Joan Kopacz

 

Building a practice with character,
integrity and tenacity
By Ruth Brennan Morrey

Photography © 2019 olivejuicestudios.com.
All rights reserved.

In the fall of 2007, over Moose Drool beers at Whistle Binkies, a dream was born from Joan Kopacz’s napkin drawing of a wagon wheel. Providing hope and healing, the wheel’s central hub represented Rochester, and its five spokes were rural satellite locations destined for specialized care in physical therapy. That pivotal night, the passion-filled conversation between Kopacz and Brian McQuilkin fleshed out a shared vision of critical core values and the realization that a robust team philosophy to patient care was paramount. 

McQuilkin reminisces, “Joan drew an organizational chart and asked where I envision myself. I chose a low role and she said, ‘Oh no, you are right here (at the top), running it with me.’” 

Fresh out of his doctorate, but an intentional choice for partnership, McQuilkin became Kopacz’s equal. Thirteen years, 10 locations, a full complement of staff and 21 team therapists later, operations have well surpassed their initial dream. Together, they have built a culture of excellence that is rare to even elite sports teams. This is not your average clinic, nor your average staff; this is a high-octane, compassionate and diversified family-style unit thriving on collaboration and learning.

ON EARLY DAYS

Kopacz was born in Kokomo, Indiana, and at age 5, her family relocated to Apple Valley, Minnesota.  With humble means, the Kopacz family moved into “the ugly house on the block with 1970s flocked wallpaper and shag carpet.” Home improvement projects and fishing the St. Croix River dominated family free time. With no boy siblings to “genderize” the home projects, Kopacz and her older sister, Kelley, became integral assistants in transforming the home, room by room, year after year. Fixing, puzzle-solving and creative thinking were skills Kopacz learned young and practiced daily.

Kopacz’s fiancé, Chuck Ramsay, fondly recollects her rental of a commercial-grade jackhammer to break up concrete in their basement during a recent home project. Ramsay carried the heavy, cumbersome tool downstairs and asked Kopacz if a directions manual existed. She shook her head and softly replied, “Do you want me to do it?” No job is too daunting. Through the house projects during her childhood, she acquired adept hands, fearlessness, a deep respect for process orientation and more than anything, a love for teamwork. “Even more than my competitive fastpitch days, refinishing our family home, room by room, was the ultimate team sport that directly impacts my PT team family today.” 

For Ramsey and their four teenagers (Isaac, Evie, Maddie, Nick), Kopacz models an aptitude for tiling, electrical work, framing, painting, and demolition, but also how to be skillful and fully present while fishing—her true love. Walleye fishing, boating and water living on Lake Pepin are the meditative practices that fill Kopacz’s soul and refresh her mind. “When fishing, I only think about fishing. That’s it.” She is also committed to lifelong learning, saying, “Whether it’s fishing or difficult shoulder rehabilitation—I love learning. I’m present. I’m a learning junkie.” 

As a child, Kopacz’s parents described her as free-spirited, happy, social and creative, and when she wanted to truly accomplish something, the term was “tenacious.” Asked where her tenacity comes from, Kopacz easily declares, “My dad.” She chokes up mid-interview to describe the straight-shooting business sense that her father (and business mentor) provides and admits that empathy and understanding are traits gifted by her mother. Coupled with inherited spirituality and family-first values, Kopacz’s industrious yet compassionate leadership identity is a family blend.

ON LEADERSHIP

In 2008, Kopacz opened an American Express card with a $10,000 credit limit and Active PT was born. Penny pinching early on, Kopacz operated in a lone 14 x 14 business suite and traveled to second jobs in the Twin Cities to help pay the bills, all while making baby food and managing cloth diapers for her two small children. Her first humble paycheck to herself arrived three years later. Business income was reinvested in the recruitment of the “right” people who would sustain the vision. 

Together, Kopacz and McQuilkin lead first by knowing their teammates’ hearts, minds and spirits. The “cultural fit” hiring interview is keen and calculated, asking particular questions for which interviewees cannot give canned answers. These targeted questions reveal true character alignment with the practice’s six core values—passionate, open/honest, servant’s heart, growth mindset, team player, value Active PT. They know each team member’s personality profile and can name their “Love Language” which helps them better understand how to best show appreciation and respect for each person, while maximizing the team dynamic. Kopacz’s Myers-Briggs profile is ENFP, known as “The Champion/The Inspirer.” She is a warm, enthusiastic and imaginative leader with an ebullient laugh that lifts up an entire room. 

“Joan is a poised, but fearless leader,” describes team therapist Courtney Hilmanowski. “She believes in the team, and she pushes each of us to pursue our own PT passions. She believes anything is possible. Joan facilitates learning and makes sure we have everything we need to succeed and deliver high quality care to our patients.” Hilmanowski believes Joan is the “steadfast foundation” that the team leans on. “In good times, and more turbulent times, Joan does not lose sight of our values and keeps our team together as family.”

Emily Rogers, finance director, states, “Joan is incredibly self-aware. She knows her own strengths and limitations and, with Brian, has formed a complementary team to maximize patient care and success. Joan enjoys helping people chase their dreams—even the dreams they didn’t know they had. I wouldn’t be in a finance role without Joan.”

Instilling confidence and eliminating micromanagement, Kopacz’s “big thinker” management style develops teammates into business leaders for satellite locations who then recruit their own value-centric team. Kopacz explains, “Daily effort and a strong execution of our intentions maintains the integrity of the practice as we grow.” Values aligned, they do it together. 

ON TEAM CULTURE

Kopacz, McQuilkin, and colleagues all agree that team culture is everything. They genuinely enjoy each other as people. “My advice to anyone who wants to live a more fulfilling life—surround yourself with people who are stronger, smarter and better than you. Just watch how your life will change.” These were Kopacz’s words after finishing the grueling, 4-day “Disney Dopey Challenge,” but it also closely reflects her beliefs about her coveted work team. 

Team picnics, team half marathons, happy hours, family invitations to her lake home and Love Language insights create energy and camaraderie within the practice. Team therapist Jill Tacl states that she will never forget when Kopacz reached out with a touching personal note at a time when Tacl was adjusting to a new workload. “That meant the world to me.”

ON PATIENTS

Kopacz believes in family, colleagues and patients in all they do. Through stories, she provides inspiration. Through education, she provides hope and patience. Through understanding and compassion, she walks alongside her patients, speaking their language as they traverse the phases of injury together. 

From devastation, to fear, to buy-in, to an ultimate return goal—whether a 5K, Ironman or daily mobility—she immerses herself in the challenging healing puzzles and finds her comfort there. She travels to races, waits by finish lines and becomes inspired by the same people she inspires to stay the path, stay process-focused and believe that anything is possible. 

A note from the author:

McQuilkin and Kopacz greet the author at the finish line of a marathon pre-COVID.

I have known Kopacz for seven years as a patient and former Active PT-sponsored athlete. Her remarkable story needed to be told. Kopacz’s faith in me was unshakable and made me better. She is a visionary. I am 100% certain that her story of character, integrity and ambition would make the Notorious RBG proud. Upon hearing Kopacz’s story, little girls everywhere will not be daunted by jackhammers and fishing lures and will make their dreams and the dreams of those around them come true.