Most Chicago-area residents are probably familiar with the work of Mark Kaufman, ’89 PT, though they may not always realize it.

As owner of Athletico Physical Therapy, Kaufman’s hands–or those of the company’s 450 therapists–touch tens of thousands of athletes, accountants, administrators and artists every year.ATH_NEW_LOGO_BLUE_PT_TAG.03.16.12

“There was no grand plan for what we’ve accomplished when I opened that first facility in 1991, almost walking distance from Northwestern’s PT program,” Kaufman says. “I was two years removed from being a student and the idea was to open one location and keep it open.”

Three years later, a second blue and white Athletico banner emerged. For Kaufman, the successes kept coming–the most recent of 80 clinics (the Loop’s fourth) launched in February as part of a regional plan that will push the brand further into Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois.

Small Town, Big Future

Growing up in a town of not more than 200 people, Kaufman arrived at Feinberg during a transformative time. Led by Sally Edelsberg, PT, MS ’72, associate professor emeritus of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences, the PT program was increasing in size as Edelsberg moved the department, and its new research lab, to the current location at 645 N. Michigan Ave.

“Sally Edelsberg and the other faculty members not only prepared us well for professional issues and specific skill sets, but one of the strengths while I was at Northwestern was in orthopaedics, which fit nicely with my background and with what I wanted to do in the future,” Kaufman explains. “The program gave students what they needed to succeed; I remember starting my clinical rotations being very well prepared.”

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Mark Kaufman, ’89 PT, with his wife Mary Ann, and Julius Dewald, PhD, chair of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences, in front of the award that recognizes Kaufman as a distinguished alumnus.

After graduation, he decided to gain experience and increase his knowledge base. At 26, he left his first job and signed a 10-year lease in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood.

“You’ve got to understand, I’m from a small town,” he says, pointing out that his current number of employees is approximately seven times the size of Olds, Iowa, where his parents still live. “Every step of the way has been an adjustment to my comfort zone, and what I’m content with today will change when we open the next facility tomorrow, or when we take on a new contract.”

Growth and Giving Back

As the company expanded, Kaufman focused on Athletico’s internal culture. You won’t get far into a conversation without him mentioning its four core values: patient satisfaction, accountability, continuous improvement and teamwork. The emphasis pushed Athletico to the top of the Chicago Tribune’s Top Workplaces list in 2013.

“We’ve learned what makes a great physical therapist, what makes a great facility manager and whose personality and ‘hard wiring’ will fit with our culture,” Kaufman explains. “Our goal is to hire the top 10 percent of the physical therapists available to us, and I’m extremely proud that the Northwestern pipeline continues to produce top-tier candidates.”

What started with a single location, providing support for two sports affiliates, Athletico today is the official physical therapy sponsor of every professional athletic team in the Windy City–recently signing a long-term extension with the Bulls. It also boasts relationships with nearly 100 local high schools and more than 200 professional organizations, including the Big Ten Athletic Conference, Northwestern Athletics, Joffrey Ballet and U.S. Soccer.

“After a number of years of building the business, when I took a breath and thought about what drives me, what gives me passion, I began to consider a set of philanthropic endeavors,” he says. “I’ve always tried to reflect on the blessings I’ve incurred and the luck that I’ve had or might have created with the mentors and the programs that I went through, Northwestern being one of them.”

Kaufman and his wife have made numerous contributions to Northwestern University Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences (NUPTHMS), having established the Mark and Mary Ann Kaufman Enrichment Fund, a quarter-million dollar endowment dedicated for department priorities as determined by the chair.

In 2012, Kaufman launched the NUPTHMS Athletico Challenge Match to encourage more alumni to give back to the PT program. The challenge more than doubled the alumni participation rate.

The balance between Athletico, his work with groups like Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago–where he sits on the board of directors–and time spent with wife, Mary Ann, and his three daughters, is something about which Kaufman remains cognizant.

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Mark and Mary Ann Kaufman with their three daughters

When he’s not on campus in Evanston visiting the Northwestern Athletics Department, he’s watching his oldest daughter Fotini, a sophomore swimmer at Northwestern University, compete in the pool.

“I’ve found my way through philanthropic giving, and combined with my family life, it gives me the energy I need to keep going,” says Kaufman, recipient of the inaugural PT Distinguished Alumni Award from Northwestern.

Building for the Future

Based in Oak Brook, Athletico continues to improve its day-to-day core business of working with outpatients throughout the Chicagoland community and beyond.

In 2011, the company recommitted itself to providing quality care and service by measuring each patient’s functional outcomes and satisfaction.

“The program differentiates Athletico and allows us to compare the results we are seeing with hundreds of thousands of other providers around the country,” Kaufman says. “It helps us to determine what we are doing well and where there might be opportunities to improve.”

With nearly a dozen new clinic locations opening in 2013, Kaufman sees the potential for similar growth this year. The new facilities will likely stretch west toward the Quad Cities, south toward Champaign and north into southeastern Wisconsin.

Athletico clinic locations

Athletico clinic locations

“I think we have a fantastic team and it’s certainly not been all me,” he admits. “Every person, every employee, every staff member has contributed to our accomplishments. As long as you take the initiative, you can always get better. As long as we have that spirit and attitude, we will continue to be successful.”