Child-therapy entrepreneur grows national business

Sept. 3, 2018

By Rob Swenson, for SiouxFalls.Business

Alison Hulshof has demonstrated the passion and ability to successfully grow a health care business at the local and regional level. Now, she’s helping expand one nationally.

Hulshof got her start in the child-therapy business in Sioux Falls in 2006 with one client and two part-time helpers. By the start of 2018, she’d grown Behavior Care Specialists into a company that that served 140 children in four states: South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Wyoming.

Sioux Falls-based BCS is an outpatient provider of applied behavior analysis for children with autism spectrum disorders. Such children typically deal with challenges in areas such as communication, behavior or social skills. Services are provided to kids in schools, clinics and homes.

Hulshof’s passion for helping children and a combination of other factors, including changes in diagnostic trends, insurance coverage and rising demand for services, helped her quickly grow her business in South Dakota and neighboring states.

She still is trying to grow her business, but now she’s working on expansion as a shareholder and executive with a national as well as local perspective.

Growth of BCS reached the point that Hulshof needed help with the business. She started looking for buyers and found one she liked.

“I didn’t sell because I was bored or financially troubled. I sold to find someone to help guide us through this growth,” she said.

“We’re now in the hands of someone who knows how to grow a business – not just any business, but a health care business.”

BCS was acquired in January by the Pharos Capital Group of Dallas and Nashville, and was made part of the investment company’s Family Treatment Network. Financial terms were not disclosed.

In addition to BCS, the network includes a residential treatment center in Logan, Utah, for adolescents with behavior and emotional issues, and FasPsych of Scottsdale, Ariz., which provides psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners to service-providing organizations. Most recently, FTN acquired the Solterra Academy, a special education school in in New Britain, Conn.

Hulshof remains the CEO of BCS, which is now a division of FTN. She also leads network growth as executive vice president of operations and development. She is responsible for the network’s expansion in areas that involve autism education or treatment.

She reports to Ed Irby, chairman and CEO of FTN. When exploring the acquisition of BCS, Irby said he was struck by Hulshof’s passion and enthusiasm, and he wanted her to join the team.  Her willingness to work for the organization helped seal the deal, he said.

“She’s very hardworking, and she was very focused on building her business. She has not taken her eye off the ball for a single moment since the acquisition,” said Irby, who works out of Virginia Beach, Va. “She truly is a superstar for us.”

Hulshof, 37, said if she hadn’t found the right buyer, she might have sold the business and gone home to spend more time with her five children. Her husband, Mike, also works for BCS. He assists with special projects, handles a lot of the office work and is one of her most trusted advisers.

Among her other advisers is John McLaughlin of Sioux Falls, who is the executive vice president and director of research for ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy and Education. ChanceLight, which is based in Nashville, runs 180 schools and clinics in 27 states for children with special needs

Hulshof describes McLaughlin as a mentor who helped her advance BCS. McLaughlin said he’s a friend who serves more as a sounding board than as an adviser.

McLaughlin said he wishes his company had clones of Hulshof, whom he called a “dynamo of energy.”

“As a person, she’s very visionary and very energetic,” he said. “It was her vision, energy and willingness to create solutions that helped her create a valuable business.”

Treating autism has grown as a business nationally largely because parents wanted more services for their children and schools responded, McLaughlin said. Hulshof had positioned her company well by engaging board-certified analysts and providing insurance-backed treatment.

Autism affects about 1.5 million school-age children in the United States, so established businesses “have a lot of runway ahead them,” McLaughlin said. However, love and patience, not the prospect of monetary gain, is what really drives the growth of such businesses.

Private equity firms have been aggressively pursuing businesses in the field, he said. Because of other priorities, his company wasn’t among the companies potentially interested in trying to acquire BCS, McLaughlin said. So he was happy to help Hulshof maximize her opportunities.

“FTN has made a good acquisition, and she should continue to serve her market very nicely,” McLaughlin said.

The Behavior Care Specialists location in Wyoming

In addition to the Sioux Falls location, BCS operates private schools in Brookings, Mitchell, Aberdeen, Rapid City and Pierre. The company also provides services in several other communities in South Dakota and neighboring states. Services soon will be expanded to Colorado Springs and St. Cloud, Minn.

“We’re looking to expand all over the map,” Hulshof said.

BCS operations are based at 1105 W. Russell St. Hulshof and her husband recently acquired a building to the east that housed an insurance business. Now it’s part of BSC’s operations.

BCS has about 130 employees, Hulshof said, and FTN has about 370 staff members. The total includes about 140 people who work at the recently acquired school in Connecticut.

Despite the continued growth of the business and her increased responsibilities, Hulshof said her objective remains the same as the day she started: to provide high-quality services to kids in need.

“We want to be the best provider. But you have to run it like a business or you’ll be out of business,” she said.

Child-therapy entrepreneur grows national business

Alison Hulshof started her child-therapy business with one client. Four states, 140 children and one acquisition later, she’s positioned for national growth.

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