At the height of the Great Recession, with Michigan's economy in shambles and the Big Three auto companies on the brink of bankruptcy, Henry Ford Health System opened a new hospital whose design exuded opulence.
No detail was spared in outfitting the $360 million, 300-bed facility in West Bloomfield, a Detroit suburb with a median household income twice that of the rest of the state. All rooms were private with a view of the surrounding pond and woodlands. They came equipped with wireless internet and flat-screen TVs with on-demand programming.
Family members could stay overnight in tastefully decorated patient rooms furnished with sleeper sofas and reclining chairs. Each floor had stay-over rooms with beds and kitchen facilities for any family member watching over a patient on an extended and possibly terminal stay in the hospital.
And in choosing who should run this beautiful new facility, CEO Nancy Schlichting turned to a European expat, Gerard van Grinsven, who had run luxury hotels for the Ritz-Carlton chain. It was the last in a string of unorthodox choices Schlichting made in launching a facility made possible by Henry Ford's return to financial health after a near-brush with bankruptcy in the early 2000s.
“We have formidable competitors in this market,” she recalled. “To build this hospital and have it be successful was pretty daunting. I knew it had to be different.”
And different it was. The hospital, billed as a health and wellness center, included a day spa, a greenhouse to produce organic vegetables, an indoor farmers market and a demonstration kitchen to teach people with dietary restrictions how to cook. Its atrium was filled with retail outlets, live plants and curved walkways. At a time when others in the region were pulling in their belts, Henry Ford was headed in the opposite direction. Some local physicians grumbled.
“A lot of physicians thought it was the most absurd thing they'd ever heard of,” recalled van Grinsven. “But with her support, I spent a lot of time with physicians and was able to cultivate them.”
After more than 100,000 applied for the new hospital's 1,200 job openings and its elegant design was warmly welcomed by the community, Schlichting gave speeches in which she proudly proclaimed she wanted her tombstone to read: “I was the one who hired the Ritz guy.”
The leadership Schlichting, 61, provided during the construction and opening of the system's first new hospital in nearly a century is recounted in her book, Unconventional Leadership: What Henry Ford and Detroit Taught Me about Reinvention and Diversity. It reflected the innovative management style she honed over a 30-plus-year career in hospital leadership.
A self-described child of the 1960s, she overcame barriers both personal and professional to gain prominence. She was a woman who made it in a field dominated by men. She quickly moved on to bigger and better positions after being outed as gay by a member of the board at the Ohio hospital system where she had been in line for the top job.
Throughout her career, she leaned on male mentors like Gail Warden, first at the American Hospital Association and later at Henry Ford, and Al Gilbert at Akron (Ohio) General Hospital and later Summa Health. And in return, she mentored others.
She succeeded in executing two major financial turnarounds over the course of her career, including at Henry Ford. And, more recently, she entered public service by chairing the congressionally mandated Commission on Care that this year created a reinvention plan for the Veterans Affairs Department that recognized both the strengths and weaknesses of that sprawling, government-run system, which needs modernization for a new generation of veterans.
She has been a pioneer on quality and safety, encouraging Henry Ford to be one of the first healthcare systems to pursue and win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Her policy, she told me, is “zero defect, no excuses.” She made both innovation a priority within the four walls of an institution that she first took a job at in 1998 and has run since 2003.