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At a glance
Miller’s Health Systems
Business: The company owns and operates Miller’s Merry Manor, a group of residential nursing homes that also provide short-term rehabilitation services.
Founded: 1964 by Wallace and Connie Miller
Headquarters: Warsaw
Locations: 32 nursing homes and nine assisted-living facilities – all in Indiana
Occupancy: About 80 percent of 3,000 beds
Employees: More than 3,000
Ownership: 100 percent employee-owned
2012 Revenue: Not disclosed
At a glance
The National Center for Employee Ownership offers the following facts about employee stock ownership plans, commonly called ESOPs:
•About 11,000 companies have ESOPs, covering more than 13 million employees.
•ESOPs are most commonly used to provide a market for the shares of departing owners of successful closely held companies and to motivate and reward employees.
•The plans are almost never used to save troubled companies.
•In almost every case, ESOPs are a contribution to the employee, not an employee purchase.
•An ESOP is a kind of employee benefit plan, similar in some ways to a profit-sharing plan, set up as a trust fund with shares allocated to individual employee accounts.
•In public companies, ESOPs are often used in conjunction with employee savings plans. Rather than matching employee savings with cash, the company will match them with stock.
Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Anna Gountras, a registered nurse at Miller’s Merry Manor, jokes with resident Tom Emmenheiser during her rounds.

When workers are owners

Employees, residents love nursing homes

Nancy Dawson, an occupational therapist at Miller’s, works with resident Winifred Pabst on her arm exercises.

Miller’s Merry Manor wants engaged workers.

So the Warsaw-based nursing home and rehabilitation care company encourages employees to approach everyday decisions with the same thoughtful consideration an owner would use.

The effort works because Miller’s 3,000 employees jointly own the company. Miller’s is tied for 46th on a list of the 100 largest U.S. companies primarily owned by employees.

The trend is growing, according to the National Center for Employee Ownership. More than 10 million people work at companies where employees have a majority ownership stake.

Miller’s officials believe it makes all the difference in the level of care its 32 nursing homes provide to residents and to short-term rehabilitation patients. And better care leads to a healthier bottom line.

Profits are strong enough to allow Miller’s officials to plan more than $20 million in building upgrades over the next three years.

Brad Harris, Miller’s vice president of health care development, said the improvements will include creating private suites, café areas, therapy pools and wireless Internet access.

“We don’t have the newest and prettiest buildings,” he said. “We put most of our resources in the care.”

The décor is fine with Lisa Pressler-Clark, who works in the Fort Wayne location.

Unlike some competitors, the company doesn’t decorate its entrance with glittery chandeliers, she said. Instead, Pressler-Clark said, Miller’s nursing homes feel like real homes.

Giving care

Miller’s has 18 five-star nursing homes, the highest possible rating from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The company’s average rating is 4.2 stars.

Sarah Knight, the in-service director for Miller’s local nursing home, keeps staff up-to-date on nursing skills.

The Pierceton woman also teaches certified nursing assistant classes quarterly to 10 applicants in the community. All costs are covered by Miller’s – including the fee to take a state certification test.

“We’re putting these people back in the community,” Knight said. “It’s a great service, I think.”

Many of the graduates will be hired by Miller’s.

“I feel I invest in it a little more, knowing these people will be on my team,” she said.

Knight hired on 16 years ago when she was just 18. She cited the staff’s integrity and honesty for making her stay.

“I love what we stand for and how we take care of our residents,” she said.

Some residents love the staff right back.

Cordelia Hauff, 88, has lived at the Huntington Miller’s nursing home for about one year.

“It’s just like a big family,” she said.

Keeping busy

Ashley Harmeyer, activity director, organizes outings for residents in the Fort Wayne facility.

Miller’s residents attend Komets hockey games, tour DeBrand Fine Chocolates and the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum in Auburn. A group of men eats out once a month at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill.

“They’re busy bees over here,” Harmeyer said.

On a daily basis, the activity director organizes exercise sessions, newspaper reading and pizza parties. Harmeyer also brings bands in for musical performances.

“We try to give them a normal life, things that they’re used to doing at home,” she said.

Harmeyer organizes varied activities with the hope that every resident will find something to enjoy.

Playing bingo and Let’s Make a Deal are Bonnie Link’s favorite activities.

The 77-year-old woman lives at the Columbia City facility. Link couldn’t take care of herself after she broke her hip and leg more than three years ago.

“Everybody’s really nice, and I don’t have any complaints,” she said.

Link, a former nurse, participates in as many activities as she can. She’s also the self-appointed cheer committee, giving pep talks to staff and new residents.

“I always tell them it takes a little bit of time,” she said, “but you adjust quickly.”

Getting ahead

Satisfied staff creates an atmosphere that leads to contented residents, Miller’s officials said. One way to satisfy employees is to challenge and reward them.

Harris, the vice president of health care development, has been with the company for 27 years. In that time, he has made three career changes, shifting from one department to another while moving up in the company.

Harris, a certified public accountant, joined the company’s auditing department straight out of college. He has also worked in billing, information technology and now does marketing and building partnerships with hospitals.

“The opportunity is there, if you want it,” he said, adding that most of the top executives started with the company on the front lines, working directly with patients.

Harmeyer, 30, has worked for Miller’s almost nine years. She started as a nursing assistant and moved up to passing out medication and then to assistant activity director.

“I like the chance to grow within this company,” she said. “This is where I will retire from.”

Taking control

The Miller family credited employees’ hard work and dedication for the long-term care provider’s success. In 2006, the company’s directors formed an employee stock ownership plan or ESOP.

Employees own 100 percent of their shares after six years.

Jay Kroft, administrator of the Fort Wayne location, said the retirement benefit can provide strong motivation.

Kroft was a high school teacher, coach and athletic director for 24 years. A friend who worked for Miller’s tried repeatedly to recruit him to join the company. After Kroft learned more, he decided it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

The administrator routinely turns off the lights when he leaves his office or any empty room in the nursing home. That habit is one of many reminders to staff to watch expenses as closely as they would at home.

“If we succeed as a company, they’re going to succeed,” he said. “It’s not going to make somebody rich, but it’s an extra little (retirement income) without any money out of their pocket.”

Harmeyer, the local activity director, is excited to be part owner of the company but said she wouldn’t do anything differently if she didn’t have an equity stake.

That might be true, but some other Miller’s employees say the structure affects job performance.

Nancy Czuk oversees housekeeping and laundry at the Miller’s on East State Boulevard. She formerly managed American Health Fitness Centers of Fort Wayne with her husband.

After only three months on Miller’s staff, Czuk has noticed significant differences between her co-workers and the employees she managed for 25 years. People here help each other get the job done.

“It’s not like, ‘Sorry. That’s your department,’ ” Czuk said.

Pressler-Clark, a registered nurse and the minimal data set coordinator, has worked at Miller’s for eight years.

She assesses residents every 90 days and tracks various data, including their ability to remember and make decisions. That information is reported to the state and factors into how much the nursing home is reimbursed for patient care.

Pressler-Clark has worked for various employers during her career. But the employee-ownership model allows her to feel more connected to the company’s goals.

“It’s not just the company’s budget, it’s our budget,” she said. “It makes you more responsible for everything in the building – using extra paper or people walking off with pens.”

The 56-year-old former psychiatric nurse prefers the company even though she earns less than at some previous jobs.

“I have always admired Miller’s for their ethics and their values,” she said. “I would have a family member in here in a heartbeat. I would (live) here. I’d bring my husband here.”