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With patient satisfaction, quality and cost rising in importance for the health care industry, Michael Ugwueke soon showed why he would be tapped to become the chief executive officer next year of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis.
Methodist recruited Ugwueke in 2007 from a vice president post at Provena-Saint Joseph Michael Center in Joliet, Illinois. His mission was to turn around Methodist South Hospital, a community anchor in Whitehaven serving Memphis' most health care-challenged ZIP code, 38109.
It was a remarkable rise for the soft-spoken hospital executive, but not as miraculous as leaving war-torn Nigeria and arriving in America with little more than a will to succeed and a drive to work.
"I don't give up easily," said Ugwueke, who worked his way through college delivering pizza, staffing a convenience store and taking other low-wage tasks.
As Methodist South's chief executive, Ugwueke took some unusual steps for a hospital administrator.
He began offering, for example, an apology letter and a $20 gift card if patients arriving in the emergency room weren't seen within 30 minutes.
He also used guidelines similar to those applied at some point by world-class companies ranging from FedEx to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. to size up just what needed improving at the hospital. Those guidelines are spread through the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which he had embraced and had served as an examiner in a state-level program in Florida.
Ugwueke's leadership methods worked.
By mid-2009, he was promoted to oversee not only South, but Methodist North Hospital in Raleigh. By mid-2014, he had risen to his current position as president and chief operating officer.
At 57, Ugwueke next Jan. 1 will assume the chief executive's post for the seven-hospital, 12,000-employee health care system, succeeding Methodist's CEO since 2001, Gary Shorb. At 65, Shorb announced last month that he will step down at the end of this year and serve as a senior adviser to Ugwueke through April 2017.
"Michael is an outstanding strategic thinker," Shorb said.
"One, he knows hospital operations really well. Two, he does a lot through data and measuring results. Three, he thinks strategically about positioning the organization, whether it's an individual hospital, as he did at South and then North, and now he's doing it for the whole system," Shorb said.
One of Ugwueke’s mentors, Michael Covert, chief executive of CHI St. Luke’s Health in Houston, Texas, echoed the praise.
“His background, experience and appreciation for the myriad changes taking place in our field makes him a strong choice for the position,” Covert said by email. “He is recognized nationally for his acumen and strategic thinking while still being a ‘man of the people.”
Shorb, who joined Methodist in 1990, will hand over a health care system that has made key decisions to chart its future:
Focusing on the Memphis market. The system beginning in 1999 sold facilities that once formed an 18-hospital system spread from Jackson, Mississippi, to West Tennessee. Methodist could not provide capital for rural hospitals as well as for a 2001 decision to make academic, or teaching, hospitals of Methodist University and Le Bonheur Children's Hospital through its partnership with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Shorb said.
"When you look at the top 25 systems in the country, all of them are academic or academically affiliated," Shorb said.
Winning a lion's share of managed care contracts with health insurers, beginning in the 1990s with a Cigna deal, Shorb said.
"I think one of the biggest contributors to the success we're enjoying is the fact that we're got probably 70 percent of the managed care contracts," he said of the system that generated $1.85 billion in total revenue in 2015.
Capital spending that routinely requires about $65 million a year, not including big investments such as the $350 million Le Bonheur hospital that opened in 2010 or the $275 million expansion now on the drawing board for Methodist University.
Methodist conducted a national search in 2012 to fill the vacant chief operating officer's position, the traditional steppingstone to the CEO's office. Ugwueke emerged the unanimous choice.
"As a health care executive, I think it's important for people to know that I am passionate about what I do," Ugwueke said. "And that I see my job truly as a calling, I see it as something that I am dedicated to and committed to and continuously and consistently trying to get better at."
Growing up in Enugu, Nigeria, where his grandparents were instrumental in building his village's Methodist church, he lost a younger brother for lack of access to health care and saw a lot of people die unnecessarily during a civil war for lack of care, Ugwueke said.
That led him to want to be a doctor, he said. When he didn't have the money for medical school, health care administration offered another way. He had planned to return home with his education, but a coup deterred him.
Arriving in the United States with $4,000 at age 21, he earned a bachelor's in biology at Shaw University, a master's of public health at Emory University and became a doctor of health administration and leadership at Medical University of South Carolina.
"I have faced all kinds of adversities that you can think of - coming here 21 years old, not knowing anybody else and putting myself through college, graduate school, working every job that you can think of ranging from construction, production line, restaurant, delivering pizza, working at a convenience store," Ugwueke said. "Just name it, I've done everything that you could to survive."
Me met his wife, Rebecca, also originally from Nigeria, in Washington. They are the Germantown parents of 18-year-old Grace and 13-year-old Michael Jr.
Ugwueke's eye on the future of health care has already had him building the infrastructure to meet demands for reforms and improvement. He led forming a Physician Leadership Academy, for example, to bolster collaboration with doctors. Physicians will be key as the traditional payment system that rewards quantity begins to reward value.
"That's where I think the industry is headed, so everything that needs to be in place to deliver that kind of care is what I'm going to be consumed with, the whole team, trying to make sure we're positioned," he said.
Arriving at a New York airport when he first came to the U.S. in 1980, Ugwueke said he felt right at home among African-Americans on a bus to another airport. He went on to attend a historically black university.
"But over time, I began to realize how race is everything in the United States," he said. "In fact, when I was in grad school I challenged some of the professors because every study that was done there was some racial dimensions."
Shorb was in fact looking for a black administrator to help turn around Methodist South when Ugwueke heard about the position.
"It's just all about trying to build a true, diverse team," Shorb said. "Just philosophically we embrace the idea and we've seen it work, that the more diverse your organization, the stronger it is."
As the second chief executive who will lead Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in the 21st century, Ugwueke said he doesn't want to be known as first of anything.
"From my perspective, I think it should be let's get the job done, let's get things done," he said.