Acadian Ambulance

German engineering supports Cajun can-do attitude

Richard Zuschlag, founder, chairman, and CEO of Acadian Cos., parent of Acadian Ambulance, is someone who knows a good thing when he sees it. He can spot what makes something special whether it's in a person, a place, or even a vehicle, such as the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.

Zuschlag first found his way to "Cajun country," as he describes the area around Lafayette, Louisiana, where Acadian is headquartered, in 1970, when he was working as a corporate executive for Westinghouse Space and Defense Center. A Pennsylvania native, he says he didn't really want to come to this part of the country, but what he found here changed his mind forever. He fell in love with the people, the food, and the culture. "Most of all, I was impressed with the Cajun can-do attitude," he says.

At the end of his one-year assignment, he resigned and launched Acadian Ambulance with a grub stake of just $2,500 and two heavily financed ambulances. "I started the company with no grand ambitions, just a desire to provide a good service to the area I'd fallen in love with," Zuschlag says. Nonetheless, the company has grown steadily for 40 years and today ranks as the largest rural ambulance service in the nation. It employs about 3,400 people, and Zuschlag credits the company's success to them.

"Providing transportation for the sick and injured is a special calling," he says. "So many of the people here have this unique ability to do the right thing." Acadian's 3,400 employees are managed by 24 executives at the vice-president level, and 16 of them have been with the company for more than 25 years. Today, Acadian's employees own 75 percent of the company through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) Zuschlag created in 1993.

Balancing growing costs with BlueTEC savings

Like most businesses in the health care field these days, Acadian faces growing challenges of late. Reimbursement rates are declining at both the state and federal levels, while operational costs such as insurance and fuel are rising. A few years ago, the company began experimenting with alternative fuels like compressed natural gas, but supply problems and technological challenges negated any potential savings.

Zuschlag suspected that the real answer lay in a radical change to its basic operating infrastructure, which depended on what he calls a milk-truck type ambulance—a box on a frame pulled by a cab that had to be replaced about every three years or so. His "aha" moment came at the Masters golf tournament, where Mercedes-Benz was running a fleet of Sprinter shuttle vans. "I fell in love with Sprinter's BlueTEC diesel engine, and I convinced some of our suppliers to convert the vehicle into an ambulance to see if it would work," he says.

It worked quite well, as it turned out. Acadian is using 2500 models with the 144-inch wheelbase, which can accommodate all the critical life-saving equipment it carries in its milk-truck type ambulances. Its initial tests returned a 67 percent improvement in fuel economy for the Sprinter over its standard ambulances, and Acadian has since added 76 Sprinters to its fleet, with another 40 on order from Mercedes-Benz of Baton Rouge. Along with big fuel savings, Zuschlag anticipates a major reduction in maintenance costs and perhaps even workers compensation.

"The old style ambulances have complicated lift systems that are expensive and difficult to maintain," he says. "The Sprinter doesn't need that. It's lower to the ground, so I don't have as many medics hurting their backs. They are also much more maneuverable. The medics love them."

With delivery of the 40 new vehicles, Sprinters will make up about one-third of Acadian's fleet of 360 ambulances, but that's just the beginning. "I expect to convert about 80 percent of our fleet to Sprinters during the next 24 months," Zuschlag says. "German engineering may be a big part of what makes the Sprinter so good, but it's got the same kind of Cajun can-do spirit that's made Acadian what it is today."