Administrators at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, Iowa, had a history of apologizing for their good fortune before Kimberly Russel took over the job.
The editor of the Ames Tribune, Michael Gartner, often would write columns about the public hospital's solid profit margins. A Pulitzer Prize winner and former head of NBC News, Gartner unnerved board members, management, physicians and staff at Mary Greeley.
"The editor of the newspaper took shots at the hospital's healthy bottom line, and our prior administrations tried to apologize for it," says John Shierholz, M.D., chief of the medical staff of the 216-bed hospital.
The profit margin at Mary Greeley has been greater than 10% for each of the past four years. The hospital had net income of $7.2 million on $67.1 million in net patient revenues in 1996, according to its most recent audited financial report.
"Kim didn't think we had to apologize," Shierholz says. "She said we didn't have enough to keep this hospital healthy and to develop all of the programs we had plans for. She would say we need to branch out and meet community health needs."
It's that type of attitude and leadership that has kept the 38-year-old Russel in tune with the Ames community and allowed her to be forward-thinking in her job. Located in central Iowa about a 45-minute drive north of Des Moines, Ames has a population of about 50,000 people and is home to Iowa State University.
"It's a highly educated community with the typical strong Iowa values and people who are thirsting for knowledge on health and medical care," Russel says.
When Russel arrived in Ames, the community had been through deep reflection about the future of its hospital. Previous leaders of the city-owned hospital thought their hands were tied and were considering privatizing the facility or selling to an investor-owned hospital chain.
"One of the challenges was the ability of the hospital to respond in a competitive marketplace," says Sara Buck, a board member at Mary Greeley who chaired the search committee that selected Russel as president and chief executive officer. "There were some misunderstandings and mistrust."
Board members decided to keep Mary Greeley public in 1994 and earned City Council approval to act on most business decisions without council approval.
But the debate about the hospital's future took its toll. The previous top executive left in 1994, and an interim CEO was in place for the first half of 1995.
The search committee wanted someone who would expand the administrator's role to include community involvement.
Indeed, after being hired away from her chief operating officer position at University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Russel immersed herself in Ames.
She became active with the Ames Economic Development Commission and the city's chamber of commerce. She now serves on the board of Iowa State University Research Park, a technology transfer arm of the university. "She listened hard," Shierholz says.
Since Russel arrived, Mary Greeley has been focusing on remaining viable while expanding into a regional system. Outreach has included dialysis centers in nearby Iowa communities like Marshalltown and Iowa Falls.
"She does a masterful job of thoroughly developing a plan and communicating to all of the stakeholders in the process," Buck says of Russell. "By the time the board is ready to make a decision, everybody is on board and has made an informed decision."
Russel graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a master's degree in health administration. She earned a bachelor's degree in general business management from Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind.
Russel is married to a physician, Dirk Brom, who practices in Des Moines. They have two children.