Not many hospital executives get to run the hospital they were born in. Unger, now 39, is one of those lucky few, and he has made Poudre Valley a showcase of quality care. Its consistently one of the 100 Top Hospitals in Thomson Reuters annual quality of care survey, and the health system won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2008.
Hes a real up-and-coming leader, says Thomas Dolan, president and CEO of the ACHE. Hes done wonders not only for quality in his hospital but within his system, and he mentors students.
Unger didnt have much contact with Poudre Valley after he and his mother returned home from the maternity unitexcept to have his tonsils removed a few years laterand running a hospital wasnt part of his career plan until after he graduated with a degree in sociology from Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and was running a limousine service in Denver. Between mechanical breakdowns and the gridlock of city traffic, the business wasnt particularly satisfying, and he started looking for a way to use his management skills to help people. Healthcare seemed like a promising avenue, so he enrolled in a joint degree program in business and health administration at the University of Colorado, Denver.
After earning his degrees in 1996, Unger did a couple of brief stints in Denver-area hospitals and then took a position with First Consulting Group. At the time a lot of my friends were going into Web startups and doing very well, he says. They were trying to convince me to go in that direction, but I wanted something that was a contribution to society. His goal was to be a consultant for two years, learn as much as he could, and then segue into a position that didnt entail constant travel. Fortuitously, an opening turned up at Poudre Valley Health System for a vice president of planning and strategic development. My skill set fit, and my goal was always to get back home, Unger says.
So in 2001, back he went to Fort Collins, lauded as one of the best places to live by Money magazine, and rich in opportunities for the nearby skiing, mountain biking and fly-fishing that he loves. He spent two years in strategic development and then moved to vice president of operations. During that time, he abetted the health systems quest for the Baldrige Award by serving as an examiner for the program.
The first hurdle is to understand what the criteria are asking, and being an examiner helped me figure out what the questions meant, Unger says. The feedback from its examiners has been crucial in identifying areas to improve.
Unger feels its important to mentor healthcare administrators who are even younger than he is, and to that end, he supports a one-year paid administrative residency for advanced-degree students who work with him and other hospital leaders.
Ungers biggest challenge currently is integrating physicians into the operation. As they get squeezed, theyre looking to the health system to employ them or figure out how to keep them in the community, and we need to figure out the right employment model or what else we can do with them, he says. Ten years ago, the system didnt employ any physicians except for those involved in a family practice residency program, but now it employs a trauma surgeon and two family practice groups, and is talking to others daily.
Unger, a Modern Healthcare Up & Comer in 2007, advises other young CEOs to find a mentor (he uses his father, who lives in Fort Collins, and Stacey), and to hire people smarter than you are.
My senior management team is a lot smarter and better at what they do than I am, Unger says. Im getting a lot of individual credit for a team effort.