LifePoint Hospitals, Brentwood, Tenn., was rocked last week by the death of its second chief executive officer in little more than a year. The rural hospital chain's chairman and CEO, James Fleetwood Jr., 54, died of an apparent heart attack June 2 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
In its short life as a publicly traded company, the 2-year-old LifePoint has had more than its share of grief. Fleetwood's death came a year and three days after his predecessor, Scott Mercy, was killed in a plane crash in Tennessee at the age of 38. Oddly enough, both men died while pursuing their hobbies; Mercy was taking flying lessons and Fleetwood, an avid sailor, and his wife had completed Fleetwood's first tour of the Florida Keys in a sailboat he had had custom-built last year.
LifePoint has not yet announced a long-term successor, although its board of directors elected board member DeWitt Ezell Jr., a former executive of BellSouth Telecommunications in Tennessee, to serve as interim chairman in a nonexecutive capacity, a role he also took on when Mercy died.
"Jim Fleetwood was our great friend, as well as our leader. Our hearts go out to Jim's wife, Gay, and to their two children, Ashley and Josh," Ezell said in a written statement on behalf of the board. "Jim was nationally recognized as an outstanding and dedicated healthcare professional. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him."
For the short term, LifePoint's operations will continue under the company's current senior management team, led by Kenneth Donahey, executive vice president and chief financial officer. The company owns 21 rural hospitals.
Fleetwood was LifePoint's president and chief operating officer when the company was spun off from former parent HCA-The Healthcare Co. in May 1999. After Mercy died last year, Fleetwood was named chairman and CEO within two weeks. The process of finding Fleetwood's successor could take longer though, company officials and analysts said.
"I think this time they will take longer, because it's not as simple," Donahey said. "Jim (Fleetwood) was our president and chief operating officer, and it made it a lot easier decision, but I don't think they're taking any different process than they took last time."
Frank Morgan, a healthcare analyst at investment bank Jefferies & Co. in Nashville, said it is unclear whether the board will look within the company for a permanent CEO or conduct an external search.
"It was pretty apparent last time with Scott's death that Jim would be the logical person," he said. "It may take a little bit longer this time, because there are a couple of options they could go with."
Other than Donahey, the company has a relatively small corporate management team. William Carpenter III is senior vice president and general counsel, and the company has two division presidents, Dan Slipkovich and William Gracey.
Morgan said Fleetwood's death, though obviously a blow to the company's corporate employees, likely would not have a near-term impact on LifePoint's operations.
"The CEO's role is more strategic," he said. "Really, the things the CEO does today affect the operations of the company two to three years down the road."
Fleetwood began his healthcare career in 1971 as a medical administrator in the U.S. Air Force, based in Florida. After leaving the Air Force in 1975, he served in several administrative positions at hospitals in Florida and North Carolina.
In 1989, he became administrator and CEO of Plantation (Fla.) General Hospital, owned by HealthTrust-The Hospital Co. He joined HCA, then Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., in 1995 as president of its North Florida division and later was named president of its Florida group in March 1996.