02 Mar Big Idea CONNECTpreneur Baltimore Forum: Fireside Chat with Michael Bronfein
Earlier this week, I trekked to Baltimore to experience CONNECTpreneur from “Charm City” to hear from the infamous Tien Wong, Chairman of Tech 2000 and Lore Systems and the outstanding group of entrepreneurs he and his team bring together every few months.
This was the 21st CONNECTpreneur event and it didn’t disappoint. It was full of great advice, insight into what it takes to build a successful company. After Tien greeted the crowd, Mike Gill, Secretary Maryland Department of Commerce, gave the opening remarks, reminding guests that passion will always trump common sense when it comes to the entrepreneur. He then talked a bit about what drove him to run for office in the state of Maryland, seeing a potential for the city it just wasn’t living up to. Once he realized he thought he knew much more about what was happening in the city the he actually did, he set out to create a culture of “Yes” within the city to really help its customers and citizens and to create an environment that supports growth and change. His vision for the city includes a focus on commerce – bringing a fortune 500 into Maryland, focusing on retention of current companies, and to get the city on the cover of Time Magazine sometime in the next few years with the headline “The Renaissance of Baltimore.”
Next, John, Holaday, CEO, DisposeRx introduced the fireside chat guest, Michael Bronfein, CEO, Curio Wellness. Two years ago, Holaday had met Bronfein at the same venue, the Baltimore Hilton when Bronfein wanted to bring medical marijuana to people in a way to help their lives.
Here are the highlights from the fireside chat between Bronfein and Wong:
Wong: Where are you from, what was your upbringing like and how did you catch the entrepreneurial bug?
Bronfein: Greatness begets greatness. If you can attract someone who is highly passionate, they become a magnet for others who are highly passionate and articulate.
I was a local boy with a normal suburban boy life who was fortunate to grow up in a family where my uncle and grandfather ran a grocery store. This gave me an understanding of customers and services. My grandfather said, “When you take care of your customer, you take care of yourself.” This statement became my mantra.
Wong: How did you migrate from a family owned retail business – which I did, too – how did you make that leap? You got your MBA at Baltimore. Why didn’t you take the traditional Wall Street road rather than becoming an entrepreneur?
Bronfein: I was born with the desire to succeed. I had parents who said I could do anything. I didn’t start with a grand vision for anything, but when my eldest daughter, and now business partner, was born, I was skeptical that being a retail banker would provide the resources needed to send my kids to school. So, an opportunity came up at a pharmacy in West Baltimore, I took it, and helped make it a big, solid business.
Wong: You have an accounting background – How did you shift from looking through an accounting lens to be more strategic and operational?
Bronfein: By luck of birth I was part of a family that wasmerchants. Experience with a small-scale business that was customer focused meant you had to earn your wings with every transaction. My dad was a CPA, so that’s why I pursued it. I didn’t have a passion for it, but it gave me a great foundation for how business works and how the numbers drive things. I also had a great series of mentors. Everyone needs to find a great mentor to help navigate your career – it’s an invaluable thing.
Wong: How did you find a mentor? What advice do you have?
Bronfein: I can remember thinking when I was 24,25 that this CEO thing is something I could do. But there were a lot of skills I didn’t have. I opened my first drug store at 25. I knew how to operate retail stores, not necessarily a business. I took a look at the community and looked for people who had a skill set that was valuable to me. Invited them to breakfast. Picked their brain. I’ll buy you breakfast if you let me pick your brain.
When I’m personally looking to mentor someone I look out for work ethic and intellectual honestly. Do they have persistence? Building things is really hard. My daughter approached me to help her build a business around medical marijuana and I said “no.” But, she was persistent, and brought me data, so I agreed to talk further about the idea.
Wong: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – You helped overcame a lot of problems here. How did you attack that?
Bronfein: One criterion for wanting to work with people is intellectual honesty. People say that sounds trite, but it is hard for people to be this way. It’s hard to get people to really step up and face the question “What is the cause of this problem?” Something I learned in the drug business is you can only pay a pharmacist so much. But if people won’t pay more for the service/product you can’t pay people more.
This is how much people will pay. So lets be realistic about what we can and can’t do. At first there was a lot of friction. I was on vacation with my wife and we were coming to the end of contract. We thought we had negotiated something that would work. But, by Friday I was on the phone negotiating, and it ended up being that way the whole weekend. My wife got mad, so I said to the negotiator, “Here’s the deal, here’s what we can pay. If you say no we can turn the lights off. Or you can say OK by tomorrow. Because, you’re just being unrealistic and there’s nothing else we can do.” And I hung up.
The next morning they called and said they agreed. I was relieved and sad that we had to take such a harsh position. But, we were able to establish a sense of trust.
Wong: That is such an amazing story. Turning around a non-profit like this is remarkable. After Sterling Partner, after BSO, you got into Remedy Health Care. Can you tell us more about that?
Bronfein: We believed based on talking to customers the way pharmaceuticals were being given to nursing homes wasn’t satisfying to the patient or supplier. But, they were being run the most economical way, just no one had come up with anything better. So, we did.
We ran focus groups in three states. We took those responses and turned it into a package. We conducted a second series of focus groups and the groups loved the automated packaging methodology. It turned into a five year, $30 million journey. We came up with robots and just got a $12 million dollar investment to build these out to more states. They are fulfilling the needs of 10,000 patients per day without a pharmacist. These robots have distributed 4 million doses with zero errors.
We are applying technology to an old problem to bring value to customers and the organization.
In 22 states we had to get permission to not have a pharmacist. In some states there was a lot of push back due to elimination of jobs. But we showed through statistics and demos that these robots could do a much better job than any human being could. This is a great example where tech displaces people for good reason. It’s creating a new breed of employee who maintains the robot, who has a higher paying job than we replaced. It’s bringing a lot of value to patients and healthcare systems.
I didn’t originally plan to run Remedy Health Care. It was a Sterling Partners investment and the team ran out of steam – the robots were supposed to take three years and $15 million and it ended up taking five years and $30 million. But we stuck with it. It would have been easy to write off, but nothing in the thesis ever changed and there was big tailwind that as the projects evolved it spoke to the big problem we were solving. Our failures lead us to a competition for a new designer and manufacturer. What I learned about this process is make sure you have someone sitting next to you who know what questions to ask.
Wong: So after you recruited your replacement, your daughter comes up to you – how did that all happen? What intellectual honesty assessment did you decide to get into this controversial space?
Bronfein: First, I asked her if she was smoking anything. I told her I don’t think I can do anything with marijuana. She told me she had already checked it all out and it all checked out. So, I called up a lawyer who confirmed that it was legitimate.
Then, I made her persuade me it was worth the time and investment. She showed me what was happening in Canada, and Great Britain,who were way ahead of the United States when it came to using this for treating things like Epilepsy, and ADHD.
The only research coming from the United States is negative, because that’s all they’ll fund. The team was critical in recruiting one of the best scientific teams in the country that helped turn the marijuana compound into something useful – formulation of the plant that’s good for medicinal purposes. We hope to have trials of products this fall.
Wong: How did you raise money for this?
Bronfein: We started with the truth and we said, “OK – what’s the truth going to tell us.” We spent a few million dollars with a small team of people and then we hired specialists around the world as consultants where we could ask them questions or they could tell us the right question to ask. We began to then have a vision for what a company could look like and why. We tested it. Then it evolved. As we brought more competent people in they added to that vision. In spring 2014 we had solidified what we wanted to do and wrote a business plan. Maryland passed a regulatory regime for producing medicinal products from cannabis. This was important for us. Our vision is that we want Maryland to become to medical marijuana what San Francisco is to biotech. There is a lot of opportunity here for research collaboration with hospitals and schools in this area.
Wong: You have a deep expertise in healthcare. What is one niche or pocket of opportunity that you believe in the next 20 years and what would that be?
Bronfein: I’m a big believer in cloud based computing. There’s still a lot of work to be done to bring confidence in security to those networks. One area I support is the cyber security space and what that can mean. Once we can really nail down cyber security we’ll see a lot happen.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for additional coverage of this week’s Big Idea CONNECTpreneur Forum from Baltimore, showcasing the presenting companies and panelist discussion!