“…he got the same feeling as a student at Samford that he got as an employee of St. Vincent’s. He said the institutions’ religious foundations compel them to focus on the whole of those they serve…”
St. Vincent’s Hospital CEO Curtis James, M.B.A. ’96, easily recalls the date he was chosen to lead the oldest hospital in Birmingham. After all, November 16, 1998, was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the hospital by four Catholic Daughters of Charity. In a grand, gilded-age mansion in Southside, the sisters began to serve Birmingham’s growing population of poor. The hospital they founded relocated to Red Mountain and became a Birmingham landmark, but remained true to its founders’ values of service to the poor, reverence, integrity, wisdom, creativity and dedication.
More than a century after its founding, St. Vincent’s free clinic is accessible to approximately 400 families who pay a nominal fee of approximately $25 per year. It also works with Habitat for Humanity to build low-cost housing for families in need and has begun a Hispanic Health Ministry in partnership with the Birmingham Catholic Diocese. Hospital meetings begin with prayer, and new employees begin and end their orientation in the hospital’s chapel as a reminder of the mission they have taken up.
The Reluctant M.B.A.
Curtis James feels strongly connected to the framers of that mission, which he describes as a health-care ministry. But before the mid-1990s he didn’t envision himself as CEO of the hospital he had already served for two decades. He certainly wasn’t interested in returning to school for an M.B.A. degree. In fact, as vice president and chief financial officer of St. Vincent’s, James was serving on a committee to identify two other hospital employees to recommend for enrollment in Samford’s executive M.B.A. program. When St. Vincent’s CEO Vincent Caponi asked James to enter the program, he responded, “I don’t have time to do that.”
Caponi finally persuaded his vice president to enroll at Samford, and James completed the 22-month M.B.A. program just in time to be a candidate for CEO when Caponi departed in 1998. After a national search, James was chosen for the position. “Without my master’s degree, I probably wouldn’t have qualified or even been able to apply,” James said.
James got more than a degree at Samford, however. He got the same feeling as a student at Samford that he got as an employee of St. Vincent’s. He said the institutions’ religious foundations compel them to focus on the whole of those they serve. He also noted that both institutions have a unique responsibility to make sure their values are clearly reflected in their policies and actions. These shared values, he said, “came across loud and clear” at Samford.
The Right Thing To Do
“Obviously,” James said, entering Samford’s M.B.A. program “was the right thing to do.” His decision certainly seems to have been the right one for the hospital. In 2002, St. Vincent’s was named the number one hospital in the 70-hospital Ascension Health system. In 2003 the hospital earned a Best in Business Award in its category (400+ Employees) from Birmingham Business Journal.
St. Vincent’s also has built a national reputation for its integration of technology and is considered to be the “digital flagship” of Ascension Health, which is the nation’s largest nonprofit health system. One might expect a CEO to revel in that kind of progress and national recognition, and James does take pride in the hospital’s technological accomplishments. However, he is quick to put that success in perspective. “We’ve always believed that technology is just an enabler” for a hospital known first and foremost as “high touch” for its compassionate health care, he said. According to James, technology is simply a tool that helps the hospital serve its core values.
Recent years have brought St. Vincent’s so much success and attention, James said, the biggest problem he faces now is meeting the needs of the many new patients and physicians who want to come to the hospital. He said St. Vincent’s is growing to give those people the quality of care and attention they deserve, “and not only what they deserve,” said James, “but what they expect.”
Responding to those expectations, the hospital has undertaken a multiphase, $120-million expansion of its main campus that includes a new parking garage, new outpatient surgical facilities, a women and children’s center, physician space, an enlarged emergency department and a new patient tower. The first phase of this expansion will be complete in October 2004.
St. Vincent’s also is creating a new facility, One-Nineteen, near the junction of Highways 280 and 119. One-Nineteen will provide preventive care for the health-conscious residents of that growing community. “We want to be the catalyst that helps them maintain their healthy lifestyle,” James said. The 35-acre, $35-million facility will be complete in late 2004. It is the facility that the community wants, James said, and that is a powerful force guiding the hospital. According to James, “the consumer is going to drive a lot of the future of health care,” and that requires careful attention to the needs of the communities the hospital serves. “The sisters [who founded St. Vincent’s] really listened to this community,” James said. “We’ve been listening for the last 105 years.”
A Legacy of Caring, Ministry
Given the dedication to core values, a maze of regulations and the ever-expanding needs of the community, it’s easy to imagine why someone might be reluctant to take the helm of a hospital. James acknowledged that his competitive nature makes it easy for him to get wrapped up in the daily affairs of the business side of St. Vincent’s. But he reminds himself to get away from the paperwork from time to time and connect directly to the mission of St. Vincent’s.
Standing in the hospital’s new chapel, James pointed out the Stations of the Cross illustrated on the walls and reflected on the chapel’s prominence. It is literally at the center of the hospital, looking over Birmingham, toward Southside and the hospital’s origins. “We’ve been entrusted with a legacy of caring, a legacy of ministry,” he said. James feels that most when he walks the halls of the hospital or when someone writes to him to thank St. Vincent’s for the care it gave a loved one. “That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “You don’t get that unless you walk, see and understand what we’re in business for.”
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