Growing up in Patna – the capital and largest city in the state of Bihar in India – Amit Bhanti says it was the family expectation to get the most out of your education, then move away to pursue college and career in a larger city.
Bhanti’s father – a prosthetist and orthotist – and his mother – a filmmaker of educational documentaries, social worker and children’s theater director – were good role models for their three sons. So what’s an orthotist and faithful son to do?
Orthotists and prosthetists design and fabricate medical supportive devices and measure and fit patients for them. These devices include artificial limbs, braces and other medical or surgical devices.
“My father was very good at what he did. He had a big practice and had an impact on people and our community,” Bhanti said. “It inspired me and made me want to follow in his path and to work with people who are physically challenged.”
Bhanti graduated in 1998 from All India Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Mumbai, India, with a bachelor’s degree in prosthetics and orthotics. He then moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern University for graduate work.
“I loved Chicago and living in a big city,” he said.
THE START OF SOMETHING BIG
At Northwestern, Bhanti met his future wife, Charu, who also was pursuing prosthetics and orthotics graduate work. His journey brought him to Peoria in 1998 for a residency with Plattner Orthopedics. He thought he’d complete his residency and then move to Chicago or New York. Charu, who was by then Bhanti’s fiancée, had other thoughts.
“She visited me in Peoria over Thanksgiving and said after seeing the city that this was where we were going to live,” Bhanti said, chuckling. “She said, ‘This is the perfect place for us. It’s the perfect size.’ Charu is the force behind everything in our family.”
The couple graduated from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine Prosthetic and Orthotic Center in 2000 and married. Bhanti worked for the former Plattner for two years before joining Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, where he served as clinical director for three years. (Hanger acquired Plattner in 2012.)
While there, Bhanti worked closely and developed a friendship with Don Goertzen. In 2005, the two decided to start Comprehensive Prosthetics & Orthotics (CPO) in Downtown Peoria. Bhanti had a two-year local non-compete agreement, which left Goertzen and Charu Bhanti to launch the Peoria operation, while Amit concentrated on establishing a clinic in Peru, Illinois. Charu served as the company’s first president, then stepped back when her husband returned to Peoria as CEO and clinical director.
Building the ‘mothership’
Bhanti had aspirations. He wanted to grow into a large practice that would permit more favorable purchasing contracts, higher insurance reimbursement for patient services, and the opportunity to help patients from underserved areas.
“I didn’t want to be one of those practices that die because they’re not large enough,” he said.
CPO soon added clinics in Bloomington and Springfield. Fast-forward 17 years and the number of clinics has climbed to 30 in four states – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri. Some of those have been acquisitions of smaller clinics that were losing ground to larger, more established providers.
“It’s not just about buying a practice, it’s about how well you integrate them into your established processes, saving jobs, and doing it all without draining the ‘mothership,’” Bhanti said. “You have to look at how you walk into a clinic you are acquiring and turn it around. We feel we’ve done it very well. We still have failure. But failure is OK. It’s how you learn.”
COMMITTED TO PEORIA
Early on, Bhanti, a 40 Under Forty alum, saw the growth that was happening – and could happen — in Peoria. They soon moved CPO from its tight space at the former St. Mark’s Square into a renovated former car dealership on Main Street.
“I was a big cheerleader of Peoria,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s invest in our city.’”
That’s when Chris Setti, chief executive officer of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, first met Bhanti.
“They applied for low interest ‘gap’ loans from both the city and Peoria County that helped facilitate CPO’s growth,” Setti said. “These loans are meant to complement primary bank lending, but are great tools for startups and other small businesses that are looking to expand. They take a second position behind primary financing, which helps a bank make a loan. Both the city and county still have loan programs to help fill this need.”
Bhanti said that funding helped put CPO over the top.
GROWING, EVOLVING, SUCCEEDING
They’ve grown from their initial three employees to about 130 today. And that’s just the main business of clinicians seeing patients and fitting them with the prosthetics or orthotics that allow them to live a more fulfilling life. CPO paused acquisitions in 2017 and began optimizing and upgrading to make the company more efficient and streamlined.
This has included centralizing fabrication of prosthetics at facilities in Peoria and Chicago, and bringing in house the creation of orthotics to serve diabetic patients in need of prescription orthotics due to neuropathy and other foot-related issues associated with the chronic disease.
“We’ve not just grown our clinical operations,” said Bhanti. “Health care billing and collecting aren’t easy for smaller operations. We can provide the expertise and technology they need.
“I’m really focused on digital transformation in our industry and how we can use technology for optimization that results in a better patient experience and makes life for clinicians easier.”
Setti said CPO is a great example for locals wanting to build a company from the ground up.
“Amit could have moved his company to any city he wanted, but he chose to stay here and grow one from where he planted himself,” he said. “CPO is a great employer and is growing their footprint in greater Peoria.”
Bhanti admits that sometimes, it has taken some persistent persuading to get others to subscribe to his growth vision.
“Don (Goertzen) is the guy who’d keep me grounded,” he said. “I was the young guy who wanted to take over the world. But I saw the potential for growth. I just knew if we’d do it together, we’d both do well.”
Goertzen still sees patients but will be retiring this year. Bhanti bought his friend’s share of the business.
“I don’t think I could’ve done it without him,” said Bhanti. “I’m going to miss him a lot.”
Their story is worth sharing, said Setti.
“Amit is an immigrant from India who chose Peoria to be his home. Here he started a company and has grown it to over 30 locations across the Midwest. I’m sure that people are surprised when he says his headquarters are in Peoria and not Chicago or Indianapolis,” he said. “But Peoria is where great ideas and great businesses can take root and flourish.”