When DJ Hill was in his 40s, his beloved aunt passed away. He had always been close with his mother’s sister; he recalls spending almost every Thanksgiving with her over the years, even into adulthood. She wasn’t elderly; in fact, she was 12 years younger than his mother. And her death was not sudden, but was a drawn-out fight ending in a hospital admission.
DJ arrived at the hospital where his aunt was spending her final days just as his sister left her two-day shift at their aunt’s side. “I asked her what to expect,” he remembers. “My sister shared with me, ‘I don’t know what to tell you, other than you’ll be different in two days.’”
At the time, DJ was in the midst of launching his own business. It was 2011 and going offline even for an hour was already something he saw as difficult. He hadn’t planned to completely disconnect from work; it was something he hadn’t done in years. But for the next 48 hours, at his aunt’s bedside, he didn’t use his phone or computer nor check his email or voicemail. He was focused on one thing: soaking up every moment he could with a woman he loved very much. And his sister was right; he did come out changed on the other side.
“I love that we’re making the world a better place. We materially improve the lives of our patients, help them to be able to walk again, to be able to pick up their kids again, to be able to get groceries or play tennis; whatever their thing is, to be able to get them back to that.”
“I found out that when somebody’s at their most vulnerable, when they’re staring down the end of their life, there’s a weird, sweet privilege that comes with that kind of trust, honesty, lack of distraction, of truly sharing that sacred time with them,” DJ reflects. “I listened to her talk about her joys, about some of her regrets, about facing her fear. I realized, ’Wow, we’re all going to face this.’ It changed the way I thought about the world and gave me that ability to start at the end and look backwards.”
Despite his success in the business world, DJ has always used this life lesson to ground himself in what is truly important and to maintain a balance between his working life and personal loves. “I deeply enjoy what I do,” DJ nods. “But if this all went away tomorrow, if it evaporated, yes, I would be hurt, because I put my heart and soul into this. But it is one thing of many. I deeply love my family. I just got back from a big trip to Paris with one of my daughters. I have friends I’ve known for 30 and 40 years. I have real responsibilities and I care about the work I do, but it isn’t who I am.”
It’s this sensible balance of commitment and joy that makes DJ such a unique and successful leader. Today, he is the Co-founder and CEO of Compass Surgical Partners (Compass), which owns and operates outpatient surgery centers. “We take minority equity stake, build, buy and manage centers that are typically off campus from the hospital, where you are able to walk out afterward,” DJ describes. “So, same-day surgeries. We always have surgeon partners, and we sometimes have hospital partners. The surgeon takes care of the patient, while we take care of everything else—staff, equipment, accreditation, revenue cycle, care policies, literally everything else.”
DJ remarks on the privilege it is to be entrusted with people who, much like his aunt, are at a very vulnerable point in their lives. They need to know that the person cutting them open and caring for them is highly trustworthy. “Going under the knife is a sacred moment, and it happens tens of thousands of times a year inside our company,” he nods. “I love that we’re making the world a better place. We materially improve the lives of our patients, help them to be able to walk again, to be able to pick up their kids again, to be able to get groceries or play tennis; whatever their thing is, to be able to get them back to that. We do it in an extraordinarily high-quality, low-complication, low-infection, highly convenient environment. You don’t always need the monster infrastructure of a hospital.”
Today, Compass comprises 23 surgical centers, located from New York to the Carolinas and Florida, with plans to expand across Louisiana, New Jersey and Ohio. All told, it encompasses over 300 employees and $140 million in consolidated forward annual revenues. The entire operation has been bootstrapped from the beginning with careful attention to building the right culture. DJ was doing the same kind of work for a similar firm as an employee before it was sold, and he decided to go out on his own.
Previously, DJ had been working with Titan Health for seven years when he decided he wanted to start his own business. At the time, he was working on the sales and development side as the Chief Development Officer, and while he’d enjoyed his time at Titan, the business was selling to a larger firm. He went in to talk to the then-Chairman and was transparent about his plans. He had signed a non-compete, but the non-compete only extended to certain geographical areas.
“They offered me a position at the new parent firm, and I asked them how big their development team was,” DJ says. “The Chairman told me, 17 people. So I said I was out. I didn’t want to be number 18 on the depth chart; I wasn’t going to wear a uniform. The Chairman told me, ‘But it’s a good uniform!’ I told him I was going out on my own. He said he would support me, help with resources, ideas, anything I needed, on one condition: I’d call him if I was ever ready to sell the company!”
Because of that relationship and DJ’s experience in the space, Compass hit the ground running. Titan connected Compass with their third client and waived their non-compete for their fourth. Clients continued to accumulate solely via word of mouth. As their reputation grew, so did their business.
Sean Rambo, also formerly at Titan, joined DJ as a co-founder, and the two men work well together. “We got the band back together,” DJ laughs. “It is a super fun culture we’ve built, and I love who I work with. We have high trust environment. Compass is highly collaborative. You’re going to be pressed to make decisions and stand on your own two feet; it’s not a top-down model. One thing Sean and I have always said is, let’s create a place where we’re excited to go to work every day. And we are!”
“I associate that watch with being with someone who loved me, somebody who told me all these things that nobody else did when I was a kid. So I asked for that watch and now I keep it in that same glass dome at my house.”
Compass’ track record speaks for itself. Their clinical quality metrics exceed all the national averages, and their margins trounce the national averages too. DJ is proud that Compass empowers everyone involved to make active decisions. “This will tell you a ton about the company that since inception we’ve never had a vote,” states DJ. “Never with the surgeons, never with us. If you’re voting, you’ve made a mistake, because that’s not how partners do business. Partners talk, partners listen to each other, partners figure out how to give and take and find the best solution. Our special secret sauce is honoring compliance and quality. I almost don’t care what decision we get to as we do that. I care deeply about how we get to that decision.”
DJ comes by his entrepreneurial spirit honestly. His father owned multiple businesses. But interestingly enough, DJ saw both success and failure, the reward as well as the risk, though his dad. He’d been successful when DJ was a young child, but as DJ entered high school, his father lost almost everything on a failed venture and had to return to full-time work. At that point, DJ had to take a leadership role in the household, something he hadn’t quite felt prepared for, but he rose to the occasion.
DJ was one of three children, the only boy with two sisters. He was born in Greenwich, but the family quickly moved to Boston, MA, where they stayed until DJ was in elementary school. From there, the Hills relocated to Clearwater, Florida, and the move stuck. DJ lived in Florida all the way through his high school graduation. He remembers a fun childhood of riding bikes and playing Little League and youth soccer. In fifth grade, he met one of his first mentors, a math teacher named Mr. Abernathy. “For whatever reason, he just believed in me,” DJ relates. “One time my bike broke, and he offered to throw it in the back of his truck and give me a ride home. From then on, he became a family friend. Five years ago, he had his 30th anniversary at that same school, he’d been there his entire career, and so many prior students came back. A student in his current 5th grade class spoke first. I was there representing his first year of teaching, and my daughter and I co-presented. We went last. It was a beautiful moment to wrap up 30 years. That was a special moment about a guy who was special, not just to me, but to thousands of kids.”
From that time forward, DJ went from an introvert to an extrovert. He gained confidence and got straight A’s in his classes. He learned that teachers weren’t scary; you could ask them for help and advice. Moving on to middle school, he continued to do well in school, became very involved in his church youth group and began running track and playing basketball. He spent many happy nights on the beach, playing volleyball or swimming with other local kids while their parents watched and drank wine on the shoreline.
After 8th grade, DJ had another formative experience that he’ll never forget. His father picked him up from school in a motorhome with his mother and two sisters. The entire family spent the summer travelling the country, not returning until a few days before DJ started high school. “We stopped and saw friends and relatives along the way, but we really organized the trip around seeing America’s highlights,” smiles DJ. “On the historical front, the geographical front, the cultural front. It was a bit of an enhanced education through experience. My cousin Gavin also joined us for about half of the trip, so it was five or six of us living in very close quarters in an oversized van.”
DJ attributes his love of adventure partly to that trip, noting that he’s always up for the great outdoors, and that he and his wife both love sailing, natural beauty, excitement and travel.
Aside from Mr. Abernathy, another major mentor growing up was his maternal grandfather, Grandpa Reed. Grandpa Reed lived in Maine, and every year for the first 20 or so years of his life, DJ went to visit him. “He loved to tell stories,” DJ reminisces. “Every time I was there, he would tell me about the stock market, talk to me about investing, and tell me what to do in a job interview. His motto was, ‘Plan your work and work your plan.’ He wasn’t an entrepreneur! He was an engineer, he worked on bridges and never passed middle management, but he actually did everything people tell you to do. Put money away and invest in blue chip stocks when they’re down. I loved him and I appreciated the advice.”
When Grandpa Reed passed away, DJ only asked for one thing, a gold pocket watch he’d worn for many years and kept in a glass dome case on his desk. Every day, he pulled the watch out of the case and wound it, a ritual he performed while reading the Wall Street Journal. “I associate that watch with being with someone who loved me, somebody who told me all these things that nobody else did when I was a kid,” smiles DJ. “So I asked for that watch and now I keep it in that same glass dome at my house.” DJ considers it to be his most prized possession.
“Find people who care about you, who you think are wise or smart or kind, and ask them questions. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad questions; most people will be thrilled to give you advice. Having good people around you is really the most important thing.”
DJ’s father, meanwhile, encouraged independence from a young age. DJ remembers that, around the age of 12, his father asked what he’d like to be when he grew up. DJ, uncertain, answered maybe an accountant. DJ’s father dismissed the idea, noting that he could hire someone to do accounting. “He told me you can always hire technical people, but if you can figure out how things fit together and how to lead, not everyone can do that,” DJ explains. “It gave me an unusual comfort and direction in terms of potential career paths. Those small comments at a pivotal moment in your life really direct you.”
His mother’s talents, meanwhile, lay in what DJ refers to as “discernment.” She was canny, empathetic and intuitive. Not only DJ, but all his friends turned to her for her listening ear and measured advice. “It got to the point where sometimes I’d walk into the kitchen and one of my friends would be sitting there at the table with my mother — they just came over to talk to her,” DJ laughs. “And my mother, she never shared anything with me that was entrusted to her in confidence. She could really connect with everyone. There were always people in our home.”
When DJ’s father had to return to 9-to-5 work, he landed a position in California, and, not wanting to uproot the family again, spent the next few years commuting back and forth between California and Florida. It was during this time that DJ learned to step up and take more responsibility. Shoved into an almost fatherly role for his sisters, he quickly stepped up to the plate and began to take some of the burden off of his mother. His first job was working at a gas station, which he loved. His second was doing construction, which intimidated him at first but which he also came to enjoy. Meanwhile at school, he still found time to maintain his high GPA, letter in three sports, edit the yearbook and become student body president.
When college came around, he applied early and was accepted at Wake Forest, where he thrived. He joined a fraternity, became an RA and jumped at every leadership opportunity — including winning election to student body treasurer. Also during this time, his mother — ever the amateur social worker — informed DJ that there was a kid, Lonnie, at church that she wanted to take into the family. “When I came home from school, I met this 6’3,’’ massive, Samoan guy,” DJ describes. “He is so smart, so fun, and now, he’s my brother. I was so happy. I always wanted to have a brother. He had a troubled past and was the perfect fit with our family. I’ve always felt that he was supposed to be my brother.”
Straight out of school DJ was offered his first adult job as a medical device salesperson. Here, he ran into a roadblock. As it turned out, he was no natural salesman. In fact, he was so bad at it, he was on the cusp of getting fired when the company gave him one more opportunity; they sent him a mentor. “After we walked out of our first sales meeting together, he just asked me what the hell I was doing,” DJ laughs. “I said, ‘I’m trying to sell!’ He told me, ‘Well, you’re terrible at it. The point of selling is not to make money; it’s to help your customers solve a problem.’ For some reason, that just clicked. I went from being literally last place on the leaderboard to, in my second year, crushing everybody else.”
From there, DJ rose through the ranks. He went on to become the National Sales Director before joining a doctor-led urgent care company. The job was a good one, but ultimately he realized he needed to be at a company where the owners and decision-makers were more available; he recalls landing a multi-million dollar deal and not being able to discuss it with his boss until after 6:00 PM because he’d been in surgery. From there, DJ ended up at Titan.
DJ embraces both his professional success and personal life as integral to who he is. His wife, Laura, has been a rock throughout the many years and transitions of his career. They have three teenaged daughters, and DJ boasts that all three love to be in the home talking with his wife — certainly a rarity for teens. “Laura is my best friend, my confidante. She’s deeply wise, very thoughtful and chooses her words carefully,” DJ states. “All my friends tell me, we know you, we know her, she’s a saint and you got lucky! And I say, that’s 100 percent true. As long as she sticks around, I’m great. They’re not just teasing me; they actually believe it!”
As a leader, DJ describes himself as authentic, humble, purposeful, values-driven and kind. He’s collaborative and has no use for holding grudges. “At the end of the day, I just want to solve the puzzle, and I want to do it with other people,” he affirms.
To young people entering the working world today he has one piece of advice: find somebody older and ask them to tell you their stories. “Find people who care about you, who you think are wise or smart or kind, and ask them questions,” he elaborates. “It doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad questions; most people will be thrilled to give you advice. Having good people around you is really the most important thing.”