This story originally appeared in the Charlotte Ledger business newsletter and was republished with permission.
To see the lines of cars weaving through parking lots of StarMed testing centers all over Charlotte, it might be tempting to think that the company running the show is drawing on a deep reservoir of health care experience.
In fact, it’s a relative newcomer, an unlikely overnight sensation that has successfully waded into the heavily regulated healthcare industry and become a household name, with more than a dozen testing centers in Mecklenburg County. It’s doing 40,000 COVID tests a week and employs nearly 2,000 people, up from just 100 two years ago.
StarMed’s voyage from obscurity to Charlotte COVID testing colossus comes from a combination of fortunate timing, acting on hunches and embracing a risk-taking startup mentality — much of it emanating from its fast-moving CEO, Michael Estramonte, a chiropractor who moved here from New York a little more than 20 years ago.
There have been rough patches along the way. His first medical clinic, in a converted Chinese restaurant off Freedom Drive in west Charlotte, was barely breaking even when COVID hit. As recently as a year ago, he had to take out a $1.5 million loan to make payroll. And lately, he’s been feeling the pains of a growing business, with some customers complaining about long waits for test results.
In an interview Tuesday morning in his office off Tuckaseegee Road in west Charlotte, Estramonte marveled at the run his company has had, recalling a meeting with staff two years ago, as COVID was spreading in China.
“I remember saying, ‘If this comes over here, we need to find a way to be relevant to the community,” he said. “I had no idea at the time that it would wind up being what it became.”
A new venture’s rocky start
Estramonte, 46, went to college in upstate New York, at SUNY-Oswego. He moved to Charlotte in 2000 to join the Keith Clinic of Fletcher Keith, a well-known chiropractor who started in Charlotte in 1960. Keith became Estramonte’s mentor, and Estramonte took over the Keith Clinics on Tuckaseegee and Central Avenue after Keith died in 2010, in addition to the one he owned in Sugar Creek.
The chiropractic business was successful, and Estramonte saw a need to expand into medicine in underserved areas. In 2018, he took some of the profits from the chiropractic office, spent $3 million on upfitting an old Chinese restaurant and hired two doctors and three physician assistants to open a clinic offering primary and urgent care.
It was expensive, and his projections were off.
“I lost a lot of money in getting this up …….