As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Kelley, co-founder of Case Integrative Health.
Matt is a dynamic and passionate professional, who has helped to create a safe haven for Chicagoans suffering from various chronic illnesses. From an early age, Matt found himself gravitating toward economics, fascinated by the subject’s roots in human behavior and psychology. Following his graduation from Miami University Matt continued his study of human behavior by taking a job as a consultant. First at Deloitte Consulting, then at Weber Associates, Matthew began to apply data to human interactions, founding Weber Associates’ Insight and Analytics team in 2004. With a desire to continue his education Matt left consulting to earn his MBA from the University of Chicago, after which he spent 11 years at W.W. Grainger in various leadership positions. Despite his success in the company, in 2017, Matt decided to leave W.W. Grainger, going on to found Case Integrative Health, with his wife: Dr. Casey Kelley. Throughout the past three years Matt has built a home for patients at Case Integrative Health, enabling practitioners to support, help and heal numerous Chicagoans every day.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are an incredibly busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
My father is an ophthalmologist in Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been going to hospitals to see my dad at work, observing surgery, “helping” him with research and showing up EVERY time he had to examine the Buckeye’s.
I started college as a pre-med major and had every intention of following in my father’s footsteps. In my sophomore year, I took Organic Chemistry and MicroEcon at the same time. The O-chem professor might as well have been speaking Latin, while economics was this fascinating new language that seemed to explain how the world worked. I dropped Organic Chemistry immediately and never looked back.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
Besides economics making more sense than chemistry, my strong fear of needles probably eliminated me from seriously considering med school. However, my interest in health remained strong. Medicine dominated the dinner table conversation after I married a doctor, who is now my business partner at Case Integrative Health.
As my career progressed in other directions, the idea that I would do anything in healthcare faded — until my wife’s health started to fail. Med School and Residency grew increasingly difficult in unexplainable ways. None of the 15+ specialists she saw during this time could piece together her particular cocktail of symptoms, nor could they provide any real relief from them.
Eventually, she was able to land on a diagnosis: chronic Lyme Disease (a nasty bacterial infection that can seep into every part of the human anatomy). We had to travel to Delaware to help her get treatment and I’m happy to say that she’s made a complete recovery. Working through that process to diagnose and treat her chronic infection is unquestionably what set both of us off on the path to launch CIH.
CIH was founded to bring an Integrative and Functional Medicine practice to Chicago and the Midwest. IFM, as it’s known, is a branch of medicine where MDs focus on diagnosing and treating the root cause of a condition, rather than working from the symptoms down, as most specialists are trained. To cultivate health, our Integrative MDs dig underneath your symptoms to uncover why you aren’t feeling well. Once we know why you are sick, we can fix the problem at its root using a whole-body approach.
While conventional healthcare is fantastic for acute problems (like treating a herniated disc or a severe case of COVID), Integrative MDs tend to offer a better approach to working with chronic conditions.
Our experience in treating my wife’s complex chronic illness solidified our view that more of this type of care is needed.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When we were just starting out, we debated what positions we needed Day One, Month One, Year One. The doctor said we needed to include a patient services coordinator role on Day One. I was hyper focused on cash flow, so I overruled her saying that I could answer patient phone calls for 2–3 hours, anticipating that we would have a few calls per day. I didn’t fully anticipate how many patients would migrate from the current practice to our new one.
Perhaps it’s a “champagne problem” to have a full schedule from the first day, but I was completely swamped. From the moment we started each day until well after we closed, we were overloaded with patient requests. It was all I could do to keep up. On top of that, I needed to assemble the job description, get it posted and get the role filled and trained — all things that should have been done before we opened up. At the end of every day, I felt (and sometimes looked) like Rick Morranis after a science experiment went terribly wrong.
The big takeaway is that you can’t wait until after there is a full-time role to begin the hiring process. We were behind the eight-ball for a few months because I was trying to save a few thousand dollars. Hire correctly the first time, to manage your own time, which is undoubtedly your most valuable asset.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am grateful to the team of people who have helped our business at Case Integrative Health, and continue to do so every day. However, perhaps none of this would be possible today without the Vice President at Grainger who gave me my first shot at leading an organization. Up to that point, I had been in charge of Mergers and Acquisitions for Grainger’s U.S business. I had led large teams, but never had direct responsibility for the individuals on those teams, or for delivering a number.
This person saw potential, gave me the chance and then more importantly, gave me the space and patience to make (many) mistakes. I had to figure out how to go from “the person with all the answers” to “the person creating a space for others to get to the answer”.
That was a tough transition, and I tripped up frequently along the way. Eventually I developed the skills and personal style needed to help the team (and business) be successful. Those lessons form a majority of the foundation I use today when thinking about how to build Case Integrative Health.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We started seeing patients in a temporary location in 2019, then moved into our brand new clinic in early 2020. We had our official Open House on March 4, 2020 and literally one week later, Chicago went into lock-down for COVID.
We had just started a medical clinic focused on complex-chronic disease at the beginning of the largest acute outbreak in history. We went entire weeks without any new patient calls. Our business was deemed essential, so we’ve been able to stay open throughout the pandemic, but the office we built for growth sat mostly empty. We had put our house up as collateral for the bank loan to fund the build-out and we were now staring at an unknown future.
Most of all, we worried constantly about how to keep our staff and patients safe. The patients who were coming to us for treatments were there because they needed help from us in their own chronic health challenges, many of them severely immuno-compromised and in the highest risk category. Our staff was understandably scared to come to work as well. It was a very difficult time to lead.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
We were told almost daily by patients “this is the only place I go outside of my house.” “You are my most trusted resource.” Of course, it is an enormous responsibility to be the only business our patients trust during the pandemic, but it is comforting to know that we are making such a significant impact on their health, and that we are able to cultivate an environment where people feel safe.
Then we got to see patient’s health improve, giving every ounce of our work a true sense of purpose. When you begin to see your work making such a remarkable effect on someone’s health and life, you have almost no choice but to continue.
Underneath that comforting fact, we were lucky. We got to come to the office every day and maintain a routine where we got to interact with people, even from six feet away- and it was extremely revitalizing. It got me through the darkest times of 2020.
The space we thoughtfully designed with room to expand, was all of the sudden the right size to help maintain social distancing. Offices became treatment rooms, we invested even more in safety — hospital grade air filtration, rigorous cleaning and PPE. Many of our suppliers were able to move us toward the front of the line for scarce supplies (N95 masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes and sprays- which were under an international shortage). You could feel more than just our team working to help patients.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
It was around Memorial Day 2020 when many people collectively woke up in relation to their health and said “there are issues other than COVID going on and I need to address them”. The phone calls started pouring in, and from more than just Chicago and Illinois. Almost every state updated their laws around licensing for virtual consults to make medical care more accessible under the stay at home orders and social distancing practices, so we were able to help patients attain the critical care they direly needed, from around the country.
The patients we were able to help throughout the worst of the pandemic became some of our biggest advocates. By providing the medical approach and environment that so many people needed, we were able to build an enormous amount of trust that continues to propel the business forward today.
A distant second in terms of importance was strong cash management, which I learned is critical to survival from living through the financial crisis of 2008. My class had just graduated business school and found ourselves staring at uncertainty as the economy melted down around us. Those of us who joined companies with strong balance sheets were able to weather that storm fairly smoothly, while those who joined financial services firms ended up getting laid off. I was one of the ones at a conservative, cash heavy company, so I was able to get to work immediately.
I was able to translate this to my work at Case Integrative Health. We had grown slower than we might have been able to, opting to try to be cash-flow positive every month. That put us in a very solid position when the economy came to a halt. We had a 6–9 month cushion which meant I was able to comfort our team that we would last, so that they could focus on doing their jobs without worrying about losing theirs.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Integrative and Functional Medicine is a relatively “new” branch of conventional medicine. Our approach includes longer appointment times and more extensive lab work — steps that help our doctors understand a complete picture, versus focusing on just one sub-specialty,- making our team experts at digging to the root-cause of issues.
Because we were already thinking about medicine more holistically, we wanted to make sure all facets of our practice supported the idea that “healing happens everywhere” — from the organizational structure, to compensation plans, to the clinic itself.
We leaned on biophilic design principles to build healing into our space. For example, in the waiting room, we wrapped an interior wall with wood planks at a pair of striking angles. When patients are waiting for a treatment or the doctor, they will subconsciously begin tracing the wall pattern in their mind. Studies have shown that this meditative-like behavior, coupled with the material choice, can lower blood pressure, regulate breathing and reduce anxiety. Contrast this to the stark, reflective white that many clinics provide to patients.
Deliberate choices were made all over the office: lighting design, air filtration, plant selection. We are conscious of the fact that we are meeting patients at a stressful time in their lives. We owe it to them to do everything we can to help.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
That’s a topic in and of itself! We host webinars on and treat numerous patients for Adrenal Fatigue (the fancy medical term for burn-out). Your adrenals produce cortisol, aka the “stress hormone” most responsible for your fight-or-flight reaction. In small doses, cortisol is extremely helpful. If you subject your body to constant low-grade stress, adrenals can get stuck in the “on” position — pumping out more cortisol than your body can handle.
Over time, this can seriously hurt your body: digestion and nutrient absorption gets harder, metabolism slows, and excess cortisol can even shrink the amount of grey matter in your brain!
The good news is there are lots of lifestyle choices you can make to naturally reduce adrenal fatigue and the risk of burn-out. We preach four main areas to our patients:
First, eat well. Ditch the heavily processed foods in favor of meals and snacks made of real ingredients. Your gut will naturally regulate stress hormones when it’s not fighting with the food you give it.
Second, sleep well. Emerging research is unlocking why 6+ hours of sleep is vital. Among other things, that’s the time when our brain’s clear out toxins and reset. Being a hero and “only sleeping for 4 hours / night” is actually setting you up for cognitive decline down the road. Do not fall into this “productivity” trap- it does the opposite.
Third, move. Physical exercise (30 min 5x / week) has been proven to reduce damaging stress hormone levels. It does not have to be vigorous, but it does need to be consistent.
Lastly, stress properly. No one can avoid stress, especially after 2020. The key is to balance it with mindfulness. Even 10 minutes 2x / day of calm for your mind can help turn the adrenal glands off. This doesn’t necessarily mean meditation, though that is a good option. Physical exercise is a great way to knock off this as well — just focus for a time on your breath while you’re working out. Readily available resources in all shapes and sizes can be found online.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My hope is that the work we are doing at Case Integrative Health is not only giving people their lives back, but helping to change the conversation about medicine. Applying acute-care medicine to chronic conditions is expensive, frustrating to both the patient and doctor and, ultimately, is just not very effective. We believe our approach, with integrative MDs, leads to better health outcomes for the 6/10 Americans who do have a chronic condition. Many of the protocols we use for those suffering from severe medical conditions can be applied to healthy people to keep them that way. We just need more people to think about medicine in this preventative and holistic fashion.
Additionally, we’ve been treating patients struggling with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Brain Fog and unexplained aches and pains for years. I’m grateful that we’ve been able to pivot that expertise to help patients suffering from COVID long-hauler symptoms. We’re not on the front lines, but we are playing a role in the fight against this virus.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
The biggest take away I have learned, is how much more intense your professional life becomes when it is your business. The stress, the pace, the satisfaction — the volume is just turned up to the speed of sound.
Here are my “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company:”
First: Time is your most finite resource, even more so than money. Spend it wisely from the very start. Investing your time in people is usually the highest return, but here’s the real lesson: learn to tell when your investment turns negative and move on from that individual quickly. There will be too many things to do to spend time on a team member who isn’t growing and developing. This can be particularly tricky for start-ups, as it might be losing someone who’s been with you from the start, but it is necessary to be successful.
Second: Hire for “GSD”. This is a term I picked up from an old mentor and it means someone who “Gets Stuff Done”. Team members are GSD if they can identify a problem and a) have the initiative to find a solution, b) the follow-through to complete the task and c) do it within the guardrails of your business’s culture.
GSD is a skill beyond the table-stakes of doing the job. It’s become one of the most important traits a new hire can exhibit and something I wish we’d been looking for from the start. Today, GSD is baked into every job description, as well as every interview. I’ll ask interviewees the standard question “Tell me about a time when you solved a problem without being asked…” but GSD shows up in other places: “Tell me about the last hobby you picked up” or “If I gave you a week to study a new topic, what would it be? What research would you do?”
Third: Culture is WAY more important than I originally anticipated, and needs to be fed constantly. At some point, your strategy is in the hands of someone else to execute, this means trusting them to make the right decision, with the right amount of care and urgency. I understood that culture was important when I was leading teams in crisis at Grainger, but I underestimated how much effort it takes on a daily basis to help the culture take root.
We started the practice with an idea of a Quarterly Cultural Bonus instead of performance bonuses. This was a concrete signal of the importance of living our values and I kinda left it at that thinking “well, they know we’re serious about it and I’ll get to talk to my team every quarter about how well they lived the values, so that should do it.”
Almost immediately people began moving away from some of the behaviors — not blatantly ignoring them, but using them inconsistently. I found that I needed to spend time every day out with the team listening to their interactions and observing work in order to create the right habits. Now two years in, I’m still modelling behaviors weekly to make sure we’re setting the cultural root firmly and correctly.
Four: On a more individualized front, the fourth thing I wish I’d known was how hard it was going to be, to clear time to think. We all know by now that unstructured time is vital for making connections, solving problems or figuring out ‘what’s next’. I had built into my schedule “Innovation Time” for a couple hours a week. For the first year, that almost never happened. Team members saw it on my calendar and knocked on my door anyway, or I looked at the stack of To Dos and took that time to cross things off my list, or I had scheduled it too late in the day to be any good mentally.
In order to find time to actually think about the business and the future I had to move the time to mid-morning (the time when I’m mentally sharpest) and then physically remove myself. I left my computer and phone in my office, and moved to an empty room (a different one every time) with just a notepad and pen. Only then could I get to a spot mentally, where I could think freely, organize, reprioritize, and generally make sure I’m focused on the right things.
The final thing I wish I had known is more uplifting than constructive. I wish I had understood how freeing it is to know that you can make a living outside of a large corporate environment. To be sure, owning the financial responsibility is a higher-intensity way to make a living, compared to being part of a large organization. But knowing that I can pay the mortgage, buy food, save for college for my daughter, etc. gives me a sense of control that has been very calming, even through the worst of 2020. This feeling is one of the big reasons why I wish I had started this journey sooner!
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
This is an interesting question that can go a lot of ways.
I believe you can learn from other people’s experiences when talking about a set of technical skills. I’ve seen that first hand at CIH: doctors share their clinical experiences with each other all the time to help advance treatments. The same is true across business skills: things like cash management practices, sales techniques, HR policies, marketing messaging, etc. My goal is to know enough that I can spot any big red flags before they become a larger problem. This raises the floor on failure so that mistakes don’t sink the business.
I completely agree with your idea when it comes to interpersonal skills. I don’t know of a way to learn those lessons without doing it yourself, making mistakes, and figuring out how to be better the next time. Skills like how to build a business’s culture, how to communicate with authenticity, how to coach for development, how to negotiate… These are all things that require practice and repetition. While the technical lessons may reduce the risk of bankruptcy, these interpersonal skills determine how much success the business can achieve.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Search out and demand Integrative MDs and Integrative and Functional Medicine in your life. For your aging loved ones, for your healthy family and friends. The discussion on health care in this country (and its costs) would get a lot easier if we more closely matched the type of care to the type of condition and if we all incorporated the basic ideas of this type of wellness into our lives.
One of our doctors here at CIH is fond of saying “proper breathing would be the top selling drug on the planet if it were made into a pill.” Something as simple as that could reduce our health care costs and help everyone live healthier, happier lives.
How can our readers find you after this piece is published?
Fortunately, you can find me in our clinic in Chicago most every day, which you can call at 773–675–1440. We’re also on the web at: www.caseintegrativehealth.com and on Instagram at: @caseintegrativehealth.