The year John Colaizzi joined the board of Middlesex General University Hospital, New Brunswick, N.J., the institution was bleeding money and patients. Those who needed specialized care usually traveled to New York or Philadelphia.
The year was 1983. In the time since, the hospital, renamed Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in 1986, has grown in several senses. It has expanded to 473 beds and revenue of $440 million in 2001, from 387 beds and $58 million in revenue in 1983. And it has added a children's hospital, cancer center, cardiac center and a roster of transplantation services including heart, kidney and pancreas programs.
Colaizzi also helped lead the creation of a healthcare network that includes eight hospitals, four of which are or soon will be owned by Robert Wood Johnson and four of which are in looser affiliations.
Balancing responsibilities at Robert Wood Johnson along with his full-time role as dean of Rutgers University's Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy, Colaizzi, 64, exhibits a mix of determination, insight, patience and humility, all of which proved indispensable in achieving the hospital's transformation, according to those who have worked with him.
"He is a man of quiet and focused tenacity," says Harvey Holzberg, who has been president and chief executive officer of Robert Wood Johnson since 1989. "He's nonjudgmental. Even if he has preconceived notions about things, he's very open to somebody else's point of view." But Holzberg quickly adds: "The fact that he's nonjudgmental doesn't mean he would accept anything less than excellence."
For his achievements, Colaizzi-the hospital's board chairman from 1997 to 2000 and chairman of the parent Robert Wood Johnson Health Care Corp. since then-was chosen the winner of Modern Healthcare's Trustee of the Year award for healthcare organizations with more than 250 beds or more than $75 million in annual revenue. The competition is co-sponsored by Witt/Kieffer, a healthcare executive search firm based in Oak Brook, Ill.
"The sleepy little, almost county-type hospital that I encountered when I first came here has simply blossomed and mushroomed into a major, major resource for the state and the county," Colaizzi says.
Colaizzi sees his major contributions as strengthening the hospital's academic focus and link with Rutgers' Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; supporting the expansion in the number of beds and breadth of specialty services; and supporting creation of the healthcare network. "When the so-called `merger mania' occurred, I spoke loudly and clearly that we couldn't totally ignore that, that we needed to consider linking with other hospitals." This has included both purchases and looser affiliations, he says.
"He's been a central figure in the growth and development of the institution," says Clifton Lacy, a physician and commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. Lacy is also a former chief of staff and senior vice president at Robert Wood Johnson. "He's a strong proponent of the academic mission of the institution: the four-fold mission of clinical excellence, research, education and community outreach," Lacy says.
Holzberg credits Colaizzi and other board members with not only encouraging the affiliation efforts but realizing that it might not be easy. Some of Robert Wood Johnson's early networking investments didn't work out structurally, he says. "He stayed with us and we redesigned the structure," Holzberg says.
Colaizzi has been a very tough act to follow, says Dick Schrumpf, current hospital board chairman, who owns a small consulting business. "One of the challenges I had was trying to find half the time he put in," Schrumpf says, adding that Colaizzi generally attended all committee meetings.
Colaizzi's route to Rutgers and Robert Wood Johnson began when the Pittsburgh native received his doctorate in pharmacology from Purdue University. The husband and father of three-including two Rutgers alumni and a son who will receive his doctorate in pharmacy this May-taught first at West Virginia University in Morgantown and then the University of Pittsburgh before becoming dean at Rutgers in 1978.
Upon arriving in central New Jersey, Colaizzi quickly realized "there was not a hospital of the quality I had seen in Pittsburgh," he says, "even though this is a rather densely populated area and a sophisticated area." Colaizzi says he found that "troubling" both for personal reasons, because he was moving his family to the area and "as an academician you rely on good hospitals for teaching purposes."
That motivated him to get involved. The first order of business was to restore the financial health of the erstwhile Middlesex General, which Holzberg was instrumental in achieving, Colaizzi says. The facility was about $12 million in the red when Colaizzi joined the board, and executives achieved break-even after about a year, he says, by increasing volume and because the hospital had surmounted short-term costs incurred a few years earlier when it forged a closer relationship with Rutgers' medical school.
Meanwhile, Colaizzi tackled an equally ambitious agenda at Rutgers, bringing its school of pharmacy into the nation's top 10, recruiting faculty, raising funds, adding a six-year doctor of pharmacy program that all students must now take, leading the launch of a cancer research center, and continuing to teach courses.
"He always runs on all cylinders," says Joseph Barone, chairman of the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Administration. "He's a very good leader, but he's also very inclusive in getting people to buy in. He will listen to people-from the CEO of a hospital to an entering student, and weigh their opinions at the appropriate level-but still take all these things into account."
Ed Finkel is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Ill. He can be reached at [email protected]