‘Someone was with me’
When you’re nominated for a prestigious business award, you usually have a reasonably compelling story to tell.
But when your business has survived, prospered and expanded, while sometimes being operated from a hospital bed because of its owner’s debilitating condition — necessitating two shunts in his head — taking him in and out of emergency rooms and hospital intensive-care units for the past 12 years, compelling is barely the operative word.
ServiceMaster-CCS, based in Punta Gorda, is one of two local businesses among five finalists in the 18th annual Southwest Florida Blue Chip Community Business Award competition. The award, sponsored by BB&T-Oswald Trippe and Co. and BB&T Bank, recognizes successful small businesses that have overcome adversity to “teach and inspire others.”
Rob Lopez, 38, of Port Charlotte, owner and operator of the ServiceMaster, is living testimony to the miracles of modern medical science — and to his own determination to succeed.
Stricken first with bacterial meningitis while serving as a paralegal in the U.S. Air Force, he then developed hydrocephalus (water on the brain), which finally was diagnosed in a critical late stage by former Air Force surgeon Douglas Hershkowitz at Shore Memorial Hospital in New Jersey. Hershkowitz was the man who inserted a shunt in his head to save Lopez’s life.
At least four more surgeries followed before Lopez separated from the Air Force and came south to Charlotte County with his wife Annette to be near his parents, who had retired here.
Then fate — or as Lopez puts it, “someone was with me” — took over. Broke and looking for and not finding a job as the economy tanked, he remembered he had interned with ServiceMaster while earning a degree in law and justice and business administration from Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.
Determined, he convinced an initially skeptical ServiceMaster to award its franchise in North Port and Charlotte County to a neophyte working out of his garage.
But within a few months, his shunt began to fail. “If my shunt fails,” he said matter-of-factly, “I die.”
While he desperately looked for a surgeon, that “someone” appeared again.
“We were driving down (U.S.) 41 in Port Charlotte and, by the grace of God, we saw a sign for Dr. Douglas Hershkowitz,” Lopez said.
The same surgeon who diagnosed his condition and implanted a shunt five years before some 1,200 miles away removed the original shunt and implanted two more, again restoring life to the young entrepreneur.
“He’s not only my surgeon,” Lopez said, “he’s my friend.”
So Lopez — who still has severe headaches, feels an ever-present pressure in his head, can’t even bend down to tie his shoes, and spent a harrowing week in intensive care in August, running his company with a phone and a laptop — smiles and says again, “Someone was with me.”
Not only has the business survived and prospered, now with 21 employees, it recently was asked by ServiceMaster to take over the company’s service district in Lee County. He bought it on the spot, headaches and all.
He still keeps souvenirs at home of his early travails, plodding miles of door-to-door marketing — three pairs of shoes with holes in the soles.
But reflecting, he said with emotion that the success would not have been possible without his wife, who “keeps the business afloat when I can’t do my part; who lives with it every step, every day; who I couldn’t do what I do without her.”
Annette, smiling, said simply, “I’m plan B.”