A.J. Filippis: The Family Behind the Man and the Company

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By Jodi Mills

You cannot speak to A.J. Filippis, CPO, president of Wright & Filippis, Rochester Hills, Mich-igan, without recognizing the value he places on family. This successful businessman and recipient of the Ernst & Young 2003 Eastern Michigan Entrepreneur of the Year Award Health Sciences Division not only refers to his immediate family with much admiration and affection, but also to his employees, patients, business partners, and everyone who has helped make Wright & Filippis the company that it is today.

A life-altering accident at a young age involving Anthony Filippis, Sr., A.J.'s father, required the amputation of both legs below the knee. He experienced years of struggle and disappointment. He then founded a company in partnership with Carl Wright which helped start a new era in total healthcare for the disabled. From computer-designed prosthetic limbs to homecare equipment, from the installation of wheelchair ramps and making homes and businesses barrier-free, to its third-party administration and claims-processing departments, Wright & Filippis is one of the largest privately held companies in the country dealing with total healthcare. Sixty years after that partnership began, the company employs 700 "family members" in three states.

A.J. Filippis, CPO
A.J. Filippis, CPO

A.J. Filippis shared his thoughts on what has made Wright & Filippis a success and how they plan to keep the dream going.

"We have truly been blessed," said Filippis. "When we talk about family, we also talk about our employees as part of our family. We try to share our successes with them. That has given us strength as an employer. We are all in this for the long haul." He added, "I get requests almost daily about mergers or acquisitions. I don't even respond because I have no interest. I get up every morning and look forward to coming to work, knowing there will be new challenges."

Filippis' Defining Moment'

This is a man who truly loves his work and all it involves. What was the defining moment in his life that really pushed him to follow in his father and older brother Gene's footsteps? According to A.J., it was witnessing their intense care of a young girl who had lost a leg to cancer back when this was nearly always a death sentence, due to a lack of the medical know-how and technology available today.

Wright & Filippis Founder Anthony Filippis Sr. (left) and President A.J. Filippis (right) present Steve Peck, chairman of the Miracle League of Michigan, with a $25,000 contribution to help kick off the campaign drive to build a state-of-the-art adaptive baseball field in suburban Detroit.
Wright & Filippis Founder Anthony Filippis Sr. (left) and President A.J. Filippis (right) present Steve Peck, chairman of the Miracle League of Michigan, with a $25,000 contribution to help kick off the campaign drive to build a state-of-the-art adaptive baseball field in suburban Detroit.

As young A.J. observed the difficulties she and her family faced in all aspects of their lives, he also realized the difference his father and brother were making through their work and how much they cared. In 1968 A.J. began his career as an orthotic and prosthetic technician. He studied prosthetics and orthotics at Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois, later being certified in both disciplines by the American Board for Certification in Orthotics & Prosthetics (ABC).

Although he obtained an associate degree in business from Oakland Community College, Rochester, Michigan, he'll tell you that school wasn't his forte. He has always been a hands-on kind of guy. Being a prosthetist/orthotist has always given him the "hands-on" involvement with patients that he enjoys. He revels in the fact that at the end of the day, he has really accomplished something for the good of others and can see the results of his work.

Filippis also attributes the company's success to the spirit of volunteerism that is instilled in the Filippis family and employees. The company sponsors many events, such as the Gene Filippis Memorial Golf Tournament, held annually in honor of his older brother who succumbed to cancer. In 2003 the proceeds from that tournament benefited Leader Dogs for the Blind and the Athletes With Disabilities Hall of Fame--another project spearheaded by Anthony Sr.

Giving Back' Marks 60th Anniversary

The year 2004 marks the 60th anniversary of Wright & Filippis. Sounds like time for a party, right? Well, they did that on the 50th, so they decided it was time to celebrate in a different way. "Giving back and saying thank you' to the people that made us and continue to make us successful is the goal," said Filippis. Wright & Filippis is sponsoring a Charitable Donation Program that will donate $1,000 to each of 60 different nonprofit organizations. Also as part of the 60th anniversary celebration, A.J. has instituted a community service program called "First to Serve" in which Wright & Filippis employees volunteer their time to help local nonprofit organizations. Under A.J.'s direction, Wright & Filippis has also introduced a new disability awareness program to benefit hundreds of school children throughout the state of Michigan, and the company is sponsoring an art contest that will award savings bonds to elementary students later this year. Another event is the Wheelchair Daze picnic held annually in August, when 1,300-1,400 persons enjoy a day at a park with carnival rides accommodating wheelchair use, a petting zoo, and pontoon boat rides. Filippis is quick to point out that the company's charitable ventures couldn't happen without the support and generosity of the employees of Wright & Filippis, as well as Blue Cross, physicians, therapists, suppliers, and others.

Nice Guys Don't Always Finish Last

Nice guys finish last--isn't that the saying? A.J. Filippis is proving that's just not true. His personal goal is always to be the best he can be at what he does. This attitude permeates the company as it strives to provide the highest level of service. Patients who have moved as far away as Florida and North Carolina return to Michigan to continue their care. "Treat the patient as if he or she were your own mother or father" was Anthony Filippis Sr.'s advice years ago. Helping patients to be in even better shape than they were before undergoing an amputation is an objective. Many suffered more disability or were even bedridden before amputation. After amputation, they can often be helped to see they can be active and enjoy life.

Maintaining Quality Despite Increasing Costs

Business isn't all peaches and cream, however. The three-year freeze in reimbursements will have an effect on how the business operates, Filippis said. All other costs will continue to rise: salaries, employee health insurance, supplies, utilities, and others.

Service often takes the hit as costs rise, and the bottom line is that the patient suffers. Wright & Filippis is researching ways to improve its computer system to cut billing and other administrative and business costs, translating into less of an effect on the clinical side.

With years of experience, the best advice Filippis feels he can give someone just starting his or her own business is: "Never forget your other commitments." Naturally, he is referring to family. Work can be all-consuming, so priorities have to be set. Strong families are what promote success, both personally and professionally. When he was seven or eight, A.J. often accompanied his father on extended weekend trips to promote the company. Those trips helped A.J. to bond with his father, be a part of the future, and gave him the drive to not only follow in those footsteps, but also to make a path of his own.

Family Members in the Business

Another way to have close contact with your family, despite a heavy workload, is to employ them! Nancy Hakala, A.J.'s sister, has been working for 16 years with the company since raising her own family. Currently she is a director/branch manager at the company's Livonia, Michigan, office as well as an account representative. Gene's children are actively involved as well. Pam Lupo is director of Orthotics & Post Mastectomy Care, while her husband, Ron, is a regional manager. Steve Filippis is director of operations. Their sister, Debbie Pincura, is director of network services and her husband, John, is director of information technology.

Then there are A.J.'s children. Tony III is the manager of the Lifts, Elevators, and Ramps Division, and his brother, Jeremy, works with him. Matthew is involved in the Organizational Improvement Department. Although still in college, younger brothers Ryan and Dominic aren't off the hook--they show up to lend a hand during summer break. A.J.'s daughter, Jennifer Cattel, is also in the business of serving and helping others as a second-grade schoolteacher. And A.J. emphasized none of this would be possible without the support of his wife, Mary. She also worked for the company for a year before the birth of their first child. Mary's devotion to her children and husband is what has enabled them to maintain a solid, loving family throughout the years when "the Company" could have swallowed them, A.J. said. And now another generation of the Filippis family is on the scene. Granddaughter Adrianna is the light of her grandparents' eyes and will definitely have the opportunity to take up where her elders leave off.

What about the Future?

"There will continue to be growth in the profession we are in," Filippis said matter-of-factly. "We aren't going to lack for patients to service, whether on the P&O side or the home medical equipment side. What we need to do is be smarter in how we do things, so we can continue to provide quality of service with the restrictions that we have due to cost containment."

 If the past is any indicator of the future, Wright & Filippis, its founding family, and its family of employees will have no trouble continuing to fulfill that goal.