Fast-thinking, fast-acting, fast-talking Lee Perlman is the consummate New York businessman. Luckily for hospital executives in America's largest city, Perlman has chosen to apply his abundant creativity, management acumen and business savvy to serving them instead of Wall Street.
As executive vice president and chief financial officer of the Greater New York Hospital Association, Perlman has made his mark harnessing the rough-and-tumble world of commerce in service of not-for-profit hospitals. Throughout his 15-year career at the GNYHA, Perlman has committed his heart and soul to bettering healthcare and the community. It's in part a labor of love, born of a personal tragedy involving hospital mismanagement.
For his innovative leadership, boundless enthusiasm and significant contributions to healthcare excellence, Perlman, 39, has been named the 1998 Young Healthcare Executive of the Year by the American College of Healthcare Executives.
Perlman is the 29th recipient of the ACHE's Robert S. Hudgens Memorial award to be presented this week at the group's congress in Chicago. The award was established in 1969 by the Alumni Association of the Medical College of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, in recognition of Hudgens, a former course director there. The award is presented annually to a chief executive or chief operating officer under 40 years of age.
Perlman is the first trade association executive to capture the honor. He's also the first nonhospital executive to win since 1970. Those distinctions underscore "the high esteem Lee is held in in the field," says Thomas Dolan, president and chief executive officer of the ACHE. And reflecting the growth of the profession, Perlman's win signals a broadening of the territory in which healthcare management excellence can be found, Dolan says. "The award selection committee is willing to look at executives in any number of settings -- not just hospitals," Dolan says.
To those Perlman serves, the award confirms the talent and accomplishments they've experienced firsthand.
"Without question Lee's the most energetic, creative executive I've ever had the pleasure of working with," says Barry Freedman, executive vice president of Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York, and chairman of the GNYHA's board of governors. "And I've been around long enough -- more than 25 years -- to have gotten quite a dose."
"No matter how challenging it is, Lee gets the job done," says Kenneth Raske, president of the GNYHA, "He makes things work. That's what he does best."
Personal tragedy. Perlman's quest for healthcare excellence sprang from an early and searing encounter with the sad effects of hospital mismanagement.
While growing up in Forest Hills, Queens, Perlman often looked after his father, who battled the lingering effects of rheumatic fever. One summer night when Perlman was a young teen-ager, his father fell terribly ill. Perlman rushed him to the local hospital. Frantically, Perlman searched the halls for his father's doctor only to hit one roadblock after another. Later that night his father died, never having received the medical attention he needed.
"I've always felt he died from an administrative snafu," says Perlman. Afterward, Perlman vowed to find out how hospitals are managed, and he soon got his chance.
In high school, Perlman made it a point to see healthcare management from the inside. Unwilling to settle for a make-work summer job, Perlman looked for something meaningful. He found it as a volunteer at a local nursing home. "I worked 60 hours a week," he says. "I lived in that place."
There Perlman overcame his first management crisis. During a bingo game, he prompted a walkout of 40 nursing home residents when he miscalled the winning numbers.
But he bounced back. And his experience helping patients hooked him on healthcare for good.
After graduating from Binghamton (N.Y.) University in 1980, he won a scholarship to attend Cornell University's business school, where he earned an MBA in health services administration in 1982.
After a one-year fellowship at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, Perlman joined the GNYHA in 1983 as a policy analyst. He never left.
"This is the most intoxicating place you can work in the world," he says.
Perlman rose quickly through the association ranks. Before long, he added direct management of operations to the planning, regulatory and cost-containment work he was hired to do. In 1988 he was promoted to senior vice president and CFO.
In 1992 Perlman added responsibility for the GNYHA's for-profit businesses to his already full plate. As executive vice president and COO for GNYHA Ventures, Perlman oversees six business units, including consulting, credit and group purchasing services.
Since then, Perlman has almost doubled those programs' revenues, as the operations raked in more than $15 million in 1997 compared with $7.9 million in 1992.
Although the GNYHA doesn't release detailed financial results, a spokeswoman said profits from the ventures added more than $3 million in support of advocacy activities last year. That income has lightened members' dues load.
"Membership dues would have to more than double if not for the success of these ventures," Raske says.
In 1993 Perlman capitalized on a successful local program with the launch of a national purchasing organization for nonhospital healthcare sites. This year the fast-growing alternate-care venture expects purchasing volume to top $150 million with 1,400 customers in 49 states.
Patients first. Perlman says one of his greatest accomplishments was helping engineer a 1995 march through Times Square in defense of funding for Medicare and Medicaid.
Even for New York, participants were diverse. Administrators, doctors, nurses, organized labor and senior citizens marched together under the banner of the Keep Patients First -- Save Our Health coalition.
At the hospital association's invitation, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton capped the rally with a fiery speech defending healthcare funding.
What Perlman calls a logistical nightmare paid off. "We closed down Times Square and made the national news," he says triumphantly.
Although Perlman spends more of his time running the businesses and affairs of the hospital association than he used to, he also keeps his hand in its advocacy agenda.
"I get my energy to do the business stuff from the policy stuff," he says. "The two can't be separated."
A lover of Broadway shows and all things Disney, Perlman has a creative side that influences his healthcare endeavors, according to people who know him.
For instance, Perlman persuaded Steve Karmen, a jingle writer extraordinaire, to donate his talents to write radio spots for the association's lobbying efforts. Karmen, known for such commercial tunes as "This Bud's for You," composed a song called "Keep Patients First" for the GNYHA. In 1995 the association filled the airwaves in Albany and Washington with radio spots featuring the song, which also was the rallying cry of the Times Square marchers.
Most recently, Perlman penned the opening lines of "The Faces of America," a collaboration with Karmen that is the centerpiece of an ad campaign seeking coverage for the 40 million Americans without healthcare insurance.
Passionate about purchasing. In what Perlman describes as one of his greatest challenges and accomplishments, he brokered the alliance between the GNYHA's group purchasing operation and San Diego-based Premier in 1996.
Perlman orchestrated the surprising break from New York's proud history as an independent buying bloc, a move that has been almost as successful as it has been unorthodox.
This year nearly 100 healthcare organizations in the New York area are expected to spend more than $500 million in supplies through the Premier contracts administered by the GNYHA.
And Perlman, who is enthusiastic on most subjects, is downright passionate about the role of smart purchasing for healthcare organizations. "Group purchasing isn't boring and isn't about widgets," he says. "It's about creating money for patient care."
Perlman rattles off a series of benefits realized by replacing home-grown purchasing operations with Premier's national clout.
"We don't do contracts anymore," he says. "What we've done is go into the customer service and implementation business."
Perlman works as hard as a volunteer as he does at his day job. As vice president of the Shorefront Young Men-Young Women Hebrew Association of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, he helps coordinate education and job training services for Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union. He also organizes the second largest Christmas dinner for the homeless in New York City every year.
"I feel very strongly about volunteerism and doing good," he says.
A devoted father of two, Perlman somehow manages to shoehorn a sliver of fun into his perpetually busy schedule. Although he never played hockey himself, Perlman is a die-hard New York Rangers fan. And though his vacations are infrequent, he somehow finds time to make a practically annual pilgrimage to Disney World. He admits that he's made the trip more than 20 times, adding, "It's the only place intoxicating enough to distract me from work."