An Epic impact on Madison

Olver-MadMagBy Doug Moe, Madison Magazine

This is a story about the local impact of the company that is the world leader in the health care software market. But for once with Epic Systems, let’s not begin with electronic medical records.

Once upon a time—say, roughly prior to the past decade—Madison was what is sometimes called a “boomerang” city. Young people came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to be educated, but then left to start careers and build their business chops. Once they reached their mid-thirties, some might return to Madison—boomerang—seeing it as a nice place to raise a family.

The business model of Epic Systems, started in Madison by entrepreneur Judy Faulkner in 1979, has rendered the boomerang label obsolete. Epic’s aggressive, constant recruitment of recent college graduates has brought an influx of Millennials (roughly speaking, those born after 1980) to greater Madison, and their influence is nearly impossible to overestimate.

Epic declined to comment for this story, but its impact has been well documented.

A Boston Globe story this past July—one testament to Epic’s importance is the stream of out-of-town journalists arriving to write about the company—put the number of Epic employees at 8,500 (with $1.7 billion in annual revenue), many of them working at the company’s headquarters in Verona, a compound the Globe called “whimsical” because of its various Disney touches.

A source close to the company told Spectrum in August that the actual number is now closer to 9,400. The exact number at any given moment hardly matters. An Isthmus cover story in 2014 quoted a Madison city official suggesting Epic could have 10,000 employees by 2018—many of them in the once-scarce twenty-three to thirty-five age group of young professionals. That number might turn out to be low. Ever since 2009, when President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package included subsidies for digitizing medical records, Epic’s hiring has been accelerating.

Perhaps because the Epic business model demands a great deal of its employees—long hours, frequent travel, large responsibility—some of those employees leave the company within a few years, while often remaining in the Madison area.

Which brings us to the acorns.

“It’s an acorn story,” says Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon. He sees the Epic alumni taking their energy and ideas to other companies in the tech arena, and in some cases, launching startups of their own.

“Digital acorns are falling from this tree and they’re taking root,” Brandon says. “It’s not to say Epic did it all alone—it’s fertile soil. But their people are able to stay here, working for other companies and starting their own.”

The Millennials are an age demographic that many Midwestern states have struggled to retain.

“Wisconsin in general is hemorrhaging its young people, say, eighteen to forty,” says Aaron Olver, managing director of University Research Park, whose prior position was director of economic development for the city of Madison.

“Except in Dane County,” Olver continues, “where we have gained something like 10,000 people in that demographic. We’re bucking that trend. It’s not just Epic, but Epic is the prime mover.”

Forrest Woolworth, twenty-nine, is chief operating officer of Per Blue, a Madison-based mobile and social software gaming company, and co-founder of Capital Entrepreneurs.

Woolworth thinks Epic serves Madison almost in a sales role.

“Epic brings people to Madison,” he says. “They fall in love with Madison, and even if they don’t stay at Epic, they want to find another opportunity here.”

Olver adds that even if they eventually leave the city, their recruitment by Epic and time in Madison pay broad dividends locally.
“Epic markets Madison to prospective employees,” Olver says. “Even the ones who don’t stay, they have had an experience here for two, three or four years, and they go back hopefully as ambassadors to tell the rest of the country the kind of place Madison is.” Read more …

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