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Eric Flowers does business for "the most fragile among us"

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In November 2002, just months after being named to the finance committee of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic's board of directors, Eric Flowers, Political Economy of Natural Resources '90, learned that the nonprofit's CFO had embezzled $773,000 over three years. Scandal ensued and the future of the clinic, which serves 18,500 patients each year, was in peril.

But the problem was broader than a single crooked executive. "Thirty-plus years of organic growth set the landscape for that kind of theft," says Flowers. The critical tasks ahead were to clean up the books, recruit new talent, and create a more stringent management culture.

"The first three years were murder," Flowers says. "Haight Ashbury almost sank. But it's finally starting to move forward with significant strides, and that's rewarding after all the time and effort employees put in, all the pain they suffered."

Though he holds an M.B.A., Flowers learned much of what he knows from his father, who started a mom-and-pop pharmacy in East Oakland in 1964. The family now runs five businesses, including Public Health Service Bureau (PHSB), which administers AIDS drug assistance programs for California and Washington state. "We help the people who are serving the underserved by making their dollars go further," explains Flowers, PHSB's president and CEO. The family also runs a charity that strives to "bridge the gap" in AIDS drug funding by assisting people who aren't eligible for state help. "In both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds," Flowers says, "we want to take care of the most fragile among us."

The company's growth over the years has not been without its own challenges; theft within the company led Flowers to adopt a "trust, but verify" management philosophy. As with the situation at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, good business practices ultimately benefit patients.

If all goes well, Flowers' next move will be to expand PHSB's work to Puerto Rico. "Their AIDS drug program has had fraud issues, and funding's gotten frozen," he says. "We're working with them to modernize [their operation]... so that it will have quality control and will withstand audit."

"We've heard from some people, 'be careful in Puerto Rico.' But if we turn our backs on them because they've had problems, we'd be hypocrites. People need our help."

Flowers is focused on building a business that provide just that kind of help, well into the future. "The challenge," he says, "is to transition the business from what my dad started to an operation that will run long past him and me."

-Cyril Manning


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