LifePoint Hospitals President and Chief Operating Officer Jim Fleetwood is in charge of the company's daily operations in the wake of the death last week of Scott Mercy, the hospital chain's chairman and chief executive officer.
Mercy, 38, was killed when a single-engine plane he was flying crashed during a routine maneuver in the Nashville suburb of Smyrna, Tenn. Also killed was Deborah Millwood, 28, a flight instructor who was in the plane at the time. "He was the youngest senior officer ever in our company," said Victor Campbell, senior vice president at HCA-The Healthcare Co., and one of Mercy's former supervisors when he worked at Hospital Corporation of America. "He was way beyond his years in terms of the business world."
No new CEO has been named for the Brentwood, Tenn.-based company, but its directors have elected board member DeWitt Ezell as interim chairman of the board.
Although young, Mercy had already found a home for himself within Nashville's healthcare elite. His career dates to the early 1980s, when he began working his way up the management ranks at Hospital Corporation of America.
"For many years, his presence at HCA brought spirited energy and ideas to the company's work environment," Thomas Frist Jr., M.D., chairman and CEO of HCA, said in an electronic memo circulated throughout the company last week. "Scott established himself as a solid business leader within the healthcare community, but as those of us who knew him can attest, he was also a loving husband, caring father and loyal friend."
Frist was also close friends with Mercy's father, George Mercy, who was a senior vice president of development at the former HCA years ago before he died of cancer.
Mercy is survived by his wife and three children.
Until 1996, Mercy had been senior vice president of financial operations at the former Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., recently renamed HCA-The Healthcare Co. From 1996 to 1998, he was president and CEO of Nashville-based America Service Group, which provides healthcare services to correctional facilities.
Mercy joined the original HCA in 1983 in its investor relations department and was a senior vice president when the company merged with Columbia Healthcare Corp. in 1994.
He rejoined Columbia as a senior vice president in September 1998 in preparation for the spinoff of its 23 rural hospitals into LifePoint last year.
Wall Street also recognized Mercy's magnetic personality and potential as a rising leader.
"He was a capable, charismatic, popular CEO," said Robert Mains, a healthcare analyst with Hartford, Conn.-based Advest.
Mains lowered his rating on LifePoint's stock last week after the company's share price dropped 5.8% to close at $21.44 the day the crash was reported.
"When somebody of that stature dies suddenly, it raises questions about both continuity and succession," Mains said.
LifePoint's business strategy has been to improve operations at its 21 primarily rural hospitals, and having Fleetwood, its COO, at the rudder will help reassure investors, Mains said.
More difficult to predict is the company's strategic future, because Mercy was the company's primary communicator with Wall Street, he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board was looking into the causes of the plane crash last week. Witnesses said they saw the plane spiral downward after lifting off, said Kevin Arnold, assistant chief of the Smyrna Police Department.
According to the plane's registration number, it was owned by a corporation called Tomco of Delaware, with Frist listed as Tomco's president. Campbell said the plane did not belong to HCA but would not confirm whether Frist was an owner.