Wednesday, 30 April 2008

First-million story #1 - Do whatever it takes

Marco and Sandra Johnson started out saving lives in their community of Lancaster, Calif., and ended up running a multimillion-dollar business whose customers come from across the United States.

The idea was born on the job. Marco, a full-time firefighter and paramedic, would come home from an incident and complain to Sandra that lives might have been saved if bystanders had been able to administer first aid. At the time, the Johnsons were trying to have a second child, and Marco was particularly upset when "children died unnecessarily because no one at the scene knew CPR," says Sandra.

In 1997, they began offering CPR and first-aid classes to local businesses. Sandra handled scheduling and other arrangements, and Marco taught classes between shifts at the firehouse. At first they borrowed material and equipment and brought it to each site; after a few months they scraped together enough money to rent a 400-square-foot office.

The business started to take off when workers whose jobs require CPR certification, such as schoolteachers and bus drivers, sought them out. Then students asked them to start training emergency medical technicians because local junior colleges had a two-year waiting list for EMT classes. Within a few years, the Johnsons had become accredited for EMT training and moved their Antelope Valley Medical College to bigger quarters. "Everything was happening fast," says Marco.

Riding the momentum took seven-day-a-week stamina. Marco alternated shifts at the firehouse with classroom duty, and Sandra was "always on the phone" setting up appointments. The couple didn't want to take out a business loan, so they plowed their own income into the school and sometimes put off making mortgage payments on their house to pay their employees. Says Marco: "There were times when it was a gut check. We looked at each other and said, 'What did we get ourselves into?'"

Now the Johnsons can breathe easier. In 2004, their school was expected to pull in revenues of $7.5 million, and their corporate clients have included businesses from Boeing to Burger King. That boom in business has given the couple the means to own several houses and to treat their extended family - a group of 12 - to vacations in Hawaii.

Even more rewarding, says Sandra, is the example they can set for their children: To accomplish your dream, "do whatever it takes." As for herself, "We're saving lives. It's awesome to know I was part of that with my husband." And Marco is finally planning to retire his fire helmet.

Tip #1: Go flat out. Between shifts at the firehouse, Marco Johnson, with his wife, Sandra, started a school to teach emergency medical techniques.

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