Liz Whittingham – Professional Physical Therapy
- Written by: Kate Gardner
- Produced by: Zachary Brann & Anders Nielsen
- Estimated reading time: 4 mins
Liz Whittingham was working in medical billing at Professional Physical Therapy when she began overseeing contractors doing renovations. She let them into the clinic, directed them around the building and even gave her input on floor and wall finishes. It wasn’t long before her boss took notice.
“I have a knack for development and facilities, so he asked me to step into a new role,” Whittingham says. “I’m self-taught and learned as I went along.”
The past 10 years, she’s become the senior director of development and real estate services for the physical therapy provider, which has locations in five Northeastern states. When Whittingham started working with her boss on real estate and development, the company had 12 locations; it now has 200.
She started by helping her boss, the company’s chief development officer, scout new locations. Then, as locations were selected, she began going to job sites to oversee construction and select finishes. Now, she oversees the entire development and facilities department, ensures locations operate effectively, collaborates with architects on design, and determines when renovations are needed.
“From day one, I felt very comfortable at Professional PT,” Whittingham says. “I found the right fit for me and have been able to grow here.”
When Whittingham spoke with Blueprint in October, Professional Physical Therapy had opened nine new locations in 2022. By year’s end, she expected it to open five more. The goal is to open 20-30 new locations in 2023.
To open a new clinic, Whittingham and the development team work with a real estate broker to find the location, with the ideal size being 2,500 to 3,000 square feet. Locations are chosen based on financial vetting and market and demographics analyses .
After deciding to pursue a location, Whittingham gets to know the landlord and then works with the legal department to sign a lease. She and the project management team then work with an architect to develop floor plans and the design for the new space.
Each location has the same finishes for floors, walls, millwork, furniture and signage to ensure brand continuity. However, depending on the size and layout of a building, the floor plan can change. In some instances, landlords don’t want certain changes, in which case Whittingham works to find a compromise.
After she reviews and approves the design plans, the project goes out to bid and she selects a contractor. The general contractor or architect then applies for and files permits, which typically takes six to eight weeks, Whittingham says. As construction moves along, she coordinates with other departments on the signage, furniture, IT and equipment needed in the clinic. From there, a team is hired to staff the location.
“We are always looking to recruit physical therapists, clinic staff, assistants and trainers,” she says. “We do that so we can serve our existing patients and continue to welcome new patients to our company.”
While opening new locations is crucial for the company’s growth, Whittingham spends a lot of time updating and relocating existing locations, too. For example, she helped the company renovate operations in Long Island, New York, to focus on providing physical therapy. She helped that same facility relocate its hand therapy services to another spot nearby.
Whittingham also helps consolidate smaller clinics and expand others—a particular challenge was helping physical therapy operations stay open when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. A lot of those operations were in gyms that were forced to close, or they had outgrown the gyms before the pandemic.
In addition to this work, Whittingham ensures clinics are well maintained. For this, she oversees the facilities team consisting of four people—one who manages locations in New England and the others managing them in the tri-state area.
Having strong relationships with vendors helps, too. For example, she’s worked with the same HVAC vendor for over 10 years and knows she can rely on the company for great service and good prices.
“Certain vendors have proven themselves and give me their best,” Whittingham says. “And they know they can count on me to hire them for jobs. It’s a matter of trust and loyalty on both ends.”
Colleagues at Professional Physical Therapy have come to rely on Whittingham in a similar way. Having been with the company for 22 years, she says she’s become “the 411” of the business.
If someone comes to her with a question about a project the company worked on 10 years ago, she says she’s likely to know the answer. She’s also developed a deep understanding of business operations and best practices.
While she loves her work, Whittingham never expected to have this career path. Prior to joining Professional Physical Therapy in 2000, she worked in medical billing at other companies. At her current company, she rose to director of centralized billing office, which she did for a few years before entering real estate and development work.
She enjoys watching others grow with the company, too, particularly college and therapy students who conduct their residencies and rotations.
“The people here all work very hard,” she says. “It’s a great place to work. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t still be here after 22 years.”
Photos by Jim Lennon, JimLennon.com
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. VI 2022 Edition here.
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