Three businesses, one pandemic add up to juggling act for Tri-City entrepreneurs
When Rachel and Tom Ammerman took over A-Plus Transportation, a Yakima medical transporter, they had big plans to expand to a new line of business.
A-Plus focuses on long-distance transport for Medicaid patients. It is a low margin business, so the Tri-City couple added a small-group charter business to fill what they saw as a gap in the market.
They set up Eastern Washington Transportation last year to focus on groups of 14 people of less.
In the background, the Ammermans are the local representatives for Go USA, which makes logo-branded apparel and other items for schools and businesses. They run the three businesses from a small Richland office on Swift Boulevard.
They have spent much of the spring adapting to the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Jay Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order hammered demand for logo wear and charter services and to a large degree, rides to medical appointments.
They have gotten creative to stay in business.
The charter business is on hold. Their insurance company offered the option to suspend coverage on the 14-seat Mercedes Sprinters they bought for the launch. They took it up and stashed the vehicles in secure storage until business revives.
They helped reinvent Go USA as a personal protective equipment business. No one needs branded sweatshirts and keychains, but people need masks and related gear. The company leveraged relationships with its many producers to procure N95 masks and more.
Ammerman would not disclose specifics, but one order could eclipse a normal year’s revenue.
A-Plus, the medical transport business, is running at a much-reduced level. Most appointments have been canceled, though not all.
Tom Ammerman applied for and received a forgivable loan through the $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program, part of the $2.2+ trillion federal CARES Act. It may well save the enterprise.
“Without Paycheck Protection, it would have put us in a tough position” he said.
The Ammermans are serial entrepreneurs who owned and operated the Hansen Park and Broadmoor fitness centers. They ran the businesses, which are in Kennewick and Pasco, for 14 years before selling them about 18 months ago.
“Thank God,” Tom Ammerman said.
After the sale and before they took on the transportation business, the couple focused on Go USA, which had been a vendor to the fitness centers. They worked to build the Tri-City market, providing logo-branded items to local high schools and businesses.
They signed onto the transportation business about a year ago. Tom Ammerman’s father, Randy, wanted to retire. Randy Ammerman sold A&A Motor coach to a Seattle-area firm that did not want the Eastern Washington territory.
Rachel and Tom took over, running it as A-Plus.
With a fleet of about 30 vehicles and 26 full- and part-time drivers, A-Plus specializes in long-distance transport.
It ferries clients who live in the Tri-Cities and Yakima Valley to doctor’s appointments in Seattle and Spokane and to a methadone clinic in Hermiston. Medicaid and Department of Labor and Industries patients are its chief source of business.
While many medical appointments canceled because of the pandemic, the medical transport business isn’t closed.
“We are still working. Dialysis patients have to go to the clinic,” Tom Ammerman said.
Most drivers are retirees who work as a hobby or for part-time income, or younger workers who drive as a second job.
Some volunteered to step back as hours fell off. Others saw their weekly hours fall from 40 to 25, which drove the Ammermans to apply for the federal loan program.
It is unclear when area residents will again feel safe about mingling in public and driving to medical appointments, but when they do, Tom Ammerman expects crushing demand as clients reschedule missed appointments.
“It’s going to be chaos,” he said.
The couple is hanging its recovery dreams on the charter business.
Eastern Washington Transportation aims to serve groups that are too big for a passenger vehicle and too small for a motor coach.
“Who do you call when you have a group of eight or 12?” Tom Ammerman asked.
The Sprinters seat 14. Eastern Washington Transportation is limiting itself to 14 passengers—ideal for wine tasting and other small parties and small enough to avoid the stepped-up regulations that apply to larger vehicles.
Tom Ammerman said he never had a chance to promote it as a wine-touring business or wedding shuttle before the pandemic hit.
“School districts were keeping us so busy I haven’t had time to go get that (wine) business,” Tom Ammerman said.
Before the pandemic, state tournaments kept its small fleet busy.
The company drove athletes to the Special Olympics Winter Games and took wrestling teams from Hanford, Pasco and Chiawana high schools to the state tournament in Tacoma, before the shutdown order.
Chiawana took a team title and several of the local students did well at the tournament.