Morgan Chases Ambulance Dream

November 1, 2004
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COURTLAND TOWNSHIP — Most know him as a county commissioner. Some know him as the chief executive officer of Rockford Ambulance Inc. But only a very select few know him as "Keego."

Roger Morgan picked up that name as a student at Grand Valley State University, where he earned his paramedic license and a degree in business administration from the Seidman School of Business. He came to GVSU from his hometown of Keego Harbor, which is 35 miles northwest of Detroit near Orchard Lake in West Bloomfield Township. So instead of calling him Morgan, or even Harbor, classmates referred to him as Keego.

"That was my nickname. But at Grand Valley, they thought it was my name. They didn't know my real last name," he said, with a small portion of his tongue planted in his cheek.

When Keego, er, Morgan finished his studies here he returned home and worked as a first responder for three years. Then a buddy, a former GVSU offensive lineman, told him about an opening for an administrator at Rockford Ambulance. Morgan applied and got the job, one he has held for 20 years.

"That was a huge break," he said.

Rockford Ambulance is a nonprofit business that serves Sparta, Lowell and Grand Rapids Township in addition to Rockford and Courtland Township, Morgan's home base. A board of directors oversees operations of the company, while Morgan manages the daily activities.

"I worked my way through college as a paramedic and after I got my degree I just stayed with it. I started in Grand Rapids, went over to

Detroit, and then came back here in 1984," he said.

Consolidation in the industry has resulted in some very large ambulance firms popping up with some very low-priced package deals, which makes it tough to compete. But Rockford Ambulance — with five stations, 50 employees and a budget of $2.6 million — has been able to do just that and much more under Morgan's direction.

"My biggest thrill is that we're the first small ambulance service with less than 5,000 calls to become nationally accredited. It was a real big benchmark for us and we're going through our re-accreditation, I think for the third time, this November," he said.

The firm was first accredited in 1994 and it was a cause for celebration.

"When you're a small company and you have a bunch of auditors come in and look at your business, to be the first in the nation to achieve that status was truly remarkable."

Morgan said the leading ongoing problem Rockford Ambulance faces is collecting fees. Not everyone who calls them has insurance or enough cash to pay for a life-or-death run to the emergency room, but his company doesn't refuse anyone a ride.

"Can you imagine a business where you have a duty to act, treat and transport people and then you say, 'We'll bill you later'? It's a business where our accounts receivables are always a struggle for us. And with reimbursements always being ratcheted down by the third-party payers, it's difficult — especially for the smaller services that can't make up revenue through volume," he said.

Despite those financial roadblocks, growth has driven Rockford Ambulance. When Morgan started he had a budget of $158,000 and just a handful of employees. However, he doesn't take credit for the firm's progress. Instead he gave those kudos to his board members, calling them good policymakers who clearly understand today's business environment.

As a Kent County commissioner, Morgan is finishing his first term on the county board. Elected as a Republican four years ago from the Third District, he represents Courtland, Nelson, Solon, Spencer and Tyrone townships and the city of Rockford. He is also vice chairman of the board and chairman of the Finance Committee, and is facing a re-election test this week from Democrat Gary Gershon of Cedar Springs.

Since he won the commission seat four years ago, Morgan has had some pretty big shoes to fill. He replaced a near-legend in county government, past county chairman Pat Malone.

"When Pat Malone decided to hang it up, he met with me and said, 'I'm going to retire and I want you to run in my place.' And I thought, 'Oh, man,'" Morgan said. "But it was a real big honor and I consider it a real privilege to represent my constituents up here."

Should Morgan win reelection, he sees the projected loss of state revenue sharing and the need for a countywide 911 central dispatch system as the critical issues he and fellow board members will tackle next year. For him, the first issue means continuing to be good stewards of tax dollars, while still providing a large number of services to citizens.

"It's always a situation of deciding where do you put the money to get the best benefit for the residents."

What he does for a living has given him a special insight into the need for a single central dispatch that receives and assigns emergency calls throughout the county. But he knows that most residents don't look at the issue in the same way, and feels he has to get his view across to them. And with the city of Grand Rapids seemingly not interested in being part of that system, Morgan said the challenge to get his message heard will be tougher.

"Even though towns outside of Grand Rapids continue to grow, Grand Rapids is still a key player," he said.

In his personal life, Morgan's key player is his wife Beth. They've been married 21 years and have three daughters: Sarah, Emily and Hannah. Beth is an administrative assistant with Courtland Township and the 13 acres they live on gives Roger plenty of space to pursue his favorite pastime.

"I'm a Studebaker nut. I like to restore Studebakers. That is my passion. I have a passion for that. My wife doesn't see it quite as clearly as I do, though," he said, laughing.

Morgan owns a pair of 1955 Studebakers, an almost-restored pickup and a low-slung coupe called the Commander that he is working on. He first got attached to Studebakers as a teenager when he restored a 1929 model with his dad.

"I've always enjoyed Studebakers because they're somewhat unique and they don't make them anymore. I enjoy being around Studebaker folks who enjoy restoring the cars," he said.

"And I like hockey," said the die-hard Red Wings fan.

But unlike the NHL, don't anticipate too many changes over the next few years from the guy who came here over 20 years ago from Keego Harbor. He plans to stay with Rockford Ambulance and, if voters approve, stay on the county board of commissioners.

"I don't see any drastic changes in my immediate future," he said. "I really enjoy what I'm doing."    

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