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Pennsylvania's Only Black-owned Ambulance Co. Flourishes

East Africa in Focus, News Feature, Ng'ang'a Muchiri Posted: Jul 02, 2009

ALLENTOWN, Pa. Most rags-to-riches stories take a lifetime. Such stories are even harder to find among African immigrants. But George Maragia is one of the few who have defied the odds and establish one of Pennsylvanias most successful medical transportation companies.

Maragia came to the United States from Kenya in 1996 to study computer information systems at Rutgers University. Throughout college, he did several menial jobs, working at one time as a bus boy for the luxurious Sheraton Hotels.

I held that job for several years, working my way up to be a waiter, he said recently during an interview at his Allentown office.

After graduating from college with his bachelors degree, Maragia went to wor for Pfizer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. It was there that he began pursuing his entrepreneurial ventures.

Maragia started a used car dealership, but the business was not lucrative enough. He dropped it to create a limousine company, occasionally driving the vehicles himself. But after 9/11, his company, like others in the transportation industry, experienced a serious reduction in demand.

This is what prompted my partner and I to look for a recession-proof business, he said.

After being in the transportation industry for several years, Maragia decided to venture into the medical transportation industry with his partner, Mark Chore. They launched Whitehall Medical Transport Services in 2006, to offer ambulance, wheelchair and stretcher transportation to residents of Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley.

One of Whitehall's clients is HCR Manor Care, one of the largest care providers in the United States. Eileen Santos of HCR Manor Care's Bethlehem, Pa., center said she uses Whitehall because the company is flexible and accommodates last-minute requests.

They are always available and transport patients on time, Santos said. Mark and George are also very courteous, and they always call and follow up to see if everything is going well. We enjoy working with them.

Whitehalls clientele mostly consists of senior citizens living in nursing homes, who depend on the company to transport them to and from doctors appointments. The company has 12 equipped ambulances, with access to three more if needed. An ambulance costs between $40,000 and $60,000, with a big chunk of the cost going to equipment purchase, Maragia said.

An ambulance doubles as a mobile emergency room, and this makes it expensive, he explained.

Despite the worldwide recession, Maragia said Whitehall has only been mildly affected. About 80 percent of the company's clientele are covered by Medicare or have insurance through the Department of Veteran Affairs, which are both funded by the federal government, so Whitehall has been able to maintain a steady collection of bills.

But that doesnt mean that the company has not problems. Because some of Whitehall's clients have been laid off, they have lost insurance benefits and as a result, the firm has found it hard to collect monies owed to them. Another effect of the current downturn has been increased competition.

More firms are coming up, which affects our market share in the region, Maragia explained.

He is, however, was not too worried about the competition. Since business is about who can deliver the best at the most cost-effective level, Maragia was confident that his firm would continue to make its presence felt.

Valerie Gombert, a medical clerk at Manor Care in Allentown, said that as a health facility, Manor Care had only experienced a slight reduction in the number of admissions, which kept the demand for medical transportation just as high.

According to Maragia, the key to a successful start-up is a good business plan. One has to conduct good research, utilizing such resources as local business administrations and local banks.

In this way, you begin to contact potential clients and gauge the demand for your product, he said.

Maragias services have been so well received in the community that he now plans to expand his firm.

The first thing we want to do is computerize vehicle dispatch and put tracking devices in our vehicles, Maragia said.

That, he said, would ensure that clients get an ambulance at any time of the day and the dispatcher can see the closest ambulance to a client, thus reducing queue time.

We also hope to increase our clientele among groups in assisted-living communities, which are rapidly expanding due to an aging population, he said.

When asked whether he plans to venture a similar business in his homeland, Maragia said he did not foresee a similar business flourishing in Kenya. However, he and his partner have plans to invest in the real estate sector. After a tough time buying Safaricom shares when Kenyas largest mobile phone company offered its IPO, Maragia said he hoped real estate would be less complicated.

Maragia is also a strong advocate for e-governance which would enable Kenyans in the Diaspora to enhance their research potential, investment opportunities, seek government certification/licenses and streamline communication between clients and producers.

Following in the footsteps of role models like Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, Maragia said he strived to create something that would outlast him and provide for his family for many years to come. He is also inspired by Magic Johnsons tireless actions to give back to his community and he hopes to do something similar.

Part of Whitehall's success can be attributed to Maragia's way of doing business; a secret he shared with those who have plans to be self-employed.

You have to be a 110 percent into your business," he said. "You cannot do it part-time and you have to be totally dedicated."

Maragia said business was very competitive, and to break even, let alone make a profit, one has to consistently strive to be the best.

In addition to formulating a good business plan, his advice to people wishing to start their own businesses is to be ready to stand behind their products. This philosophy has especially helped Maragia deal with instances of racial prejudice. He explained that on first impression, many potential clients associate his accent with lack of knowledge, especially in an industry that has very few minorities.

Maragia's confidence in the quality of his services has helped him diminish the initial doubts that some clients had. Today, Whitehall is the only Black-owned ambulance service company, not only in the Lehigh Valley, but also in Pennsylvania.

If you prove yourself, you are accepted.

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