By Amy Silverman
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But now Cantelme and his partner, Bob Ramsey, hope to break Southwest's dominance.
Their new company, PMT, made a pitch for the Scottsdale contract this summer and was selected by the independent committee that the city commissioned to evaluate proposals. The Scottsdale City Council is expected to approve a contract with PMT this week.
Cantelme and Ramsey are also gunning for the contract in Chandler.
There, city officials opted against automatically renewing Southwest's contract this summer. Instead, they issued a request for proposals. They'll likely choose between Southwest and PMT by the year's end.
By then, Tempe's contract is due to expire. Cantelme and Ramsey are eyeing that, too.
Their aggressive positioning could lead to a major blow to Southwest: three major municipal contracts, gone.
Southwest is livid, and it's fighting back. It's challenging the proposals on a municipal level; through its employees and consultants, the company is also attacking Cantelme and Ramsey, raising questions about their tactics, their history, and even their integrity.
But Cantelme vows there will be even more showdowns in the future.
"They've got a monopoly, but we're trying to create a performance-based system," Cantelme says. "We're saying, if we can do it better, let us do it."
His point is only slightly complicated by an odd twist of history: It was his own partner, Ramsey, who created the monopoly that exists today.
For it was Bob Ramsey who started, and then sold, Southwest.
So when Cantelme and Ramsey challenge Southwest's monopoly, they're actually fighting Ramsey's former company and the people he sold it to.
And when Southwest employees argue that Ramsey is a jerk, they're talking about their former boss.
Bob Ramsey is a big man, although not as big as his detractors insist. They'll tell you he's morbidly obese, but he's really just soft, with a fleshy face and a thick torso.
It's his personality that fills the room. Naturally, Ramsey's critics warn about this, too. They say he takes credit for inventing the strobe light, that he brags endlessly, that he calls himself the father of Valley ambulance service.
But despite an interview that lasts well more than an hour, he never mentions the strobe light. And though he does use the word "father" in connection to himself and the current ambulance system, he's 100 percent deserving of the title.
As Ramsey tells it, he was always interested in emergency service. As a kid growing up in south Phoenix, he put together a bicycle Safety Patrol that, he says, was written up in Boys' Life. (Naturally, he remembers the year: 1957.) As a young man, he adds, he helped put together the first EMT training for Indian reservations in the country.
But after a few years of working for other people's ambulance companies, Ramsey was itching to branch out on his own.
In 1982, he rounded up some investors, one of them his dad, and started a company. He called it Southwest Ambulance.
He was successful, wildly so. By the time he sold his holdings to Scottsdale-based Rural/Metro in 1997, Ramsey ran four companies that tackled various parts of the ambulance business, from billing to supplies.
His growth didn't come without controversy.
He and Southwest were indicted for fraud, theft and racketeering in 1991. The county attorney alleged the company had a habit of overbilling insurance companies. The judge tossed out the charges within a few months.
A few years later, one of Ramsey's original investors sued, alleging Ramsey had bilked him out of his share of the profits. The suit was dropped without resolution, other than fat legal bills. (The investor has since died.)
Ramsey can be gregarious, but he's also notoriously tough on his employees. He ran a tight ship, employees say.
Jim Hayden, president of the emergency workers union from 1991 to 1995, wrote in a letter to the IAFF this September that Ramsey's relations with his employees were unpleasant.
"It is fair to say our membership did not care for Mr. Ramsey and only thought he was out for himself in making more and more money for his pocketbook," he wrote. Turnover was high.
But profits were high, too.
Selling to Rural/Metro netted Ramsey more than $16 million in cash, with stock options worth more than $11 million.
(That part he doesn't volunteer, not even in a self-effacing way. The details come from Securities and Exchange Commission filings.)
The sale made Ramsey one of Rural/Metro's biggest individual shareholders. He was named executive vice president and joined the board of directors, vowing to help expand operations.
He lasted all of two years. In January 2000, Rural/Metro's CEO resigned, and less than a week later, Ramsey was gone for good.
His detractors say he was forced out. But Ramsey insists that the decision to leave was strictly his own.
"Public companies tend to be short-term thinkers," he says. "They resolve problems by closing operations rather than making them work. That's not what I do. I build."
He admits that his departure didn't exactly leave him in an ideal position. True, he was rich, but he's also a guy who likes to build. He wasn't ready to retire.