Thomas F. Zenty III came to Cleveland in 2003 with a grand vision for University Hospitals to dramatically expand its footprint and deliver care across the region.
The health system's transformation since has been immense. Under Zenty's leadership, UH grew from three hospitals to soon-to-be 22 hospitals, with its recent addition of Lake Health and minority ownership in Western Reserve Hospital in Cuyahoga Falls. Now a super-regional health care system, UH cares for more than 1.3 million people each year across a 17-county region.
"When he arrived, by many measures, UH was a one ZIP code operation," said Dr. Cliff Megerian, president of UH. "He has been the horsepower behind its growth to soon-to-be a 22 hospital system."
Megerian will become CEO on Feb. 1, when Zenty retires after nearly two decades.
During Zenty's tenure, the system recruited new physicians, added new technology and massively grew its research capabilities. UH has built new hospitals and locations, added existing community hospitals into the system and renovated and expanded facilities. There are many ways to measure the ways UH has grown and changed since Zenty took over.
Other accomplishments are harder to quantify.
Asked about his achievements in the near two decades he led University Hospitals, Zenty is quick to point to his team.
"I really, as an individual, I didn't accomplish anything in the past two decades," he said. "We accomplished a lot collectively."
His ability to build, grow and inspire the teams that made these changes possible is one of his greatest assets to UH.
"What makes Tom an exceptional leader is he is very good at communicating and engaging with all stakeholders you need to bring together to get results," said Paul Tait, chief strategic planning officer at UH.
M. Steven Jones, president of University Hospitals Community Hospitals — East region, first met Zenty in the 1990s when the two worked at Cedars-Sinai, a nonprofit hospital in Southern California.
Zenty was a "visionary" who worked to develop institutes at Cedars-Sinai, ultimately transforming the hospital, raising the level of medical care provided there and assembling a top-notch leadership team, Jones said.
In 2003, Zenty brought those skills to University Hospitals.
What drew Zenty to UH was the opportunity and challenge to distinguish the system above others in a region full of hospitals offering world-class care, he said. He was also struck by a concept laid out in the system's founding principles: the needy are the most worthy.
"I always believed that working for an organization that has a higher social purpose is the kind of organization that resonates with me," he said.
Monte Ahuja, executive chairman of Transtar Industries and a longtime UH board member, was part of the committee that interviewed Zenty during the search for a new leader. Zenty restructured and realigned the system to establish its foundation for growth and helped ensure UH had a modern and intentional infrastructure in its resources, facilities and technology, Ahuja said.
"One of the most challenging tasks that I would say Tom Zenty had is changing the culture internally to make people accept the change and then begin to see that the institution has to be balanced in research and developing clinical services and the satisfaction and ultimate outcome of the patients," Ahuja said. "I would say without that, we could not have really transformed the institution."
In his first several years, Zenty led the system through Vision 2010, a strategic facility and technology expansion, including the Seidman Cancer Center, Ahuja Medical Center in Beachwood and a new neonatal intensive care unit at UH Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, as well as Center for Emergency Medicine and the Marcy R. Horvitz Pediatric Emergency Center. Vision 2010 invested significant capital into bringing UH to the suburbs and moving from just an acute care hospital to a more ambulatory world.
"That brought a whole new market to UH," Jones said.
But his early years also brought some difficult decisions, including closing a hospital and selling UH's insurance company, said Heidi Gartland, chief government and community relations officer for UH.
"He's a risk taker, bold," she said. "He could see beyond what our current moment was."
People on his leadership team each point to various highlights of his tenure, from Vision 2010 and beyond.
Harrington Discovery Institute at University Hospitals — part of the Harrington Project for Discovery & Development, launched in 2012 — engages physician-scientists at more than 50 universities nationally and internationally.
The system added UH Parma Medical Center and UH Elyria Medical Center to its portfolio in 2014. UH Portage Medical Center (formerly Robinson Memorial Hospital) was integrated into UH in 2015. Months later, UH added UH Samaritan Medical Center in Ashland and assumed full ownership of UH St. John Medical Center.
UH invested in and launched in 2016 the first proton therapy center in Ohio, offering a form of radiation treatment that targets a tumor more directly while reducing the effects on surrounding healthy tissue.
A new arm of the system, UH Ventures, was launched in 2017 to work with innovators to develop business models and new revenue for the organization.
In 2018, the system opened the UH Rainbow Center for Women & Children in Cleveland's Midtown area, offering primary pediatric care and women's health care.
In 2019, UH announced a $200 million campus expansion for Ahuja Medical Center in Beachwood, which was constructed under Zenty's leadership.
Earlier this year, UH worked with Cleveland Clinic to develop a joint testing center for COVID-19, the first significant joint effort between the two in recent history, said Dr. Tom Mihaljevic, president and CEO of the Clinic. The testing center is a testament to Zenty's values and the collaborative nature he has brought to the table, he said.
"The relationship between UH and Cleveland Clinic has never been better to the point that two long-term competitors now have our leadership teams, our executive teams actually meet on a regular basis," Mihaljevic said. "We are advancing those areas in which we do not compete but collaborate. And a lot of credit goes to Tom Zenty."
Year after year, the UH system continued to expand. Underlining all of these efforts was Zenty's ability to clearly, passionately communicate his vision and inspire individuals to jump in on the work and support his colleagues throughout all of it.
"The one thing that Tom does so well is he really cares about his colleagues," Gartland said. "He expects the most out of you, but when you have a moment where you have a success, he calls you personally to thank you. He takes nothing for granted. And that's very appreciated."
Also under Zenty's leadership, the system raised more than $2 billion in philanthropic support of the three parts of its mission: to heal, teach and discover.
"Who would have thought 18 years ago that was ever possible?" Jones said. "We used to raise a million a year."
The tremendous community support is one of the most heartening pieces of the past two decades, Zenty said.
As for his next chapter, Zenty has agreed to work with a venture capital firm on the West Coast and a private equity group on the East Coast after he's finished at UH at the end of the month. Though he plans to spend some time in warmer climates, he said he will keep his house in Shaker Heights, the place he's called home the longest.
"All in all, I would have done nothing differently in terms of my move here," Zenty said. "This was a wonderful opportunity for me to work in a world-class organization at UH in a world-class city like Cleveland, Ohio. And I will look back on these two decades as some of the finest years of my life."