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Front Page - Friday, October 19, 2018

Siskin children seal Bullard’s fate

New president, CEO convinced by watching preschoolers interact

As part of his first interview for the position of president and CEO at Siskin Children’s Institute earlier this year, Derek Bullard toured the Early Learning Center, an on-site preschool where children with and without disabilities play side by side.

“I got encircled by a bunch of 3-year-olds, some kids that had Down syndrome and also some kids that were traditionally developing that didn’t have issues,” he recalls. “And it was just such a blessing to go into that environment and see how inclusive it was and how accepting these kids are of each other.”

Back home in Charlotte, Bullard told his wife LaVondria, “I want to be part of this organization. I felt it when I walked in.” But despite a career in foster and senior care and other human services, he’d never worked specifically with children with developmental disabilities. And there were more job offers on the table.

A month later, Bullard brought his spouse with him to Siskin for the second interview. After taking the same tour, she turned to her husband and said, “I get it. I’ll support you 100 percent.”

In August, the high-energy Bullard, 47, started his new job at Siskin after years of blazing trails with his own companies and projects.

His entrepreneurial spirit surfaced at a young age when his dad, a longtime circulation and advertising employee at The Charlotte Observer, took him to the Coca Cola 600 race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The enterprising Bullard sold newspapers there to earn a free ticket, but instead of watching the race he sold it to make extra money.

Resourceful and curious, Bullard wasn’t sure what career path to take. “But I knew I wanted to do something where I could be creative and at least somewhat control my own destiny.”

Bullard was a single 23-year-old working at NCNB (North Carolina National Bank, now Bank of America) in the mid-1990s when “divine intervention” struck. One day his mom, who had just been laid off from a different financial institution, happened to see a television commercial for a service called Therapeutic Foster Care. The agency served primarily hard-to-place teens with mental health issues.

Bullard’s parents decided to foster one of the children.

“So, me, being kind of young and dumb and naïve at the time, I thought, ‘I’ll be a big brother to this child that they’re going to take in their home,” he recalls. “I thought that I would just kind of give them a break and maybe take their child to shoot basketball and to a movie.”

But the agency’s strict rules required that Bullard undergo training in order to even go out in public with his new, temporary sibling. A week after he became licensed to assist his parents, a social worker called him and asked, “We have a 15-year-old male that just came into custody, and we don’t have a place to put him. Would you consider taking him for a week or two?”

Two weeks turned into three years.

The boy came from a family with a history of substance abuse, had been severely abused and had lived in multiple homes where he often clashed with his foster moms. “It really opened my eyes to this field – kids with special needs,” Bullard says. “Had my mom not lost her job, I would have probably gotten my degree in business and still been in banking.”

Two years into his role as a foster parent, Bullard got a call from the same social worker who had placed the boy in his home. She was now running The Family Center, which offered traditional outpatient therapy for children who had been abused and neglected. Would Bullard help her write a grant for a new program for child victims of domestic violence?

With Bullard’s help, The Family Center landed the grant, and he was hired to run the program fulltime. He also finished his bachelor’s degree in human services, earning his diploma online from the New Jersey-based Thomas Edison State University.

It was at The Family Center that Bullard learned the importance of being an inclusive leader. After blindly barreling through a few meetings, where he admits he was “the least educated person in the room,” Bullard “learned right away that I had to figure out a way to get their buy-in.”

He began holding focus groups and getting feedback from colleagues. “I’ve learned a lot over the years that you get more by involving others than dragging them kicking and screaming along.”

He also learned how to increase productivity in a social services agency without sacrificing its altruistic mission. The Family Center’s client wait list was long, but Bullard noticed that the therapists were only required to work 35-40 client hours per month. So, he and his co-workers developed a plan to boost productivity, not just because it was good for business but because it would better serve the children who needed them.

In 1999, when Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) officials sent out a Request for Proposal for new therapeutic foster care providers, Bullard approached his employer with the idea. But they weren’t interested, so he did it on his own, opening Access Family Services late that year.

Bullard recruited Beverly Stinson, for whom he had worked in the customer service division at Bank of America, to join his new company as director of human resources. “I said, ‘I’m working for a Fortune 500 company. I don’t know if I want to do this,’” says Stinson, who is still in her post at Access. “But … I just stepped out and I believed in him. And I haven’t regretted it.

“Working for Derek has been very rewarding,” she adds. “I would describe him as a very inclusive manager. He’s extremely passionate. He cares a great deal about people and causes. He’s compassionate. He’s high-strung. He is a go-getter. And he is always, always trying to be out front, wanting to be more of a model instead of a follower.

At Access, Stinson and her colleagues often faced obstacles with Medicaid funding. “One thing I’ve learned throughout the years by working with Derek is that ‘no’ is not an option,” she explains. “So, we figured out ways to make it happen.”

Over the years, Access Family Services grew to include more than 200 fulltime staff in 11 offices throughout the Carolinas and expanded to include medical, psychiatric and educational services. Access became one of the first in North Carolina to become certified as a critical access behavioral health care agency.

It was by no means an easy undertaking. “It absolutely was through trial and error,” Bullard acknowledges. “A lot of it was through prayer. A lot of it was through necessity. A lot of it was staying awake at night, looking at the ceiling, trying to figure out problems, whether around staffing or funding.

“It’s one thing in health care to fund it. It’s another thing to collect the money. A lot of times you’ll bill for a service today and you might not see that money for three or four months.” 

Gradually, the larger mental health services providers began to consolidate. Preparing to buy an existing Georgia company and expand into other states, Bullard met with more than 20 private equity groups across the U.S., seeking to raise capital. One of them, Boston-based H.I.G. Growth Partners, surprised him with its own acquisition offer.

“At the time, I had spent about seven or eight years where I was on the road four or five days a week, just driving back and forth to these offices. I was burned out,” Bullard says. Convinced that the timing was right, he sold Access Family Services in 2012 but remained for a while as CEO. “Like everything else in my life,” he says, “I just kind of backed into it by accident.”

Bullard intended to take a sabbatical with his wife and three kids for a few years before starting the next venture. Two months into his break, he says, “I was twiddling my thumbs and saying, ‘OK, we’ve traveled now. We went to Hawaii and did some other trips. This is great, but what am I going to do for the rest of my life?”

“Out of the blue,” Bullard got a call from an investment banker who said, “I know you’re probably enjoying your down time. But would you be interested in partnering with us and starting this company out of Charleston called Already HomeCare?”

Bullard wasted no time in launching the new corporation, which provided non-medical home care services to seniors and people with disabilities in Charleston and nearby counties. Then he stepped back, as initially agreed, to let someone else run it. He is still a shareholder.

For a while, he stayed busy on the board of Charlotte’s Young Black Men Leadership Alliance, which mentors college-bound African-American males, volunteering at the local Communities in Schools, a dropout prevention program and coaching his twins’ softball and basketball teams.

Last year, Bullard says, “My wife said, ‘You know, when your noncompete [agreement] expires, you’ve got to get back into doing something. You’re driving me crazy. And you’re miserable.’” The couple agreed to relocate if the right opportunity came along, with LaVondria continuing to oversee the four Smoothie King stores she owns in North and South Carolina.

This time, Bullard says, he vowed to work on the nonprofit side. “After I’d sold [Access Family Services], 99 percent of what I did then was financial, and I hated it. … I wanted to work with a strong, mission-based organization.”

He found the Siskin job posting on LinkedIn. Although he had never led a nonprofit company, he did have experience working for one, volunteering for others and fostering a child with multiple challenges. “One of the big differences that I see here,” says Bullard, whose new office is decorated with paintings, collages and other works made by Siskin students, “is they’re in it for the right reasons. They all love the kids that we work with.”

Described on his LinkedIn page as “a motivating change agent” by one former colleague, the fast-talking Bullard is moving full speed ahead with a list of improvements, most of which he plans to implement by the end of the year, starting with customer service.

“At Access Family Services, we had a policy that if someone called and needed to get a child in for therapy or they needed some sort of care, if they called at noon that day, they would get an appointment that same day. If they called after 12:00, they would get an appointment the next morning, at the latest.” Bullard is pushing to eliminate Siskin’s wait list for some services and extend therapy hours to evenings and weekends.

Among other short-term goals: national accreditation (he and his staff are currently researching the different accrediting organizations), website links where clients can give anonymous feedback, the addition of Applied Behavior Analysis therapy for children with autism and telemedicine options for out-of-town clients.

Bullard’s constant search for improvement is both a strength and a weakness, he says.

“Oftentimes, I lie awake at night, stressing about what we can do to better serve the children that we serve. It drives my wife crazy sometimes because I’ll be pacing the floor. I do my best thinking at 2:00 in the morning. … I worry a lot. I feel like we have an obligation to really make a difference and an impact. I really take it personally if someone’s not wowed from the first phone call.”

A voracious reader who also loves listening to books on the Audible app, Bullard does cardio exercises four or five days a week, often walking downtown if he doesn’t have time for the treadmill at home. He has eliminated sugar from his diet and lost 40 pounds since selling his company six years ago.

Despite his restless mind and entrepreneurial spirit, Bullard says, “We’re really excited about being here and hope to be here long-term and put down roots. I’m young enough to still have a lot of energy but old enough to have a little bit of experience. I still have a lot to learn, but I don’t want to be anywhere else.”