The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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May 18, 2014

Allman is Mountain State’s small business person of the year

Internet age success with physician-recruiting website gives hope to revitalizing a town of yesteryear

In the mid-1990s, Ken Allman was the guy who was looking to the future.

In those days — when the early search engine Lycos had just gone public with a catalog of 54,000 documents — Allman was convincing American hospital personnel and doctors’ offices that the Internet was going to be big — really big — and that it would be a great tool for recruiting physicians.

To make a long story short, he was successful. His business, PracticeLink, was one of the first online physician recruitment sites in history and is now the most widely used online physician recruitment site in the country.

Allman was recently named the 2014 West Virginia Small Businessperson of the Year by the West Virginia district of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and he’s still a man with an eye to the future.

But nowadays, he’s looking to the past to help build the future of Hinton and southern West Virginia. His second company, MountainPlex, umbrellas The Market, a premium sandwich shop and upscale-gift store; The Guest House Inn, a 5-star bed and breakfast; The Ritz Theatre Cinema & Performing Arts, a restored 1920s venue that hosts movies, meetings, live performances and special events.

All of the MountainPlex operations involve a revitalization and rebuilding of Hinton, which was a bustling railroad town when Allman grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s.

The properties draw tourists to visit the downtown Hinton National Historic District and have helped provide more than 50 jobs in the community of 2,800.

“Hinton is home and will always be home, and I still call it home,” Allman said Wednesday.

Judy McCauley, district director of the West Virginia District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration said criteria used to select award winners include a business’ staying power, employee growth, sales, innovativeness and community contributions.

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Allman said he was a computer buff when he was attending Hinton High School in the 1970s, following in the footsteps of his father — a railroader who had an interest in the evolving world of computers.

“I had a teacher at Hinton High around 1978, Gretchen Lynn,” recalled Allman. “We had two Radio Shack personal computers there in our computer sciences classroom.

“She even let me take one of those computers home with me one summer and bring it back the following fall.”

He said he maintained his interest in computers while gaining degrees from Concord College, Alderson-Broaddus College and the University of Dayton.

Allman said his undergraduate degree in biology and one year of biology in graduate school convinced him that being a physician wasn’t in his future.

“But I maintained an interest in health care,” he said.

Allman worked in retail management and didn’t have experience running a business or vast financial resources for starting one.

But he never lost his interest in computers, and in 1992 — three years before the Federal Networking Commission would define the term “Internet” — he noticed there was a need for a physician job bank.

At the time, physicians were recruited via medical journals.

“The dream was to be able to do it online,” he explained. “Before the Internet, I thought about trying to do a physician job bank using computer bulletin technology.

“When the Internet came around, that’s what made it possible.”

When Allman launched PracticeLink, the world’s first online physician recruitment bank, in 1994, he operated it from his apartment in St. Louis, which hosted an IBM 486 personal computer from Best Buy and an integrated services digital network (ISDN) line, he recalled.

For an annual subscription, hospitals could post job openings on the PracticeLink site and have access to an active candidate database.

Many of Allman’s  early clients didn’t have e-mail yet, so Allman faxed information from his computer to their offices.

But as the Internet connected the globe, Allman’s business grew.

“It was a financial struggle in the beginning,” he said. “But it eventually got to the point I needed some help, and I needed it fast.”

By 1999, business was booming.

Allman decided to set up a call center to interview medical residents coming out of training and to feed the information into a proprietary database that could be utilized by hospitals.

Allman moved back to his hometown to grow his business.

“I went back to Hinton and did a lease purchase on a small building there,” he said. “I hired a couple of family members and close to 20 other people, and within six months, we had 20 people working from downtown Hinton.

“That is still our core service,” he said.

 PracticeLink also hosts offices in St. Louis, Mo., and Louisville, Ky.

Allman adds that PracticeLink also publishes an award-winning magazine (PracticeLink) from the Louisville office and exhibits at more than 40 different physician specialty conferences annually.

PracticeLink currently represents more than 5,000 health care facilities nationwide and more than 20,000 physicians and advanced practitioners.

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MountainPlex grew from a desire to meet the growing needs of PracticeLink employees and to enrich Hinton.

Since its inception, MountainPlex has revitalized the historic district between Ballengee Street and Second Avenue.

“Everything we’ve done (at MountainPlex), we’ve done with the dual benefit in mind of what our company needs to continue to grow and how we can position it so it also benefits the community.”

The first MountainPlex business was The Guest House, a brick house, circa 1895, that was directly adjacent to the PracticeLink office.

“We didn’t have adequate lodging facilities to accommodate overnight guests at our office,” he said. “We converted that, informally, into what we called ‘the guest house,’ which became The Guest House Inn.

“People from all over the company come for special events, and we have had special dinner events.”

The Guest House Inn, now listed by Trip Advisor as a five-star hotel, is available for receptions and special functions.

In 2009, MountainPlex acquired the historical Ritz Theatre and renovated it.

The building is now equipped with digital cinema and sound, seats over 300, hosts live performances and films and is a venue for business conferences, Allman said.

MountainPlex addressed the need for a historic downtown eatery.

“We’re like, ‘Our employees are having to get their car to go get lunch every day,’” Allman recalled. “There were limited dining options at that time in the historic Hinton district.”

Allman responded by opening The Market, which serves fresh sandwiches and better gifts.

MountainPlex could also be called the “sound” of modern-day Hinton: Allman is delving into the local media market with the recent acquisition of WMTD AM 1380, a once-defunct station he’s put back on the air.

“Hinton’s still fortunate to have a weekly newspaper, but there was no source of news on a daily basis,” Allman said. “The goal of WMTD was to blend radio broadcasting with the Internet to keep the community informed as a way of promoting the Hinton historic district and informing the community.”

WMTD offers a webcam with a view of downtown Hinton, he said.

Additional MountainPlex acquisitions are Otter & Oak General Store and Art Gallery on Second Avenue and the old Rivertown Inn.

—  E-mail: jfarrish@register-herald.com

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