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The Rise and Fall of Rolfing Associates, Inc., So. Burlington, Vermont

Author
Translator
Pages: 50-55
Year: 1993
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

ROLF LINES – Vol XXI -nº 01 – March 1993

Volume: 21

All but a handful of Rolfers work as self-employed people, practicing in their own one person offices with no co-workers, employees or bosses. This type of organizational arrangement for delivering Rolfing services may suit the temperament of many Rolfers but the domination of this format is largely a function of the fact that Rolfing is still relatively young and small organizationally and of the highly individualized nature of the work itself.

While there is much to recommend this solo practitioner model, most notably the freedom, flexibility and self-responsibility it promotes and the fact that it allows Rolfing to spread out geographically, there is also much to recommend arrangements that bring Rolfers under one roof or one organizational umbrella. Notable here are the benefits for professional growth and support, possibilities for mentoring in both the work itself and in mastering the business side of Rolfing, and synergistic effects in promoting awareness of Rolfing and generating full practices. For newer Rolfers, association with other Rolfers can ease the impact of juggling all the balls immediately upon graduation, and for experienced Rolfers it can help combat isolation and burnout. It also makes good business sense for a Rolfer with potential to generate more clients than his or her caseload can accommodate to affiliate with Rolfers who are not creating full practices are not sure how to do so,

I am not making a case here for or against any particular organizational format for offering Rolfing to the public. Even if I were to do that, it is unlikely that a large number of Rolfers will work in association with other Rolfers at any time in the near future. However, there have been a number of experiments of this sort in recent years and new ones spring up from time to time. Mostly they have been relatively short lived. Each differs slightly or significantly from the others. There has been no written description or evaluation of these different models available to our community so we have not had an easy way to learn from one another. For this reason, I will describe the specific format I developed and pursued for five years in Vermont and make an effort to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses.

Background

At its peak, Rolfing Associates, Inc. of South Burlington consisted of four Rolfers, including myself. While the name Rolfing Associates, Inc. still exists as a legal entity and as the name of the practice, the organization currently consists of just myself.

Neither this growth nor decline were deliberately planned by me much in advance of their happening. In early 1987, several years into relocating my practice from Philadelphia to Vermont, I found myself generating considerably more clients than I could Rolf and building a substantial waiting list. I reviewed my options and decided to post a notice in Rolf Lines for an associate.

As happened on each of the three occasions when I did this over the years, five or six Rolfers contacted me. This sorted out to two or three likely candidates each of whom eventually spent two days with me in Vermont. I developed and refined a format for interviewing candidates that involved our getting to know each other personally and professionally. It included exchanges of Rolfing work, a formal interview of several hours based on a questionnaire I developed, a period for them to review and discuss the legal and financial arrangements, and a chance for then to learn about and experience the community to which they would be moving. In most cases, the candidates were my house guests while here. I also followed up after the visits with the references the candidates had given, usually teachers from their various Rolf trainings.

My first associate joined me at the holistic health center where I practiced. A year later when a second associate joined I had purchased a suite in a new condominium office building in town, and those two Rolfers became both my professional associates and my tenants. The office has four clinical rooms as well as a waiting room and a business office and the fourth Rolfer completed the group a year later. My first associate stayed for five years, the second for three and a half and the third for one and a half, so in total the arrangement accounted for ten “Rolfer years,” not counting my own five years of full time Rolfing during this period.

During the initial interviews I shared with all candidates my two major motivations in having associates. I did not see this arrangement as an opportunity for new Rolfers to get close supervision and support in the work itself, although I was open to discussing the work and that did of course happen. This arrangement was designed to capitalize on the awareness of Rolfing I had created in the community and my skills in coaching others toward a full practice, so that I could leverage myself through other Rolfers and so that they could earn at least as much or more as they might expect to earn in a similar period starting a practice on their own. I also shared my desire to see how well a group of us could do in creating awareness of Rolfing and a positive climate for it. I was very excited about seeing just how far we could take Rolfing in OUI relatively open community if we spoke with a clear voice and continued to be energetic in spreading the word. ] saw this area as a laboratory for testing out the possibilities of bringing Rolfing closer to mainstream awareness and acceptance than had been achieved anywhere before, arid sharing what I learned with the broader Rolfing community.

I was not opposed to coaching and sharing around the work itself, but the logistics of my working week and the financial arrangements with associates did not leave a lot of room for this. Specifically, I put a healthy percent age of the money I received from associates back into the practice. If I devoted my own clinical time to supervision to any degree, it would have quickly become a losing financial situation, since I schedule 28 sessions a week, which means five full days, and I have a high commitment to family time and personal time. Given all this, the arrangements seemed appealing to other Rolfers, and recruiting associates turned out to be a straight-forward part of the effort.

The three associates each left Rolfing Associates, Inc. under different circumstances. The first completed the entire five year term of the contract and then started his own practice in town. The second moved to another area of the country after three and a half years, for reasons not associated with any concerns about being part of Rolfing Associates, Inc. and is successfully building her own practice. In fact she recently brought an associate into her practice in an arrangement modelled on the one we utilized in Vermont. The third person was not proving successful in building a practice and we mutually agreed to part ways which, as our contract specified, did permit her to practice in the area if she wanted. She remains in the area but is not practicing actively.

As Rolfers left I had the option of recruiting other Rolfers to replace them and my experience suggested that it would have been possible to find good people. However, just at that time the recession was hitting hard nationally and particularly hard in Northern New England. Based on the increasing effort it was taking to keep our practices full, I decided it would be very hard or impossible to get the practice of a new Rolfer off the ground in an economically feasible way, so with same regret and some relief I allowed the organization to shrink.

The Associates’ Agreement

The contract that each associate signed varied slightly as I learned from experience and will change somewhat again if I bring new people in. In all cases, the associates were not my employees but were independent contractors. There are same financial implications which the IRS will raise if it decides that your associates are actually your employees. It is a murky area and there are same IRS guidelines worth noting if you pursue this in your practice. In my case, it was clear that associates practiced in accordance with the standards and Code of Ethics of their professional organization, set their own hours and collected fees themselves. This helped keep the employee/ independent contractor distinction clear.

The original form of the contract established a five year agreement and the most recent version went to six years. Of course, this did not mean that associates had to stay in association with me for five or six years. They could terminate the contract at any time, as I could, but as you will read shortly, the contract dictated specific consequences if the associates terminated before completion of the agreed on term.

Associates agreed to pay me 30 per cent of their collected weekly gross, on a weekly basis. I had the right to review their income and billing records as a safeguard for me, but I never did that in practice. The associates did provide me with a weekly report that kept me abreast of the number of clients they Rolfed per week, the number of new enrollments they generated per week, and the money they collected each week.

In the case of the third associate, the fee paid reduced from 30 per cent to 25 per cent to 20 per cent to 15 percent in 1 1/2 year increments over the six year contract, reflecting the potential independence of the Rolfer over tine in being self-sustaining in practice building efforts and the psychological reality of Rolfers wanting more independence and financial return over time.

What the associates got in return was a guarantee from me of a minimum number of clients to Rolf per week, or a cash payment up to that level if clients were not available. The minimum was pegged at 50 per cent of what the associate declared was the desired full time caseload. If the associate targeted 20 clients per week, the guarantee was for 10 clients per week or payment in lieu for any week in which the associate was available for full time work. This clause made it clear that I was not providing vacation pay, sick leave or unpaid holidays. At that time our fees were $80.00 per session, 70 percent or $56.00 of which was the associate’s. The associate was guaranteed at least 10 x $56.00 in client fees or cash from me. In practice, there were relatively few weeks when I contributed cash to bring associates up to the minimum. However, a permutation in any future contracts would call for periodic reassessment of the associate’s desired full time load since it developed that each of the associates went through periods when they wanted to Rolf fewer sessions than the agreement was pegged to. It could be a disincentive for a Rolfer to generate clients independently if the Rolfer wanted to Rolf only 10 to 15 clients and I guaranteed to cover the 10 client minimum regardless of the initiative the Rolfer took.

The agreement did not say that I would generate clientele for the associates, only that I guaranteed them the minimum specified. I did have a substantial waiting list of ready clients to transfer to my first associate when he arrived, but I did not have that for the other associates and I very infrequently spun clients off to other associates from my own personal practice building activity. What I did offer were suggestions of contacts for new Rolfers to make, co-leading of demonstrations in the initial months, and a relatively high level of community awareness of Rolfing that I had created over previous years by substantial advertising, public speaking and successful public relations efforts. I was also available for consultation and coaching with associates on an as needed basis.

I had several strategies for getting a new practice off the ground quickly. For example, with the second and third associates I advertised a scholarship program to allow reduced fees for Rolfing clients. Given the awareness of Rolfing locally, that offer brought a good number of clients at a somewhat reduced fee that made less money for the associate and me, but quickly got the associate above the minimum guarantee and started that associate into the networking process that is the heart of any successful practice.

When an associate picked up a phone call from a potential client who did not have a particular Rolfer in mind to work with, that associate was free to work with that person. However, call-ins that we took as messages came to me for my disposition. At times I assigned those call-ins to the associates in rotation, at times I gave them to the person who needed them most and occasionally there was a clear clinical reason to assign a client to a specific Rolfer. In any case, these calls did not account for a large percentage of any of our practices.

The agreement did not call for me to provide for office supplies or advertising. However, I did pay for stationary and office supplies and for a considerable amount of advertising as well as other occasional incentives. For example, at one point I proposed paying the associates their usual fee when they offered and gave a free first hour to a health or mental health professional in the area. They got busy calling such people and brought many of them in for a first hour as a professional courtesy.

Each of the Rolfers paid rent to me since I owned the office where we worked. Since I also had the right to establish the location where they worked, the arrangement contained a potential abuse by me regarding the level of rent I charged them, since they were required to pay rent to me at my facility. The contract addressed that by setting this rate at the “reasonable and customary rates for comparable facilities in the area”

Associates paid for their share of local phone calls and their long distance calls. They were also responsible for all their other professional costs, for example, insurance, professional dues and continuing education.

The contracts, except for the first one, gave me the right to set the fees charged by associates, which I always set at the same level for all of us. They also made it clear that I retained the right to use the name Rolfing Associates, Inc. and the phone number if they practiced independently in the community later on. I also retained control over the text, content, timing and form of advertising and promotional material, though in no case did I veto any plan that a Rolfer brought tome in this area. I had no contractual right to interfere in any way with their practice of Rolfing itself, except that failure to be a member in good standing of the Rolf Institute or to act in accordance with the Institute’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice constituted a breach of contract by the Associate.

The contract also contained a clear and strong non competition agreement. If the associate terminated or breached the agreement during its term, the associate agreed not to practice Rolfing in this area, defined as the county in which Rolfing Associates, Inc. is located, for two years from the termination or breach. Given the nature of this community, that meant the associate could not establish a viable practice in this area for that time. However, an associate who completed the term of the contract could practice here freely as could an associate with whom I terminated the contract.

This aspect of the contract provided an important safeguard for me because most of what I could offer an associate I could offer in the first years, through a quick start up and quick integration into the community. If the associate left after the early period, I would lose that period of time they would have been with me during which I could expect to invest the least on their behalf and therefore would potentially generate a better financial return for myself. And at the same time, if they practiced locally, I would have quickly generated my own competition. This clause helped assure that my financial investment and sharing of networking resources in the initial period would be balanced in later years unless, of course, the associate terminated the contract and moved elsewhere. In that case, I would not get a dollar return on my investment over the entire planned period, but at the same time I would have a cleaner slate on which to start over with another associate if I so chose.

Evaluation

I am left with mixed feelings about this experiment. If in the future my practice is again at the overflowing stage I would entertain the possibility of having associates, but on a smaller scale, with one and possibly two other Rolfers. However, I am not sure that having just one or two other associates would resolve the tension that is inherent in this relationship, at least as I need to create that relationship to make it work for me.

What I offered associates was a developed community in which to build a practice, a strong assist in developing a full practice quickly, a guaranteed minimum, a safety net, coaching and strong logistical support in the form of advertising and other practice building aids. I also offered emotional support, a friendly and open atmosphere and relationship and a willingness to deal with issues as they arose. What I got back was a percent of associates’ earnings and the right to control a degree of the autonomy they would have had as independent practitioners though, as indicated, I exercised very little of that right and this did not turn out to be a significant sore spot for associates.

From the associates’ perspectives, in the initial years of the relationship what I offered more than compensated for what I took, both in the psychological experience of the associates and by a statistical or actuarial reconing. As time went on, however, what I got back started to seem to the associates to be more than I gave. The reason for this, as I see it, is that once a practice is off the ground, at least as I understand and teach that process, continued success requires the hands on, day to day networking of each practitioner. Particularly as we expanded, and as the recession of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s deepened, a continued full practice for each Rolfer in Rolfing Associates, Inc. required the same kind of day to day contact making process that would be required in a solo practice.

At that point, arguments about the “big picture” did not hold much weight psychologically. The fact that I had created a certain climate for practice building was less persuasive once the associate had participated for some years and contributed to building that climate. The fact that the per session fee we charged had been consistently higher than the associate would have charged as a new or even as an experienced practitioner on his or her own, and therefore even with a percentage to me the associate had a good return, was less impactive as the associate became accustomed to and grew into the higher fee. The fact that a disproportionate return to me in later years balanced an imbalance in earlier years in the other direction was not emotionally persuasive in any given week when the associate wrote a check to me.

I had foreseen this possibility early on and alerted each applicant to it. To a person, each was, at the interview stage, far more influenced by the thought of their returns than the cost to them and did not see a future problem arising. But we could not predict the psychological impact of several years of practice.

I tried to ease the strain in a number of ways. I quickly discovered that any strategy involving a careful review with the associate of financial pluses and minuses, that is, the costs and gains to each of us of the arrangement, was fairly irrelevant, first because it did not speak to the emotional content of the moment and second because it required difficult to make estimates of what the associate’s situation would have been as a solo practitioner.

In the case of the first associate, I worked out a contractual modification whereby that associate became, in effect, a limited partner in Rolfing Associates, inc. and shared in the potential liability and gain associated with having a second associate. However, we both saw quickly that this arrangement was not working because the first associate was not in a position to contribute to the practice building success of the second associate and because he was not committed to building Rolfing Associates, Inc. over time, even in a partnership role.

We ended that arrangement, in effect by me buying him out as a limited partner, which took the form of reducing the percentage of his gross paid to me to 20 per cent over his remaining years with me and severing his contractual and financial relationship to the second associate. This turned out to be an expensive experiment for me.

Another modification, which I established with the third associate, was to agree to a gradually declining percentage of the associate’s gross paid to me over the years. That associate did not stay long enough to reach the first decrease point, so I cannot assess that strategy. However, a problem in that arrangement for me is that it makes the relationship more marginal as a financial investment as the return becomes smaller. A protection from this marginality is that the size of the minimum guarantee to the Rolfer also decreased as the fee paid to me decreased.

There are at least two other possibilities for handling the conflict. One is to establish a shorter contract. That might work well in a larger community, where competition among Rolfers is not much of an issue since the pool of potential clients is so much larger. In a smaller community, the associate who completes a contract and then practices in the area becomes competition, to some degree. To compensate for that fact, the senior Rolfer needs to make more from the associate during the life of the contract. A shorter contract tilts that balance.

A second way to soften that tension requires a senior Rolfer to provide clients directly and consistently to the associate. This may be possible for some Rolfers but my experience is that few of us can count on that kind of surplus of clients as a certainty over the several years of a lengthy contract. This may be a good way to go, however, when the associate has a private practice elsewhere and joins the established Rolfer when clients are available and practice elsewhere when clients are not available. Leaving aside for the moment the logistics of providing office space for the associate that may be required only episodically, this is still harder to accomplish in a smaller more isolated community where an associate would have to make a significant trip and would need housing while there.

In all of this I wrestled with a classic issue facing people who supervise, employ or are in some way in a controlling role with other people, and that is the tension between holding myself and others to agreements and/ or standards, and the desire to be liked, to smooth ruffled feathers and to have everyone be happy. Initially, I believe, I bent too far in the direction of peace and happiness at too great a cost to me. Over time I came to a more center position in which I got more clear about what worked for me and what I considered fair, and was willing to represent that clearly, while remaining open to the concerns of associates. In this I came to see that every issue that associates had, or complaints or problems they had, did not necessarily involve something I did or should do. Maintaining a context of openness, cordiality, professional respect and personal affection, I became more willing to hold people to their agreements with me over time and this was a growth process for me.

Given all this, from the associates’ point of view, the arrangement had some strong pluses. Each of the associates was a new or almost new practitioner and the arrangement did allow them to practice Rolfing with a full practice from the start and did bring them a level of income that would have likely taken several years to achieve on their own. They generally enjoyed, as I did, our interpersonal relations and enjoyed working in an environment with relatively little competition and with some enhanced opportunity for professional growth in the work itself. They developed good practice building skills that for the two of them who are now in practice on their own are the building blocks of successful practices. And they saw and participated in and helped to create an approach to Rolfing and to promoting Rolfing based on commitment to Rolfing, a love of Rolfing, commitment to clients, integrity, energy and good humor.

From my point of view, creating Rolfing Associates, Inc. did allow a good deal of outreach and community education about Rolfing. I put a healthy percentage of the associates’ fees I received back into practice building, in the form of advertising and other practice building efforts that had a price tag. Also, associates were reasonably active in making contacts and giving talks, and having the four of us did create a synergistic effect an our outreach success. As a result, the awareness of Rolfing is higher here than it is in comparable communities, and that continues to create an environment that makes outreach and enrollment easier. However, the experiment with associates did not go on long enough to explore the limits of mainstreaming Rolfing in this community and that is a disappointment to me.

I did, as I had expected, develop my own practice building skills and strategies at an accelerated rate, as well as my ability to teach them to others. As I had intended, I made and am making the results of this experiment and those learnings available to the Rolfing community in two forms. One is the steady stream of articles I have written for Rolf Lines over the past several years and the other is my practice building consultation service through which I support Rolf institute members in having successful practices.

I did make some money from the arrangement and I do not discount the impact of that on my financial life since, when my practice is full, there is no other way I have to make more money through Rolfing and I would like to make more money that even a full practice can generate. However, roughly speaking, through the period of having associates, I averaged a net gain from these arrangements of about 10 per cent of the income I earn from my own direct Rolfing work. That return is not acceptable to me for the effort and risk involved. A smaller scale effort with fewer Associates and less need to reinvest dollars in practice building might have netted a higher rate or return or even a higher absolute amount of return.

Another aspect of the financial picture concerns office space. I quickly discovered that I could arrange for associates to join and depart much more fluidly than ] could arrange for the smooth ebb and flow of fully occupied office space. In my case, since I own the office space which I had purchased with a total of four Roller in mind, I required and found an independent tenant, a psychologist, when I had one empty space early in the process, and I required and found a tenant, a physician when I had three empty spaces at the end of the process However, there were times when space went unused and that was very expensive for me. Presently I am the tai wagging the dog in my office in that I occupy 25 per cent of the suite and I have a significant financial stake as a landlord. Depending on my continued success in keeping the space rented, on the ups and downs of interest rates as they effect my variable rate, SBA backed mortgage, and the appreciation over time in the market value of the of lice, and therefore a gain or possible loss when I sell, I will discover if I made a smart move to leverage Rolfing Associates, inc. into a property investment or if I glossed over the eventual painful property consequences when I decided to be a high roller. A Rolfer responsible for another Rolfer’s office space needs through rental would, of course, have fewer substantial long term property issues to consider.

I am very glad I pursued these possibilities even though I am not totally satisfied with how they turned out. If nothing else, I gave my best effort to going “big time” and satisfied that curiosity and urge. I made some money, helped some other Rolfers get started well, learned a lot, and helped to spread the word about Rolfing. If the next period, or all the rest of my years in practice are as a solo practitioner that would be fine with me, at least as I contemplate it now. On the other hand, I did learn from this experience, as from many of my other life experiences, that big internal changes and big circumstantial changes can come far more quickly, with far less warning, than I had imagined earlier in my life.

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