Top 25 Emerging Leaders
Dionne Viator, 39
Senior Vice President and CFO, General Health System/Baton Rouge (La.) General Medical Center
Starting a new job by dissolving a financially hemorrhaging unit while negotiating with creditors and state regulators is no one's professional dream scenario.
But Dionne Viator, senior vice president and chief financial officer of General Health System/Baton Rouge (La.) General Medical Center, was "the epitome of grace under fire" during the shutdown of the Gulf South Health Plans HMO shortly after her promotion from vice president of finance to CFO in 2001, says William Holman, president and chief executive officer of both the system and hospital.
"For a new CFO, that was not the way to have your first year in any organization," Holman says of the two-location, 448-bed center. "In probably a year's time, we were able to wrap up and divest ourselves of Gulf South, for which she truly gets the credit."
He cites Viator's professionalism and integrity as primary reasons, comparing the reactions of the state attorney general and insurance commissioner staff to the old E.F. Hutton commercial with the tagline: "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen."
"That probably wasn't true in the beginning," Holman says. "But with her presence and the accuracy she spoke with, people realized that this woman brought something to the table, and people had better listen to what she had to say."
For her part, Viator, 39, remembers Baton Rouge in her early days as "an organization with strong character but a very depleted balance sheet." Upon the divestiture of Gulf South, she was named senior vice president and led negotiations in selling eight units not central to the hospital's mission that had lost a combined $37 million in fiscal 2001.
"The growth of an integrated delivery system, which was built in the mid-'80s and perpetuated through the '90s, had depleted the organization," Viator says of General Health. "It had lost the focus on patient care. It was stretched too thin."
The divestitures have reduced the leadership team from 200 to about 70, saving $5.5 million annually in salaries, Viator says. "We all roll up our sleeves every day," she says. "There's no ivory tower." Although the sales could have reduced the on-the-floor workforce by 25%, Holman says the hospital instead just cut positions by 7%, adding registered nurses and licensed practical nurses.
Viator also ended long-running discussions with Louisiana State University about the possible sale of the system's 343-bed Mid City campus and instead moved forward with needed investments there.
Among the results of all these changes: a reduction of R.N. turnover to 15% last year from 31% in 2000; a 29% increase in the average daily census during that same period; and the pending ground-breaking for a 98-bed expansion of Baton Rouge's 105-bed outlying facility on the south side of the city.
Viator says her negotiation and analytical skills have helped her succeed, but being a team player also has been key. "I am one opinion of a strong, talented group of individuals," she says. "Together we come up with the right answer."