Robert Ritz began his healthcare career about as far away from the chief executive's seat as one could imagine: in a hospital kitchen, washing dishes.
Ritz was finishing his undergraduate degree in business administration at Wheeling (W.Va.) Jesuit University in the mid-1980s. And at age 20, he was beginning to think about a career in healthcare.
"I washed pots and pans, did the tray line, did everything," he recalls of his stint at Wheeling Hospital.
But Ritz wouldn't stay in the kitchen for long.
After finishing a graduate degree, he headed back to his hometown in Morgantown, W.Va., about 50 miles southeast of Wheeling. A decade later he had worked his way up to become president and chief executive officer of profitable Monongalia General Hospital.
Earlier this year, 38-year-old Ritz was named president and CEO of parent Monongalia Health System, also based in Morgantown. The system includes the 205-bed hospital, a continuing-care center, an assisted-living unit, a hospice, a durable medical equipment service, an emergency medical service, six regional clinics and a multicounty home health service shared with West Virginia University Hospitals.
"When I started learning the business aspects and the economic sides of hospitals in communities, I found it phenomenal to have your hands in big business and at the same time in a business focused on your ability to take care of people," he says. "I thought it was a great combination."
In a move that would shape his future career, Ritz sought counsel from the CEO of his hometown hospital after graduation from college.
Thomas Senker became his mentor and later hired him into the Monongalia system. Years later, Senker suggested that Ritz fill his shoes when he retired. Senker guided Ritz to the graduate program in health services administration at Cornell University that Senker had attended. And when Ritz graduated, after a brief stint as administrative resident at Highland Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., Senker hired Ritz at Monongalia for a one-year fellowship.
"Bob stayed for 12 years," Senker recalls. "He eased himself into the organization and then was promoted successively over the next 10 years."
Among his accomplishments are developing a freestanding outpatient center with orthopedic surgeons, creating a similar facility in 1997 with ophthalmologists and developing a joint venture home health agency run by Monongalia General and West Virginia University Hospitals, also in Morgantown.
"If we can do something together, and one of us will win and the other one won't lose out, and the community will win, we should at least look at it," Ritz says.
Ritz's business and communication talents did not go unnoticed by his superiors and peers.
Richard Connell, a former board chairman of the hospital, says he remembers Ritz from his earliest days at Monongalia.
"It didn't take us long to recognize that he was a very special young man," Connell says. "For instance, he has energy you cannot believe."
Ritz gets up at about 4 a.m. every day. And he usually does not stop moving for long. On the day he was interviewed by MODERN HEALTHCARE, he had just taken off his hat as president of Morgantown's chamber of commerce.
But his ability to deal with his colleagues is what sets Ritz apart from the average administrator, say those who know him.
"The nice thing about Ritz is that his door is always open to the physicians," says Andrew Heiskell, M.D., a general and vascular surgeon at Monongalia.
A couple times a week, Ritz likes to begin his mornings in the surgeons' lounge, drinking coffee and chatting with the physicians.
"I get more done in one of those sessions than sitting in my office with them for three weeks," Ritz says.
Brian Houston, M.D., a rheumatologist at the hospital and a former chief of staff there, called Ritz "brutally honest" in his dealings with physicians and unafraid to confront them about problems.
"He would tell them face to face that they goofed," Houston says.
Ritz also has strong ties to the community, having grown up in Morgantown and having started his own family there. Which is not to say that he wants to stay in Morgantown forever.
"Certainly, one day I have to ask the question, What's next?" he says. "But for the time being, the fact that I'm doing this just two blocks from where I went to grade school and high school is a very rewarding feeling."