By Karen Brune Mathis
In January 2002, businessman Mel Gottlieb suffered a serious heart attack, the one he calls the “widow maker.”
He survived, but chest pains recurred two years ago. A heart scan showed he had to change his diet and lifestyle, leading him to the WellspringHeart, an immersion program in Oregon developed by Dr. Dean Ornish.
Gottlieb learned how to buy and cook healthy food and how to order the best choices when eating out. The program also focused on stress reduction and exercise.
Within a year, Gottlieb said the improvements were clear. When he saw the new heart scans, “I started to cry,” he said.
Gottlieb, 65, has since immersed his company in the culture of health, too. He calls it his personal program of health care reform.
As CEO of Martin Gottlieb & Associates, a privately held medical billing company for emergency physicians and urgent care centers, he has introduced fitness and wellness programs in the company’s Sunbeam Road offices.
In the office, the more than 200 employees can make use of in-office exercise equipment; noontime classes led by a trainer; an area where employees can walk in place with video instructions; more nutritional offerings in the vending machines; and twice-daily complimentary trays of healthy snacks.
“We can’t force people to use healthy snacks, but we can give it to them,” he said.
There are “biggest loser” competitions and there is smoking cessation assistance.
Not all employees take part in the programs, but Gottlieb estimates about 60-70 percent involvement.
Those who do have exchanged recipes and meet after work at World Gym, also a company perk, rather than for after-work appetizers. They also walk outside, meet after hours to run and socialize to keep one another motivated.
The July 4th company picnic no longer features hamburgers, hot dogs, baked beans, coleslaw and banana pudding. Now the associates eat roasted barbecue chicken, wraps, grilled vegetables, hummus, salad, fruit and cheese, catered by Native Sun Natural Foods Market.
Gottlieb’s son, Aaron Gottlieb, owns Native Sun.
Another inspiration for the change in culture is Gottlieb’s son Marty.
Marty Gottlieb, who led the company, died at the age of 32 in 2004 after surgery. Mel Gottlieb founded the Memories of Love Foundation in his honor. Staff also launched what became the Marty 5K walk and run to benefit the nonprofit.
Associate Julie Jonas has lost 62 pounds and wants to lose another 50. Last year, she took two hours to finish the Marty 5K. This year, it took just 42 minutes.
Associate Amy Walwyn, who lost 20 pounds, said employees form teams to run in other 5Ks as well. “All of us motivate one another,” she said.
Jonas cites the camaraderie of the programs.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of people I wouldn’t normally have been able to,” she said. “It is like a second family. Everybody is just so into it.”
Gottlieb, who dropped 25 pounds, hasn’t measured the companywide results, but might start.
He doesn’t know how much collective weight has been lost. He doesn’t know yet whether productivity has increased or if turnover, which is considered low anyway, has lessened.
He does know he considers it a good corporate decision. He’s a veteran business owner, having started Gottlieb’s Financial Services in 1978 and selling it in 1993.
Gottlieb, who advocates for personal responsibility in health care, said the programs are changing how associates act and eat.
“To me,” said Gottlieb, “this is health care reform.”