Sun's Matros brings goodwill to New Orleans

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It’s hard to find pure “feel-good” stories nowadays. Really hard. Maybe that’s why the latest brainstorm from Rick Matros is so, well, charming.

Matros, of course, is the hip 50-something who likes rap music and appears regularly at national long-term care conferences in anything but a necktie or suit. Oh, he’s also the CEO of nursing home giant Sun Healthcare, the robust company he led out of bankruptcy six years ago.

Maybe that last phrase is the key to his latest news-making adventure. Having jumped aboard a sinking wreck of a company, on one level Matros can identify with the situation in New Orleans.

Next Tuesday, May 6, he’ll lead a work crew of 90 Sun employees from around the country who will help tear down and rebuild homes in areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Call it a new twist on the rehab game.

Matros said the idea came to him after he and his wife, Adrienne, and their son, Alex, worked on a service project in New Orleans around Thanksgiving 2006 as part of a program at Alex’s school.

“At that point, it was 15 months after Katrina and the place was still a disaster, just unacceptable,” Matros recalled. “About halfway through working on a house, the woman who had lived there but moved to Houston came back to meet us. It was just unbelievable, holding hands in a circle and everybody’s crying.”

Not long thereafter, Sun leaders began to consider their first educational conferences since emerging from bankruptcy in 2002. Why not give some business to New Orleans in 2008, Matros wondered aloud. Event organizers then decided to add the service element, with Habitat for Humanity accepting the offer of free help.

Nearly 100 lucky Sun workers will arrive a day early for the national educational conference next week to work on homes. The company will pick up the tab for the extra night’s hotel stay – and also give a $10,000 donation to the cause.

The workers are “lucky” because the competition was fierce to be picked for the rehab crews. The invitation to rip down drywall, pound nails and otherwise get grubby went out simultaneously to Sun workers.

More than 200 rushed forward to volunteer. Only about 500 will be attending the conference.

Matros had to step in to ensure there was adequate representation from various geographic areas, business lines and levels of employment. This would not simply be a resume-polishing opportunity for guys with corner offices.

“I’m not very much a corporate guy so we do a lot of things where decision-making happens at the local level of the company so I didn’t want this endeavor to be something that wasn’t a reflection of that,” Matros explained.

Sun didn’t have any facilities in the area for Katrina to destroy but storms did wind up wreaking havoc on a staffing agency and ultimately displaced about 45 employees. It took months to locate some of them, but all were kept on the payroll, Matros said.

Two-and-a-half years after the storm, there is still a mess to clean up, he added, something he thankfully can’t say about his own company.

“I know in this business there are caring passionate people taking care of the elderly. They wage a daily war out there. I just felt we could take that compassion and play it to a different situation,” he explained. “With the work in nursing homes so underappreciated, people feel like they’re taken for granted. This is an opportunity for us to put employees in a situation where they’re highly appreciated. I think it will bring spirit to the company.”

This service day is the company’s first but it won’t be the last, Matros said. “Caring is the key in life” is a new motto Sun is adopting this year.

“No matter what your job is – taking care of residents or payroll – if you bring that caring attitude to it, it will matter," he said. "Caring is the key in life – beyond our business, to our larger community.”

It’s a challenge to find a real feel-good story nowadays. But not impossible.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.