Fueled by a desire to reshape the nursing industry, PK Scheerle, R.N., started American Nursing Services in 1982. Under her watch, the company became one of the country’s most successful supplemental staffing agencies, and Scheerle sold the business in 2002. More recently, she was CEO and chairman of GIFTED Healthcare, a travel nurse agency that partnered with BBH Capital Partners as a private equity investor in 2021, and is now CEO of NursesEverywhere. We recently spoke with Scheerle about lessons learned on her path to entrepreneurship, how she is thinking about the next chapter of her career and her latest venture focused on helping to educate the public about their rights to access nursing care.
You started your career as a nurse. What sparked your passion and desire to pursue nursing?
I began as a candy striper, a young teen volunteering at a local hospital. I saw the best and the worst of nursing. Through personal tragedy of losing my mother at age 16, I again saw the best and worst of nursing care. I felt driven with a strong desire to provide the best care. Having identified early with this honor, I passionately pursued my studies, becoming president of my nursing class and developing a specialty in Critical Care nursing and Pediatric Intensive Care nursing.
During this influential time in my career, I was fortunate enough to meet important role models in nursing along the way. They showed me with their fine examples what nursing looks like, walks like, acts like and means to others. It was also very helpful as a ski racer that the nursing school hours worked very well for Vermont ski racing.
Eventually, you became an entrepreneur and started American Nursing Services. Tell us what inspired you to transition from the bedside to the boardroom.
A group of us used to go out for drinks after working the night shift, and during those sessions, we started hypothesizing what it would be like if nurses were the ones in charge. Eventually, we came up with some basic tenets – a business plan – for changing the world of nursing. That’s how American Nursing started.
I went and saw seven chief nurses at different hospitals, told them we were thinking of aggregating nurses and nursing services into a single staffing model and asked if they would use us when they had holes in their schedule. I had nothing to sell yet, so they all said yes. Three months later, we launched the business, and they were all clients. Our budget was about $400,000 for the forward 12 months. Within seven months, we had done $1.3 million in business.
What lessons did you take away from that first experience starting a company?
First, it’s easiest to sell something when you don’t have anything to sell!
The second big lesson was to think of an innovation that meets the needs of your customer in a way that is unique. We were the first company that thought of the nurse as our customer. All the other companies that came before us thought of the hospital as the customer. But thinking of nurses as our customers allowed us to imagine the work differently, and that is what made us unique. In those days, for example, nurses had to work eight-hour shifts, so you had to work five shifts to get 40 hours. That is difficult if you have a family. We had this brilliant thought that we would make 32 hours full-time benefit eligible. This innovation really made us a great place to work. Beyond being the only nurse staffing company that provided full benefits, we took care of our employees in several other ways. For example, if a nurse was on staff and her child was sick, we would pick up the child at school and let them hang out at the office. We also made handmade birthday cakes for every nurse’s birthday!
You sold the business in 2002. Tell us what you learned from that.
First, if you ever sell a business, have all the formulas worked out before you say yes.
And second, don’t get attached. Do the best you can while something is in your life, but know that nothing is forever. Treasure what you have when you have it, and be ready to let it go and take on a new thing when it doesn’t work for you anymore.
What led you to joining GIFTED Healthcare?
My leadership team from American Nursing started GIFTED in 2006. They built the company to $8.8 million in revenue in three and a half years. Then came the financial crisis, and they dropped to $4 million in revenue. I had been consulting for two years, but I missed running a company. I offered to recapitalize GIFTED. They accepted, and I joined as CEO and chairman.
GIFTED recently partnered with BBH Capital Partners (BBHCP). Tell us about the search for private equity.
In 2019, I hired an investment bank to take us through a sale process. However, no one wanted to pay on forward earnings, and I wasn’t going to sell on trailing earnings, so I took us off the market. The next year was bigger and better, and I received an unsolicited call from a private equity group that I had spent a lot of time with. This reignited my interest in pursuing a sale.
How did you choose BBHCP as your private equity partner?
They were the only ones I wanted to work with. I never felt I couldn’t trust them. As a nurse, I’m a trained observer of people, and it was apparent to me that BBH was going to do the right thing.
You left GIFTED after the transaction. What does the next phase of your career look like?
I have no idea! When I’m looking for the next thing, I cast a wide net of unmet needs to a wide range of people. I have three categories of people who I reach out to. The first category includes knowledgeable people in the space. The second includes those who don’t know about the space and are from other industries but who I can learn from. And the third is previous mentors and professors – bright people who do not fall into the first two categories. That’s how I research what’s next for me.
Do you have any suggestions on ways to solve the current nursing shortage crisis in the U.S.?
There is no shortage of nurses – there are more licensed nurses in America than ever before. There is a shortage of nurses willing to tolerate the system that exists today. The new nurse makes about $3 less an hour than the nurse who has 40 years of experience, so salary compression is a problem. There’s also a respect issue. Something needs to change, and we’re very focused on this at my latest venture, NursesEverywhere.
Tell us more about NursesEverywhere and its mission.
One in 10 families in the U.S. has a nurse in it. People in the U.S. expect and desire nursing care everywhere. Our mission is to achieve health equity and well-being for the public.
Imagine a world where every YMCA, synagogue, church and so forth had a nurse on site twice a week, and you could bring anyone to see them. Today, if someone gets diagnosed with cancer, they go on the internet or call their nurse family member. What if they could go see a lifelong cancer nurse who could hug them and say, “I’ve got you through your journey”? What if every time someone had chemotherapy, they had a psychiatric nurse there who was trained in grief and compassion?
If you go to the hospital for a procedure, you’re often sitting in the waiting room with 40 other people – some of them sick – until you’re called for surgery. The only waiting rooms in healthcare should be clinicians waiting for patients. Being sick is bad enough. You shouldn’t have to beg for care or understanding of that care.
A lot needs to change. The innovation and potential is great, and that is what NursesEverywhere is focused on.
I know we were talking about your next career step, but it seems like you have multiple full-time jobs already!
I’m anticipatory of my future contributions and using what I’ve learned in my experience and education to make a big difference and affect many lives.
When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about his transition to becoming a Catholic, he said that as human beings, we are most definitely anxious to get from where we are to where we want to be, and the icky middle part is unfathomable to most people. You become depressed, anxious, angry and miserable when going from where you are to where you want to be, but it is in that transition where you receive God’s grace. In the lowest moment, that is where you are open enough to learn.
Ultimately, you have to find space to become. One of my secret sauces is helping my staff do this. I always felt I was lucky and grateful that they chose American Nursing or GIFTED.
Last question: Do you think of yourself as a philanthropist?
I have always been a philanthropist with my time and network. I have raised four children and educated them. However, I have never written big checks. My philanthropy has often focused on families who I knew or were made known to me. Families where, for example, the child was short $7,000 of tuition for the year and was going to drop out of school, and I would say, “No, you need to finish college and carry your entire family out of poverty.”
It’s about being the first to do something and then giving people the tools for it to go on forever. For example, the year I chaired the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four in New Orleans, we threw a huge party for the players and coaches – something that had never been done. Then, the seats were empty at the first game. I bought every unsold ticket, went to every high school and filled every seat for the second game. They weren’t going to play in an empty auditorium on my watch.
Am I a philanthropist? I couldn’t be called that financially, but I have been doing well by doing good with my network and strength of conviction for causes worth my time.
PK, thank you so much for your time and insights.