Wagner Returns To Roots
Outside the office, Wagner’s life is filled with an eclectic mix of interests and hobbies, from art collecting to orchid growing.
“I picked that up from my mother,” Wagner said. “I don’t know if it was nature or nurture, but I picked up those characteristics from her. I’ve always been interested in learning new things and challenging myself both intellectually and physically in terms of arts-and-crafts kinds of things.”
A Muskegon native, Wagner spent 25 years at Spectrum Health and its predecessor, Butterworth Hospital, before briefly joining Port Huron Hospital. When Saint Mary’s offered a chance to return to home turf in January, Wagner snatched it.
“The people here are really focused and dedicated on the patient — and not just on healing the physical parts of the patient, but dealing with the mental and physical aspects of patient care,” Wagner said. “There is also a real strong dedication and commitment to the hospital, to the success of the organization.”
Even after decades of working at Spectrum Health — which dwarfs Saint Mary’s, a Trinity Health hospital, in the local market — Wagner said he has no problem working at a smaller outfit.
“It has a little different feel about it because of that,” he said. “People are, I think, a little bit more closely knit. We certainly are never going to be as large as Spectrum Health from a number of standpoints, but we don’t feel like an underdog, because we feel like we’re providing superior care in the areas that we’ve specialized and focused on.
“There are patients in the community that seek us out because of the kind of care that we provide, so we don’t necessarily feel like we’re less than, simply because we’re smaller.”
After earning an industrial engineering degree at University of Michigan, Wagner started his career as a consultant. “There was a program sponsored by University of Michigan Hospital that placed industrial engineers in health care settings with the intent to try to make hospitals more efficient,” Wagner recalled.
“It was very interesting work, because it gave me a chance to work in a number of different hospitals to see the differences and how hospitals were organized, how their cultures were different, how they approached problem-solving in different ways. It gave me a really good, broad-based, fundamental understanding of the health-care industry,” Wagner said.
He decided he wanted to continue working in health care, so Wagner went back to U-M for a master’s degree in hospital administration. After another year of consulting, he was hired in the late 1970s at what was then Butterworth Hospital. There, he was part of the merger between Butterworth and Blodgett Hospital that resulted in Spectrum Health. He was vice president of operations when he decided to try his hand in a bigger role in a different place.
“I specifically was looking for a chief operating officer role, because I felt at that point in my career I had a lot of experience and insights to offer a new organization, and I wanted to be at a level in the organization where I could begin to influence the culture and direction of the organization,” he said.
That desire landed Wagner in Port Huron, nearly a straight shot across the state to the spot where Lake Huron narrows into the St. Clair River. Port Huron Hospital, a 186-bed nonprofit that serves St. Clair and Sanilac counties, competes with the 119-bed Mercy Hospital, which, like Saint Mary’s, is a member of Trinity Health.
“I was in Port Huron for 18 months — not too long — when the opportunity to come back to Grand Rapids presented itself to me,” Wagner said.
As COO at Saint Mary’s, Wagner is responsible for functions such as purchasing and warehousing, plant operation, environmental services, dietary and other clinical and support areas.
“I don’t have responsibility for the financial aspects of the organization, although I do have profit and loss responsibility for the clinical areas that are revenue-producing departments within the hospital,” he said.
Throughout his years in health care, Wagner said many aspects of the business have changed.
“I think there’s a much greater focus now on clinical quality, patient safety, the patient experience (and) customer satisfaction than what there was in the past,” Wagner said. “I think those things are very positive for health care.
“I think some of the negatives are the complexity of the reimbursement relationships (that) not only the government but other third-party payers have imposed on hospitals. It’s a significant financial burden to hospitals just to have to manage the infrastructure necessary to collect a bill. Certainly, the issue of the uninsured is a problem for hospitals as it relates to the bad-debt burden and the charity-care burden.
“So all of those things make it very difficult for hospitals to be successful, to generate the kinds of surpluses we need to build the programs, to build the facilities to meet the demand for services. Those are all challenges we deal with on a day-to-day basis, trying to make sure the services and facilities meet the needs of the population we serve, and at the same time being good stewards of the finances we have available to use.”
Now, about those orchids.
“I started collecting orchids a few years ago after my wife and I built a new house that had some very ideal exposures (for growing) orchids,” Wagner said. “So I started collecting them, and like many orchid growers out there know, once you start it’s almost a never-ending process. … And they tend to bloom in the wintertime, too, which is nice because we all need a little bit of extra sunshine in the winter.”
A “foodie” who enjoys cooking and collects wine, Wagner also has tried his hand at stained glass and furniture refinishing. He also has a contemporary art collection, including a piece in his Grand Rapids office.
“Purchasing pieces by well-known artists tends to be financially more gratifying, because they are more likely to appreciate in value,” he said. “But I also like to pick up things that are just appealing.”