Douglas French runs a $6 billion company with 87,000 employees. He knows business. So tap him for the secret of successfully running such a massive corporation and his answer is simple: kayaking. Forget about all that lunchtime advice from Morrie and the habits of other people. Business, he says, is like kayaking on a lake. If the water’s calm, you can see the island ahead, even if it’s miles away. If it’s a little stormy, your vision is limited to about six waves ahead. If it’s really stormy, all you can see is the wave coming at you. Most of his operations, he says, are so swamped they can only deal with the wave breaking over the bow. It’s his job to stay calm, keep the distant goals in sight and steer everyone that direction. Maybe it doesn’t have the makings of a bestseller on the business management book table, but it’s a philosophy the 1979 graduate paddled to the office of president and chief executive officer of Ascension Health, the nation’s largest not-for-profit health system. French ascended into Ascension’s top post in January after 21 years of rowing his way through company waters. French, who earned his master’s degree in hospital administration, always knew he would work in a hospital. As a teenager, he spent three years working at Good Samaritan Hospital in his native Cincinnati, which sparked his interest in medicine. He followed the premed course at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tenn., with the idea of spending his life diagnosing diseases. He even got a job in a physician’s office for the experience. But while working there, he met one of the patients, who also happened to be the CEO of a local hospital. The two chatted about hospital administration, and a new seed was planted.
“I realized that was the path I wanted to take,” he now says from his St. Louis office. “I think it’s worked out well.”
To fulfill the residency requirement that’s part of Xavier’s hospital administration program, French went back to Nashville, working at St. Thomas Hospital, a Catholic hospital that’s now part of the Ascension chain. It was, he says, a good fit. “I have a strong personal faith, and being in a faith-based environment is important for me,” he says. “But there’s just something different about a Catholic hospital. You walk in and can feel it.”
The difference is that cost is second to care. The very core of Ascension’s mission is serving everyone, with special attention to the poor and vulnerable. Last year, Ascension provided $335 million in free care at its 75 facilities, which cover 20 states and range from inner-city Detroit to rural Dumas, Ark. It’s also the central struggle French faces daily. “Balancing the needs of the poor with the rising costs is the biggest tension we have,” he says. “But we’re big and strong enough that we can weather future storms, partially because we’re living more off invested money than operating income.”
It’s a smart way of doing business—obviously done by someone who’s looked beyond the first few waves.
The following graduates are part of Ascension Health’s management team:
• Douglas French ’79, CEO
• Charles J. Barnett ’78, Sr. VP, south division
• Marsha Ladenburger ’79, Sr. VP, healthcare innovation and evolution
• Vincent Caponi ’72, CEO, Central Indiana system
• Bob Cook ’90, Director, loss prevention and program services
• David J. Boswel ’91, Director, organizational safety
• Jim Duff ’62, board of trustees
Who is Ascension? Ascension is a national Catholic health ministry with a network of hospitals and healthcare facilities that provides acute, long-term, community health, psychiatric, rehabilitation and residential care.
It is the nation’s largest not-for-profit health care organization. It has 63 acute care, three acute long-term care, 17 long-term care, five psychiatric, two rehabilitation, two adult residential and 103 community health care facilities. It has more than 1,400 physicians and 87,000 employees in 20 states.
Unlike many health care organizations, though, Ascension places a strong emphasis on serving all persons, with special attention to those who are poor and vulnerable. Its Catholic health ministry is dedicated to spiritually centered, holistic care that sustains and improves the health of individuals and communities,, and through its mission is called to:
Service of the Poor – generosity of spirit for persons most in need;
Reverence – respect and compassion for the dignity and diversity of life;
Integrity – inspiring trust through personal leadership;
Wisdom – integrating excellence and stewardship;
Creativity – courageous innovation;
Dedication – affirming the hope and joy of our ministry.
To read more about Ascension, visit http://www.ascensionhealth.org/
Photography by James Visser