Local pros talk business!

Today, there are more than 11.6 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., and Houston proudly  claims more than its fair share of that number. Many of our city’s self-employed professionals have enjoyed long-term success. But, with gusto, they are also dealing with the constant changes and future challenges of their industries. Recently, I interviewed three Houston women and asked them about their businesses and the ongoing changes in their industries. 
 
Lee Ammer
Lee Ammer, a graduate of  the University of Missouri, moved to Houston 17 years ago, without a job and not knowing anyone. A week later, she moved into her home and had a full-time job in benefits management. Since 2015, Ammer has been a proud independent business owner and the president and CEO of OG Benefits, a  Houston-based company that specializes in employee benefits. It serves clients throughout Texas and select cities across the nation. 
 
When asked about OG  Benefits, Ammer said, “We provide customized employee benefit programs to fit the employers’ budgets and the employees’ diverse and changing needs. Our mission is to deliver products that are affordable and useable.”
 
Asked about her clients, Ammer said, “As a woman-owned business, OG Benefits seeks out growing businesses that are women-owned or family-owned, in a variety of professions and industries.  OG Benefits focuses on adding value to employee benefits.” 
 
Corporate America’s benefit offerings are often much different than what is available to smaller companies. Ammer works to bring large-company concepts to independent companies, using her 20 years of experience in benefits management for companies with 250 to 5000 employees. 
 
“OG Benefits delivers solutions that are cost effective and useable for both employers and employees, “ Ammer said. 
 
Continuing, Ammer added, “The Affordable Care Act has changed healthcare. Employers today are much more attuned to the cost of healthcare, often the second or third largest line item in their budgets. Plus, the political environment is dismantling some parts of the original ACA, resulting in chaotic changes happening every day. Independent employers are receiving conflicting information and getting new deadlines every week. They also know they must change their benefits to be able to compete in the tight labor market. OG Benefits’ strategies help employers attract qualified new employees and retain their valued experienced talent.”
 
Asked about other changes in her industry, Ammer said, “There is a definite shift to more high-tech solutions with less human contact. This shift creates poor employee morale and dissatisfaction with employee benefits. Employers and employees deserve better.
 
“The future is customized benefits that meet the needs of the millennials, to the working families, to pre-retirees.   
 
“The biggest challenge, I think, is the demographic change in America.  We must cater to the age disparity, as well as diverse populations.”  
 
She added, “OG Benefits recognizes these changes and will formulate a solution to fit the workforce of the future. This likely will involve the introduction of new benefits, such as student loan repayment programs, no-cost telemedicine and innovative health plan designs. We also work to change employee behavior when using health insurance benefits. This can save employers thousands of dollars. 
 
“With demographic changes, there is amazing demand for financial wellness, retirement planning and Medicare and Social Security information.  We offer informational seminars, publications, timely information with posts and individual consultation.”
 
Barbara Manousso, Ph.D., M.P.H. 
Born and raised in Providence, R.I., Barbara Manousso came to Houston in July 1978. Later on, when she attended South Texas College of Law in the 1990s, she learned about the emerging practice of alternative dispute resolution. She never completed law school, because “peaceful solutions to conflict seemed more humane and practical than litigation and expensive legal services.” 
 
She also realized that no one needs to be an attorney to mediate or arbitrate. 
 
Since 1993, her company, Manousso Mediation and Arbitration, LLC, has been a world renowned trainer of mediators and arbitrators. The students have come from around the world — from China, India, Lebanon, Italy, Canada, England, Mexico, Ireland, Switzerland, Nigeria, Kenya, Algeria, Japan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Brunei, Dubai and South Korea, and most places in the U.S.
 
Manousso is also Adjunct Faculty at the University of St. Thomas and teaches Global Conflict Management to graduate and undergraduates.
 
In addition, Manousso practices mediation and arbitration. She does civil business, workplace, corporate and court appointed cases, as well as family matters, such as divorce and elder and adult care mediation. She is also a recognized author in the field of mediation. 
 
In 2019, Manousso received the Texas Association of Mediators statewide mediator recognition, the Adams Award, for her contributions to the ADR profession. The Houston Business Journal recognized her as a 2019 Woman Who Means Business in professional services and as a mentor. The Association for Conflict Resolution Houston Chapter gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.

Manousso earned an undergraduate degree from Brown University, a master of public health degree from The University of Texas School of Public Health, and a Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution from Nova Southeastern University.
 
When asked how the business of mediation has changed over the years, Manousso said.
 
“When I first began as a mediator, there were few women in the business. Now, half of our classes are made up of women and, often, women (and men) of many different cultural backgrounds and age groups. Mediation and arbitration are no longer the retirement opportunity for old, white, male judges. It is very much an equal opportunity for all genders and age groups and backgrounds.
 
“We have medical doctors, human resource professionals, teachers, clergy, CEO, CFA, CPA, LPC, SW, Ph.D., nurses, managers, realtors, college and high school kids, police officers, judges, carpenters, housewives and everybody in between taking our classes. They use the training as a practitioner or as a complement to their resume for an engaging career.”

Manousso added, that mediation training has been a stepping stone for many jobs — for investigators, FBI, foreign service diplomats, airline hosts, graduate studies, teachers and medical professionals.
 
“As far as my practice as a mediator or arbitrator, the opportunities through local, state and federal contracts has multiplied many times.The consumer realizes he can mediate without hiring an attorney, in some cases, but use attorneys as their legal support and information. Cost effectively, the attorney doesn’t need to go to the mediation with the parties, so money is saved. The final agreement and solution is the mediated settlement agreement (MSA), which is a legally binding agreement designed by the parties with the mediator’s assistance. The parties have a win-win situation with satisfaction, if the mediator is skilled.”
 
So, what is the future of mediation? 
 
Manousso said, “Mediation is the cost effective and sensible way to handle a dispute. There is not a credit card, online transaction, doctor’s visit, hospital stay, financial transaction, employment agreement, consumer product or any business transaction that happens that doesn’t have an alternative dispute resolution written clause on how conflicts with them will be handled – worldwide.
 
“Arbitration is very important to the business community as well, especially when the courts are overloaded. The arbitrator can make a decision, like a judge, to resolve the conflict within days or hours. It is very important to our port and international disputes, as well as local and distant family and civil cases.”
 
M. Sandra Scurria, M.D.
M. Sandra Scurria, M.D. is a Board-Certified Family Practice Physician. She has been in practice for over 35 years.  
 
She was born and raised in Mississippi. She attended the University of Dallas and, following graduation in 1969, she moved to Houston. She went to Medical Technology school at MD Anderson Hospital and  and worked there for five years. 
 
Afterwards, Scurria attended  the University of Mississippi where she got her Doctor of Medicine. She moved back to Houston in 1979 and spent three years in the Baylor Family Practice program.  
Currently she is affiliated with MDVIP, a national network of primary care doctors who focus on prevention and wellness. 
 
Scurria explained, “MDVIP doctors have fewer patients and can take more time with each one. We empower our patients to live a healthier life and provide one-on-one doctor counseling, same or next day appointments that start on time and last as long as necessary, 24/7 telephone access to us and an annual wellness exam."
 
The wellness exam includes a thorough hands-on physical exam, plus a large battery of blood laboratory tests, an EKG, a pulmonary function test, hearing and vision tests, a body fat analysis and a series of questionnaires to establish lifestyle choices that can be encouraged or improved upon. The patient is then given a wellness plan that outlines steps she (or he) needs to take to maintain and improve her health.  
 
“I have always been interested in helping people feel better,” said Scurria. “After medical school, I chose a Family Medicine residency, so I could look after all ages and treat the whole patient. After residency, I worked for two managed-care companies and learned about the “insurance side” of medicine. I also learned I was best at direct, primary care and opened a private practice in 1992.”
 
After 20 years of running a very busy and very large practice, Scurria  looked for a way to be able to spend more time with every patient and still make a good living. 
 
“The MDVIP model was perfect for me,” she said. “ The smaller patient number allows me to take more time with my patients and really get to know them.  Additionally, I have more personal time for myself."
 
Scurria added, “I have worked in several facets of medicine over the years. In the early days, there was fewer regulations and less paperwork, which we all miss but progress always takes over.  Now, technology is very much a part of medicine with its pros and cons. I like my electronic medical record system until the internet goes down, and we have no past records. The patients are more of a challenge these days also; they often consult Dr Google, and we have to work harder to stay one step ahead of the latest medical news.”  
 
Scurria said, “I would love to see a world where everyone could have access to good healthcare, but it has to be affordable for everyone, and the doctors still have to make a living. Finding a model or system that makes all that possible is more challenging than the politicians would lead us to believe.”
 
Concluding, Scurria commented, “I love my profession, and I get great satisfaction in partnering with my patients to help them feel better and lead healthier lives. I enjoy being involved with the care I give them and the specialists they see. And, I try to select good quality specialists who will ‘keep me in the loop’ with my patients’ care. All in all, life is good, and I try to share that sentiment with each of my patients.”
 
Beverly Denver is the founder, editor and publisher of Houston Woman Magazine.