- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

When Fran Lessans married at 16, she was told it wouldn’t work.

She and her husband, Martin, have been together for 42 years.

Marrying young wasn’t the only time Mrs. Lessans proved skeptics wrong: When she first courted potential investors about franchising her three-year-old Baltimore travel medicine company, she wasn’t taken seriously.

“I couldn’t get anyone to listen,” she recalled.

Now, nearly 10 years later, Passport Health has 115 locations across the country — with more than a dozen in the Washington area — and is the largest private purchaser of vaccines in the U.S.

“This business has far exceeded my original goals,” said Mrs. Lessans, who last month was named “Entrepreneur of the Year” for the Maryland health care category by Ernst & Young. The award recognizes entrepreneurs for exceptional innovation, financial performance and commitment to their businesses and communities.

A law student who fell ill during a trip to Ghana gave Mrs. Lessans, a registered nurse and then a health administrator at the University of Baltimore, the idea for a one-stop travel medicine and immunization business.

“Students were going to more exotic locations,” she said of the early 1990s. As formerly closed and undeveloped countries became accessible to travelers, Mrs. Lessans saw a need for comprehensive pretrip health planning. School and family doctors could give the necessary shots, but lacking the resources and specialized knowledge of a particular region, they were unable to provide travelers with other critical health advice, she said.

“I recognized a need and I developed a program and then I went out and sold the program,” said Mrs. Lessans, who started the company in 1994 with $25,000 of her own money and $50,000 from an investor. Three years later, she sold her first franchise.

For $45, Passport Health customers receive an hourlong consultation with a nurse who briefs them on sanitation conditions and health risks of their destination. Travelers are given the necessary immunizations, priced per shot, as well as a personalized information packet with up-to-date health alerts for the region. In addition, they can buy “survival packs,” with tailored supplies such as a water purification system, insect repellent and clothing spray and first-aid equipment with clean syringes (for countries that have unsanitary hospitals).

“There’s more to travel medicine than just shots — that won’t keep you healthy,” said Mrs. Lessans, citing an example of an engineer who traveled to Calcutta on business. Although he visited the doctor before he left, he came down with malaria and spent nine months in the hospital.

Had the engineer visited Passport Health, Mrs. Lessans said, nurses would have advised him that mosquitos’ peak feeding times in that region are one hour before dusk and one hour before dawn. They would have explained how to use insect repellent, which must be applied to clothing as well as skin to be effective, she said.

“You have to be in touch with this business to know that,” she said, noting that most doctors don’t have the resources to follow travel medicine. “This is a body of knowledge that is changing daily; this is a niche business and it needs to be handled elsewhere.”

Cindy Moran and her husband, Scott McDonald, visited the company’s Baltimore office before making a trip to South America in March. The couple needed several shots, including tetanus, diphtheria, typhoid and hepatitis A and B. Passport Health was the only provider that had them all on hand, Ms. Moran said.

“Both of us have traveled before, but for somebody who was not used to traveling abroad, I think it would be immensely helpful,” she said of the consultation. “We traveled along the Amazon for a week in an area where they recommended yellow fever shots.”

The couple plans to return for a flu shot before a trip to Greece in September, she added.

Doctors don’t resent Passport Health, said Mrs. Lessans — they refer patients there for immunizations.

“It’s just not profitable” for doctors to stock vaccines, she explained, since they are often reimbursed at lower rates than what they paid for a vaccine. But because Passport Health buys vaccines in bulk to distribute to its franchise locations, the company is able to turn a profit.

“We’re changing the way America seeks immunizations,” she said of the company’s impressive supply of vaccines, which is second only to the U.S. government. “It’s just a whole paradigm shift.”

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Passport nurses were called in to treat U.S. Postal Service workers during the anthrax scare. The company has since found a frequent and lucrative patron in the federal government.

“They contacted me because there was no one out there that could do this,” Mrs. Lessans said.

As a result of that endeavor, Passport also became involved in clinical trials for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because the anthrax vaccine had not been approved for post-exposure treatment.

“I thought for sure the business would be over [after September 11], but it opened up this whole new area,” Mrs. Lessans said of contracting and clinical trials.

Since then, Passport has played a role in recovery efforts for every major disaster, including the Asian tsunami in December 2004 and Hurricane Katrina. It now runs a 24-hour immunization call center for the Department of Defense.

As services have multiplied, so have revenues: In 2005, the privately held company netted nearly $19 million in gross revenue, which has been growing at a rate of 50 percent year-to-year for the past four years, said Martin Lessans, the company’s chief financial officer. This year, he said, the company expects to reach $25 million, although Mrs. Lessans wouldn’t disclose profits.

“We say it’s our third child,” said Mr. Lessans, who supports his wife’s long hours by often preparing dinner at their Severna Park home.

“I don’t think there’s really a course out there for entrepreneurs,” said Mrs. Lessans, referring to the first five years when she “made zero money.”

But looking back, she said, “it’s definitely been so much fun.”

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