The largest ambulance company in Nebraska has been bought by an Omaha-based private equity firm.
Panorama Point Partners, a 13-month-old private equity firm with about $100 million in capital, has purchased a 100 percent stake in Columbus-based Platte County Ambulance Co., also known as Midwest Medical Transport, from previous owners and founders Kim and Jill Wolfe. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Simply put, the Wolfes are ready to retire, they told The World-Herald.
“I want to retire and enjoy my life,” 57-year-old Kim Wolfe said.
“I’ll really miss the daily stuff and the people, but it’s time to move on,” said Jill Wolfe, 53.
Jeff Shullaw, a 15-year veteran and general manager of the homegrown company, becomes chief executive officer.
“We’re looking really hard at expanding both the air and ground service areas,” Shullaw said.
He plans to expand the company’s reach — now from western Iowa to Ogallala and including portions of the Nebraska Panhandle — into more communities in Nebraska and western Iowa this year. Areas of Kansas and South Dakota also are on the radar.
At the same time, orders are in place to expand Midwest Medical Transport’s fleets of wheelchair vans and ambulances. And affiliate company Midwest MedAir may soon double its fleet of helicopters.
The Wolfes started Midwest Medical Transport in 1987 with a single, used ambulance they kept in a Columbus storage unit. Their small apartment in Columbus was also the company’s headquarters.
At that time, Kim Wolfe was working as a firefighter for the Columbus Fire Department and as a Platte County sheriff’s deputy. Jill Wolfe was working as a registered dietitian at Columbus Community Hospital.
“We never planned this to be a full-time thing,” Kim Wolfe said. “We were just trying to supplement our income.”
Today, Midwest Medical Transport has 17 locations across Nebraska supported by 64 ambulances, about 25 wheelchair vans and between 300 and 400 full- and part-time employees, depending on the season. The Wolfes estimate the company’s annual payroll tops $12 million.
Said Kim Wolfe: “We used to worry about our own income and now we worry about all our employees’.”
Also included in the deal is Midwest MedAir, an air ambulance service with two helicopters based in Hastings and North Platte. The Wolfes launched that company about five years ago.
Even though private equity deals are commonly associated with big-city interests, the next chapter for Midwest Medical Transport promises to be just as Nebraskan as the 28 years preceding it.
Panorama Point Partners co-founders Clarey Castner and Stephen George are Columbus natives. The firm is named for Panorama Point in the southwestern corner of the Panhandle. At 5,424 feet above sea level, it is the highest point of elevation in Nebraska.
Like the off-the-beaten-path landmark, the firm’s co-founders afford a unique perspective to its investors and business interests.
Castner is a longtime NU Foundation veteran who served seven years as its president and CEO before resigning in 2012. Under his watch, the foundation’s assets almost doubled to $1.7 billion.
George came up in investment banking in New York City before moving to Silicon Valley, where he branched out to additional ventures including early investments in tech startups such as Twitter. Most recently, he was chief investment officer of Capricorn Investment Group, an asset management firm started by Jeff Skoll, eBay’s founding president and its first full-time employee.
Panorama Point Partners focuses on three types of deals when it invests: equity stakes or purchases in family businesses like Midwest Medical Transport, loans to midsized companies and investments in high-growth-potential technology companies.
The firm’s other investments include Lending Club, a Web-based, peer-to-peer lending platform that connects potential borrowers with potential lenders, and Porch, another Web-based platform that allows homeowners to find and book home improvement professionals for projects. Porch recently partnered with the Better Business Bureau to provide more reviews.
Much of the firm’s capital comes from high-net-worth Nebraskans, but other investors include billionaire Christoph Henkel, whose family started Henkel AG, a German chemical manufacturer that had more than $18.6 billion in sales in 2013.
When an investment makes money, investors are paid back their initial investment, management fees and an additional 8 percent, while the firm gets 15 or 20 percent of what’s left, depending on the amount of the initial investment.
Beyond the financial aspect, George and Castner said their plan for Midwest Medical Transport is to let it continue doing what it does best, only now with a little more capital behind it. They consider the investment a long-term holding.
“Starting a business from scratch is so hard to do. (The Wolfes) were looking at when they could slow down and retire and they were interested in selling the company,” George said. “More than half of U.S. businesses are going through a generational shift. ... You think about this and ask, ‘Are the kids going to come in and run the business? Does someone want to get out and get some liquidity?’ ”
George and Castner will take seats on the ambulance company’s board, just as they have with other investments. Similarly, they will leave the current management in place.
At the dawn of the transition, both new and former owners are confident about turning over leadership of Midwest Medical Transport to Shullaw.
Kim Wolfe said Shullaw “has been running (the business) for years.”
“He sees the whole picture,” Jill Wolfe said.
In the last two years, the company has opened four new ground ambulance stations and, in March 2014, Midwest MedAir put its second helicopter into service at Hastings.
As exciting as it was to add a second helicopter into the mix last year — at a price tag of $7.5 million — Jill Wolfe said the experience of buying the company’s first new ambulance in 1991 is among her most memorable.
“We still lived in our apartment and we saw it pull up when we looked out the window. That was the most exciting thing,” she said. “Now, we buy them five or 10 at a time, but it’s not the same.”
The deal represents a sort of homecoming for George and Castner, whose fathers worked for Becton Dickinson and the City of Columbus, respectively, and occasionally worked together.
For the Wolfes, the deal allows the couple to put their feet up, at least for a while. They’re planning a move to Omaha in the next couple of years as well as an upgrade of the Husker Helicopter, a Huskers-branded Eurocopter EC120 the couple use primarily for personal travel and for charitable flights.
That aircraft is stored just north of Columbus Community Hospital in a personal hangar, from where the Wolfes will no doubt enjoy a bird’s-eye view of their legacy.
“For 28 years, this is what we’ve done,” Jill Wolfe said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how we redefine ourselves.”
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