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November 27, 2012 | Tom Ballard

Ben Johnston’s life has been physical therapy

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series about local business executive and entrepreneur Ben Johnston.)

Physical therapy has been Ben Johnston’s passion for nearly five decades.

Today, as the healthcare industry is increasingly focused on outcomes, the Knoxville resident and his business partner have a vibrant company that is “a national leader in outcomes measurement and reporting for the rehabilitation industry.” Its name says it all – Focus on Therapeutic Outcomes.

In a recent interview with, Johnston described how a lifetime of commitment to physical therapy (PT) led to the creation of the 12-employee, Knoxville-based, international company that he and Al Amato built.

One quickly learns that Johnston is a believer in hard work and tenacity, two traits that he honed as an undergraduate student at Washington State University.

“I worked by the pound and not by the hour,” he says in describing how he drove a taxi at night during the week and installed roofs on the weekend to pay for his college education.

From Washington State, he moved to Stanford University where he got his PT degree in 1964 and then on to Tacoma, WA where he became one of the early pioneers in establishing a private PT practice.

The Northwest was home for the next 24 years, although Johnston travelled extensively as an instructor, consultant and leader in national associations. By the late 1980s, he had sold the PT business to his employees and moved his teaching and consulting business to Knoxville.

Johnston says the move made sense. He already had a client in Knoxville – the Marino Therapy Centers, and he was managing seminars for a professor at the University of Chile who wanted an East Coast location for the events. On the professional side, Johnston’s affiliation with the Chilean professor brought more than 1,500 dentists and 2,000 PTs to Knoxville over the years. On a personal note, the relocation led to Johnston and Mary Jo Marino later marrying.

Johnston’s commuting days, however, did not end with his move to Knoxville. He found himself assuming responsibility for a bankrupt former client in Phoenix, a decision that required considerable time in that state.

“They needed someone to assume management,” he says.

Johnston was able to turnaround the company, and it was acquired by a Philadelphia consolidator of therapy centers. “This was good for the investors and the original owner,” he noted.

The acquiring company convinced Johnston to join it as Senior Vice President for Rehab Clinics.

“My commuting changed from Phoenix to Philadelphia,” Johnston said. Over the next three years, he helped the company with 30 acquisitions, with more than 250 clinics, but, more important, he laid the foundation for FOTO while working for the firm.

Johnston noted that the President of the Philadelphia-based company, who came from Emerson Electric, was “accustomed to having industry comparative data and wanted similar benchmark capability” such as visits and cost per patient per therapist.

“I’ve known all my life that what we do (as physical therapists) works,” Johnson says. “I sold him on developing a way to measure success.” That was 20 years ago, and today FOTO has a database of 4.7 million “patient episodes” to make the case for impact.

NEXT: The evolution of the measurement and outcomes work that is Johnston’s passion.

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