May 28, 2018
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How one firm helped a Maine city recover from the loss of its biggest employer

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff
Updated:

BELFAST, Maine — About 2,000 people worked inside credit card lending giant MBNA’s vast Belfast complex when Bank of America announced it was acquiring midcoast Maine’s most influential employer.

MBNA would pull up the stakes, and Bank of America would move in. But its workforce would be about 40 percent of MBNA’s, and would only occupy a small portion of the sweeping complex of offices and call centers that MBNA had built and called home for two decades.

“It was scary as all hell,” said Mike Hurley, a Belfast city councilor who was serving as mayor at the time.

From 1995 through 2005, MBNA had been the midcoast’s largest, most integral employer. Uncertainty swirled in this small city of about 6,600 residents, which had suffered through the loss of its other major industry — chicken processing — in the 1980s. The news should have been devastating, and for a while, it was.

Hurley said he remembers a few local people telling him that Belfast would be fine. They didn’t really need the call center. They’d adapt.

“I thought they were out of their minds,” Hurley reflected.

About a year after MBNA packed up and moved out, a private plane touched down on the runway of Belfast’s small municipal airport. The top brass of a fast-growing health care networking company with a lot of lofty promises stepped onto the tarmac.

Athenahealth had come to shop for a new place to set roots.

10-year revival

Massachusetts-based athenahealth had narrowed the search for its next expansion to two potential sites: Burlington, Vermont, population 42,000, or Belfast, Maine, population 6,600.

City officials, including Hurley and City Manager Joe Slocum, met the athenahealth reps at the airport and ushered them onto a waiting bus that took the group to the vast, largely vacant MBNA complex on Hatley Road. The executives walked through the lobby and under the tall, vaulted glass ceilings of the Building 1 atrium.

Jonathan Bush, one of the company’s co-founders, had — and still has — a family summer residence on North Haven, so he knew what MBNA had already built on the west side of Penobscot Bay.

After the tour, the athenahealth group hopped back on the plane and flew to Vermont for another tour. Belfast officials nervously awaited their decision.

Belfast won. athenahealth would open the doors of its new Maine hub in 2007, initially promising to ultimately hire 700 employees.

Fast forward to 2018, athena is celebrating its 10th year on the Maine coast. It’s blown past those early hiring estimates, employing 950 people. More will be hired in coming months.

“We have room for about 1,200 or 1,250,” athena’s vice president of customer operations, Jonathan McDevitt, said during a recent tour. “That’s significant growth, but we’re getting to the point of asking what’s next, what’s beyond that, and we haven’t answered that question yet. We certainly envision this place being full before too much longer.”

Finding these people is forcing the company to reach a bit farther than in the past, into cities like Augusta and Bangor, recruiting workers who can commute or move to the midcoast. More than half of new hires are referrals, people who were pointed toward athena by current or past employees, according to Katie Glessner, senior human relations manager.

The company also recruits online, with regular social media postings calling attention to the jobs. Athena is a regular site at job fairs in the region, and has started stretching its reach into the Bangor and Augusta areas in hopes of courting more commuters and hitting its 1,200-employee goal.

“Nobody probably grows up thinking ‘I’m gonna be an enrollment analyst,’ because no one really knows what that is,” Glessner said. “We have to get out there.”

Origins

Athenahealth was born out of “frustration” with inefficiencies in the relationship between the health care and insurance industries. Bush and athena co-founder Todd Park started a birthing clinic in California in 1997, with the goal of spreading, but their effort was a financial failure and the clinic closed. The duo tried to find something to salvage.

They determined their billing and records management software worked well, so they saved it and started marketing the system to doctors’ offices as the new millenium closed in and more enterprises were going online.

Their goal was to build a “health care internet,” allowing doctors to easily access health records across the system, while easing the insurance claims process. Athena officials say their ultimate goal is to get big enough to fix inefficiencies in health care and insurance industries.

“That is a really bold thing to say, and also incredibly complicated,” McDevitt said. “There are so so many areas of inefficiency in health care and just how our system evolved over the past 70 years or so, and it’s just going to take a long time to fix it.”

When the company opened its base in Maine in 2008, it had clients in 39 states. Maine wasn’t one of them. Within the year, it signed on Medical Network, Maine’s largest physician organizations.

Today, nationally, athenahealth’s network includes 111,000 providers serving 106 million patients.

“We have customers in all 50 states now,” McDevitt said during a recent tour of the Belfast hub. “A lot has changed in 10 years.”

Questions close decade

In the last quarter of 2017, athenahealth, a publicly traded company, announced about 500 layoffs scattered across several sites, including some in Belfast.

The news spurred local concerns that it might be the start of a decline for another major employer. Athena officials insisted this was a hiccup, and that they would be in Belfast for the long haul.

“I never want to diminish the impact of decisions that involve people, but they were decisions that attend to the health of our business for the long term,” McDevitt said.

The “restructuring,” as it’s called in athenahealth circles, was prompted by activist hedge fund Elliott Management, which bought 9.2 percent of the company last May. It pushed for athena to downsize some operations while refocusing on other potentially more lucrative areas.

Athena has declined to reveal how many layoffs happened at each of its sites, but the vast majority of pink slips were handed out in Atlanta and Watertown, Massachusetts, and the impact in Belfast appears to have been comparatively small. Its employment numbers never took much of a hit, and appear to have recovered within just a few weeks of the layoffs.

Even as those notices were being handed out, the Belfast location was still sorting through applications in areas that were still hiring, according to Glessner. Those hires continue, primarily in its client support division — the call center side of the business that works with doctors offices or hospitals that run into billing or insurance questions.

The foundation

The complex MBNA built is vastly larger than most companies need or want today, so other smaller companies have moved in to fill out the former MBNA site, joining athenahealth and Bank of America.

Massachusetts-based tech company OnProcess arrived in 2015. Penobscot Community Health Care’s Seaport Community Health Center moved into one of the smaller office buildings near athenahealth’s hub.

“Had MBNA not come here, I highly doubt any of this would be here,” Hurley said.

He credited Maine & Company, a nonprofit that consults with businesses looking for a place to relocate or grow, with working behind the scenes to draw several of these companies toward Belfast. The group was also integral in attracting one of the world’s largest salmon farms to the city.

For Belfast, another key has been improving the downtown to make it more attractive and welcoming, not only for companies looking for a new home, but also for the people who will work there.

“If you’re going to have 1,200 employees, you want them in a place where they like to be,” Hurley said.

MBNA’s two decades in Belfast also proved that a company could find enough workers in and around Waldo County to be viable, in spite of the county’s total population of just 39,000.

A hallway off the atrium of Building 1, the heart of athenahealth’s Belfast operation, is lined by dozens of framed photographs depicting every incoming class of trainees. Each new employee autographs their image. With the frequency of hires, a new photo is taken nearly every week of the year, so not all of them can be on display at any one time.

“There just isn’t enough room,” McDevitt said.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.


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