There was nothing easy about it. For those who stayed behind, it took unflagging courage and incredible perseverance to weather the storm.
While Warner Thomas probably wouldn't have chosen it, guiding a health system and a community through the devastation and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was one of the defining moments of his career.
But it's not as if he had been slacking off until that point. As president and chief operating officer of Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, he had already overseen the merger of the Ochsner Clinic with the Alton Ochsner Medical Foundation. He then turned around and sold the system's health plan, and helped orchestrate a major bond offering to help modernize the system.
Each of these and other accomplishments could have been his career-defining achievement, says Patrick Quinlan, Ochsner's chief executive officer.
Then Katrina hit.
During and following the chaos and ruin that uprooted a community, Thomas held his ground. He showcased his talent for motivating employees and ensured his health system was prepared to respond to the desperate needs of the Crescent City.
Working 20-plus hour days and sleeping in his office at Ochsner Medical Center, Thomas proved his mettle not only by providing leadership for the institution through the crisis, but also by cleaning the cafeteria, transferring patients and stocking supplies when necessary. Both modest and courageous, Thomas doesn't ask anybody to do anything he would not do himself, Quinlan says.
"His skills are multiplied through the organization by making others better," he says. "That's a defining characteristic of a successful executive."
While some managers would have seen a devastating hurricane as a reason to hunker down and try to protect existing operations, Thomas had the foresight to see the opportunities that would emerge from it. Among them was the chance to
purchase three New Orleans-area hospitals formerly owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp.
"It's not that he took something easy to fix and fixed it," Quinlan says. "He took something that seemed to be stuck and found a way out."
Thomas, 41, a 2006 Up & Comer, was promoted to COO in 2005 after serving as chief administrative officer at Ochsner since 1998. Ochsner Health System employs 600 physicians and operates seven hospitals, a subacute facility and 25 health centers.
Thomas led the financial turnaround of the system; established a program that has improved customer service scores as well as physician and staff morale; and helped the system expand into new markets as the region's demographics shifted in Katrina's wake. In past comments to Modern Healthcare, Thomas attributed his success to being able to connect with people at all levels of the healthcare system.
No matter the weather.
Contact Thomas at [email protected]