From the gridiron to the C-suite – Dan Wilford brought intensity, focus to his leadership of Memorial Hermann

Dan Wilford brought intensity, focus to his leadership of Memorial Hermann

By Jessica Zigmond (Article posted on March 23, 2009 in Modern Healthcare)

wilfordIt’s fitting that former Memorial Hermann Healthcare System President and Chief Executive Officer Dan Wilford, a retired National Football League official, would name Tom Landry, Bill Walsh and Mike Ditka as his favorite NFL coaches, and keep a quote by the iconic Vince Lombardi in his office for years.

As Wilford, 68, is inducted into Modern Healthcare’s Hall of Fame, his friends and former colleagues—without knowing it—have described traits that he shares in common with the NFL Hall of Famers he has so long admired.

First, there’s his Methodist upbringing and deep devotion to the Christian faith, which mirrors longtime Dallas Cowboys coach Landry, Wilford’s favorite coach and the one who his twin brother, Ned, says Wilford most resembles. A 1972 Sports Illustrated article says Landry, a former president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, used to host Sunday morning, pregame devotional meetings in which guest speakers urged players to be “good Christian warriors.” Wilford, the son of a Methodist minister, began each board meeting with a prayer and says he views his career as a calling.

Like the late San Francisco 49ers coach Walsh, Wilford is known for his keen ability to evaluate talent, a skill that former Memorial Hermann Chief Operating Officer Ken Wine says Wilford used deftly as he shifted employees into other departments where they performed better.

With Ditka (the Chicago Bear who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988 as a player, not a coach), Wilford shares a love of fierce competition. Richard Bettis, former president and CEO of the Texas Hospital Association, says Wilford’s intensity is infectious. “It’s not to intimidate you,” Bettis says. “It’s almost to shame you. He’s so intense—why am I not as intense?”

And then there’s Lombardi. Wilford’s brother says the former Green Bay Packers coach was too rigid, too hard-nosed, for there to be any fair comparison between the two men. But while their personal styles may have been different, their work ethic and attitude toward achievement were very much the same. “The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field of endeavor,” reads the Lombardi quote in Wilford’s office.

That determination helped Lombardi transform professional football in America, as it helped Wilford transform Houston’s Memorial Hospital into what is now the Memorial Hermann Healthcare System in the Texas Medical Center. And if that 1997 merger between Memorial and Hermann Hospital was the pinnacle of Wilford’s career—his Super Bowl, so to speak—then his journey there was just as arduous, disciplined and well-executed as a winning season.

Born in Memphis, Tenn., on June 11, 1940, Wilford grew up in Arkansas with his parents, older sister, Ann, and twin brother, Ned. The family moved to a handful of towns in the state before Dan and Ned graduated from high school in 1958 and left for the University of Mississippi, where Dan played fullback and end, while Ned played running back. Their love of football continued to grow, and both men would serve later as officials in college football, with Dan in the Missouri Valley Conference, then the Southwest Conference, and, eventually, in the NFL in the early to mid-1980s.

In 1962, the two brothers finished college as distinguished military graduates in the Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The genesis of their careers in healthcare began there, as both men—then second lieutenants—chose the medical service corps, which introduced them to hospital management.

Dan spent two years at the U.S. Army Hospital in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., before he left for Washington University in St. Louis, where he earned a master’s degree in hospital administration. By this time, he had married his high school sweetheart, Anne, and the couple had their first child, a daughter named Kelly. The program at Washington University required a year of study and a year of residency, in which graduate students rotated through all of the departments of a hospital. Wilford was eager to make his way to Tulsa, Okla., where he heard good things from his classmates about Jim Harvey, then the progressive, 36-year-old CEO of Hillcrest Medical Center. Wilford considers the late Harvey as one of his mentors.

“He was a big believer in strategic planning, which was not new but not many people had sophisticated planning processes,” Wilford says. “He was big into management by objectives: setting goals, measuring performance. That was relatively new then,” he adds. “He kind of thought the hospital should be a laboratory to try new things.”

On to Tulsa
After finishing graduate school in 1966, Wilford moved with his young family—which now included son Jeff—to Tulsa, where he worked as Hillcrest’s associate administrator (a COO in today’s terms) for nearly 10 years.

“I left Tulsa in 1974 and went to North Mississippi Medical Center, a 600-bed hospital” in Tupelo, says Wilford, who served as the facility’s president. “I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.”

The experience there proved to be a good training ground. A decade later, Wilford took the helm of Memorial Hospital in Houston, a position he would hold for 18 years, including the top job at the merged organization. He says the two most critical aspects of being a CEO include being able to work well with hospital board members and physicians. “Having the right instincts and the right training was really a key to success,” he says.

Ask anyone who has worked with Wilford, though, and they will tell you his success had more to do with his discipline and the long hours he devoted to his work. His good friend Gus Blackshear, a former managing partner with the law firm Fulbright & Jaworsky, met Wilford in 1984 when Blackshear worked as an attorney for Memorial. He says Wilford would typically arrive at the office at 7 a.m. or before; would leave around 6 p.m. to have dinner with his family; and would work again until midnight. Blackshear also commented on Wilford’s strong spiritual side, something that undoubtedly fostered the strong moral code Wilford lived by personally and professionally.

“I remember him saying, ‘It was impossible to do the wrong thing right. … If we do the right thing, the bottom line and financial success will follow,’ ” says former Memorial Hermann COO Wine. “We worked hard to have a successful financial operation—but that was an outcome; it wasn’t where we started,” Wine adds.

1996 was a big year for the then-56-year-old Wilford. The American College of Healthcare Executives honored him with the association’s Gold Medal Award as the nation’s outstanding healthcare executive in the same year that Hermann approached Memorial about a merger. A teaching hospital, Hermann lost $64 million the year before it merged with Memorial, a loss that Wilford attributes to the hospital’s strategy of purchasing physician practices throughout Houston with the hope that they would provide services to patients at Hermann, a costly decision that ultimately failed. And Memorial had to contend with another challenge: Hermann was a major teaching hospital, and Memorial was not.

“Over the years, if you worked with doctors, you can work with them in a private setting,” Wilford says. “The medical school structure and bureaucracy is something we had to be patient with. Within two years, we were in the black.”

Today, more than 4,000 physicians at Memorial Hermann—which celebrated its centennial in 2007—serve the Houston area through nine hospitals with two additional campuses. Wilford continued as the system’s CEO until the fall of 2002, when he decided to retire early at age 62.

After years of long hours and working weekends, Wilford and his wife, Anne, were eager to enjoy retirement at their newly purchased second home in Tellico Village, Tenn., 35 miles outside of Knoxville. The dream was short-lived, however. On March 13, 2003, as the couple drove to their new place, they were caught in a horrible rainstorm, which resulted in a car crash that killed Anne instantly and left Wilford with critical injuries. One former colleague remembers there being nearly 400 people to greet Wilford as he arrived by helicopter to Memorial Hermann Southwest, where he spent 11 days in the hospital’s intensive-care unit.

Wilford recovered, and eventually remarried. Now living with his wife, Cindy, in Sugar Land, Texas, the accomplished former CEO—who has co-authored two books, Trust Matters: New Directions in Health Care Leadership (1998) and You Threw the Flag … Now … You Make the Call: A Primer on Leadership Accountabilities (with his brother, Ned, in 2002)—looks back on his career in America’s hospitals with both satisfaction and appreciation.

“Some people are blessed by their professions and some are cursed by their professions,” Wilford says. “I think I was called into hospital management, and I enjoyed every day of it.”

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