint powers authority that controls West Slope emergency medical response agreed to test his prototypes in March. The agency hasn’t had to invest a dime for the half-million dollar software investment. Forté even supplied the iPads it runs on.
Nugent is a busy CEO, yet keeps his radio on and routinely scoots out the door to help on a fire or ambulance call.
But his volunteerism doesn’t stop there. With help from the webmasters he employs, Nugent created a website for the volunteer program that is now used by agencies in 16 states. They also created a commercial for the local volunteer program that’s currently running at the movie theater. To top it off, Nugent recently agreed to act as logistics chief for next year’s volunteer firefighter academy.
When asked how he juggles the myriad responsibilities, Nugent credits his business partner Anthony Schwartz for “holding down the Forté.”
“I’m more of an operations guy than Dion,” confirmed Schwartz. “He’s the ‘big idea’ guy. So if he needs to run out of a meeting now and then, we let him.”
When asked why all the volunteerism, Nugent points to the license plate on his SUV, which reads, “P8 FWD.”
The phrase “pay it forward” was popularized by a 2000 movie of the same name starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. It dates back to ancient Greece, according to Wikipedia, which credits Benjamin Franklin with rediscovering it, Ralph Waldo Emerson for waxing eloquently on it and Ohio State Football Coach Woody Hayes for trotting it out during halftime speeches.
In Nugent’s case, the philosophy was instilled while collecting sand dollars with his father Harold on the beach in Half Moon Bay.
Each time the boy picked up one of the flat shells, his father would ask if it was “the one.” If not, he had to throw it back; to “pay it forward” for the next beach comber.
“I believe that the person we become is defined by the choices we make,” he said. “My father was teaching me to make choices, commit to them, make sacrifices and give back to others.”
Harold Nugent died of cancer at age 32, leaving a wife and two children, the older of which was 10-year-old Dion, who somehow understood that his father’s lessons weren’t complete, and has spent the rest of his life seeking mentors to finish the job.
“I set out at an early age to connect with inspirational people who had knowledge I wanted,” he said.
The family’s prospects dimmed following his father’s death. They collected welfare and spent one summer in a Redwood City bowling alley parking lot, the three of them in a cabover camper, minus a cab.
His mother got her family out of that parking lot by working two jobs. “Times like that define who I am,” said Nugent.
The boy idolized the San Francisco 49ers, and became a ball boy at their training camp in Redwood City. He befriended his heroes, and learned about hard work and making the most of the opportunities.
“When I go on calls with paramedics here in El Dorado Hills it’s like being that ball boy again,” he said. “I’m watching my heroes work.”
Another mentor came along later, a Menlo Park firefighter named Troy Holt who Nugent called “my superman.” The boy decided that firefighters, not football players, were his real heroes and enrolled in Menlo’s cadet program with plans to join their ranks one day.
That all changed in 1992, when Nugent’s mother met a man and got pregnant. A year-and-a-half later the man was gone and Nugent’s infant half-brother, Christian, was diagnosed as severely autistic.
Nugent realized his mother and brother would require a lifetime of support, far more than a firefighter’s salary could provide.
From an early age Nugent demonstrated an uncanny understanding of multiples marketing. He recalls operating a chain of lemonade stands in his neighborhood, complete with profit sharing.
Later in life Nugent visited a chiropractor and witnessed a virtual parade of patients marching through the office for brief treatments. “I did a little math … and realized this guy was making big money,” he said. “But he was at capacity.”
Nugent formed Summit Consulting and expanded the chiropractor’s business by helping him open additional clinics. Soon other chiropractors, physicians and specialists sought his help.
He organized health fairs in San Francisco office building lobbies, where thousands of well-insured office workers passed every day, and signed up hundreds of new patients for his clients.
Five years later he had couple thousand clients and owned portions of five clinics. The money was rolling in.
Summit Consulting’s largest problem was a dearth of good software to centrally control the chains of clinics that he’d helped his clients launch.
Nugent found a package called Medical Business Automation, “a truly terrible software product,” by his account, and spent the next four years cajoling the company president to make it right, eventually giving up and buying the company outright.
He hired programmers and got into the software business, in quest of even better multiples marketing opportunities. The new company was called Forté Systems and later renamed Forté Holdings.
Nugent recalls trying to surround himself with people “smarter than me,” he said, starting at the top. In 2000 he partnered with Schwartz, who he calls him “my brother, my best friend and my moral compass.”
They grew their company by developing software products and acquiring competitors, especially those with antiquated technology or financial problems, and eventually relocated from the Bay Area to El Dorado Hills,
Nugent and Schwartz currently employ 30 people and take great pride in the fact that they’ve never laid anyone off.
Forté Holdings currently has more than 22,000 accounts, but Nugent said he likes to think of his company as an 18-year-old startup, “constantly reinventing ourselves,” he said.
In 2005 a doughy 260-pound Nugent decided to get back in touch with his boyhood dream and took the physical agility test to qualify for the county volunteer training academy.
Former El Dorado Hills Training Chief David Kennedy, who Nugent now lists as one of his mentors, ran the testing and “nearly killed me,” Nugent recalled. He got into the academy by promising he’d get in shape over the six-months of training.
Tom Bowthorpe, a fellow volunteer and certified physical trainer, took Nugent under his tutelage and carved 57 pounds from Nugent’s increasingly solid frame before graduation.
The next challenge was EMT certification, required of all volunteers. He missed a couple tests which “I naively assumed I could make up.”
Not so. “It looked like he wasn’t going to pass,” recalled Kennedy. “At one point he put his resignation on my desk, but I refused it. I told him to go back, buckle down and complete the EMT class.”
Nugent formed a study group at the fire station, did well on the last two tests and passed — barely. One of his fellow students is now his fiancée. “I take full credit for that,” joked Kennedy.
Kennedy deemed Nugent an “anchor volunteer,” the type that sticks around longer than the more than the younger, career-minded volunteers.
Nugent knows that some will accuse him of leveraging his volunteerism for commercial gain, but insists he’s simply solving long-standing technology problems in fire and EMS agencies, and promises, “We’ll never make a cent on our local affiliations.”
Without any marketing or even a formal product launch, he’s he’s placed more than 200 iPCR licenses in ambulances since March.
The trial version is distributed free through iTunes. The “live” version costs $99 and includes 120 PCRs. After that each patient care report costs $1. Early reviews are positive.
The enterprise version of iPCR launches in late August, and will interface to other fire and EMS systems, including those on the ambulance, enabling E.R. doctors to see the patient’s “rhythm strips” and other vital signs before the ambulance reaches the hospital.
A “Face Time” chat capability will allow paramedics to hold the iPad in front of the injury to get the E.R. doctor’s opinion.
The early clients have already requested several other products to run on their new iPads, including replacement for the current mapping software.
If the full product launch in Las Vegas is successful, Nugent hopes to justify the ultimate marketing “attention getter,” a custom motorcycle created by the “American Chopper” team of Discovery Channel fame.
“They’ve done fire and cop bikes,” he said. “I want the EMS bike.”
He envisions the gas tank glowing when a 911 call comes in, and a functional deliberator that could, in a pinch, jump-start either a heart or maybe a car battery. The gas tank will have a recessed area for an iPad running Forté iPCR.
The EMS bike won’t respond to any real emergencies, but Nugent promises its availability for the district’s annual Santa Runs. He envisions avid motorcycle enthusiast and new fire chief Dave Roberts delivering the jolly gentleman to the annual tree lighting in Town Center.