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Epic Systems: Looking to the future
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"If you're in business and you're not paranoid about the competition, you got a problem," says Stephen Dickmann, chief administration officer for Epic Systems.

Funny, though, Dickmann doesn't sound paranoid as he dispassionately surveys the competition in the electronic medical records business and confidently talks about Epic's future.

Epic's rivals include information technology units from two of the largest conglomerates in the world: General Electric (its IDX unit) and Siemens (its SMS unit). But he pinpoints two independents, Cerner, in Kansas City, Mo., and Eclypsis, in Atlanta, as Epic's main rivals.

All four are directly or indirectly publicly traded, while Epic alone is privately owned. Advantage Epic, says Dickmann: "Doing electronic medical records in clinical systems is very, very challenging. It takes time. A lot of public companies don't have the patience for it."

Too worried about their stock price, "they tend to make short-term decisions." Dickmann adds that the track record isn't good for big guys like GE and Siemens buying their way into an industry like EMRs. The acquire-and-compete strategy often doesn't work.

And Epic intends to remain privately held. "We're not interested in acquisitions," says Dickmann. "We aren't interested in being acquired."

But that raises a sensitive question: What happens when founder and guiding light Judy Faulkner leaves the auditorium?

Dickmann, unperturbed, says succession planning has long been part of the Epic management's agenda.

"A key part of our job is identifying the next generation of leaders, getting them trained, growing them," he says. "Everyone on the management team takes that to heart, including Judy."

Dickmann sees no sign of Faulkner, who will turn 65 in August, slowing down. "The business is a passion for Judy. It's her dream. It's her vision," he says. "I believe she will be very active in the business as long as she's physically and mentally capable of it."

One sign of Epic's success at strengthening its senior management is Dickmann himself. A rare older outsider in the youthful Epic universe, Dickmann joined the software company in 1999 at the age of 52 after a career in finance (Affiliated Banking) and manufacturing (Nelson Industries in Stoughton). A lawyer by training, Dickmann helped create Wisconsin's ATM system.

He talks confidently about Epic's future even while acknowledging that IT giants Microsoft, Yahoo and Google are all toying with plans to offer online medical record-keeping. He says these companies are interested in pairing medical records with pop-up ads for medical products.

"Their motivation seems to be to sell ads," he says. "We're in it to provide the best quality medical care."

What most worries Dickmann is what he calls "the next Epic," by which he means "the next bunch of bright people who come up with a disruptive technology that creates a paradigm shift on how you do things."

With this in mind, says Dickmann, "We watch everything that is going on. We focus on being a leader and not a follower. I'm a firm believer that if somebody is going to obsolete your product, it best well be you."

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