Leading Blodgett's New Era
EAST GRAND RAPIDS — When Jim Wilson announced this summer to staff members that the hospital in this suburban city would once again be known as Blodgett Hospital, he noticed their smiles.
“Just to see the smiles on everyone’s face when we announced that we were going to call Blodgett ‘Blodgett Hospital’: That seemed like such a simple thing to me, but now I’ve begun to understand why the smiles were from ear to ear,” Wilson said. “We really go back to where we started.”
Named to the post last spring, Wilson is the first president of Blodgett since 1997, when it merged with Butterworth Hospital to become part of Spectrum Health. An Ohio native and son of a doctor, Wilson brings his background in hospital leadership in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York to the executive suite on Blodgett’s first floor.
The back-to-the-future moniker for Blodgett Hospital occurred in July, when Spectrum Health announced it would spend $98 million to upgrade the hospital and build a new section for patient and operating rooms. The announcement set the course for Blodgett’s future, which had hung in uncertainty for the decade since the merger: Blodgett is staying open and staying put.
“I think that probably over a period of 10 to 15 years, there have been some unknowns about Blodgett’s future, and now we know what the future’s going to be,” Wilson said. “That’s, I believe, why the response has been so positive. It’s been energizing for me and other people that are involved in management here at Blodgett Hospital.”
Wilson joined Spectrum Health in July 2004, taking administrative responsibility for the Meijer Heart Center, which opened in 2004; the still-under-construction Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion; and radiology and laboratory services.
“When you look around the country and you see what my other colleagues are doing in health care, you might get to do one of those in your career, if you’re lucky: a Meijer Heart Center, a Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and now a $98 million initiative here at Blodgett,” Wilson said. “Over the period of three years, I’ve been in a leadership role for all three, so it’s been a very exciting time.”
Wilson grew up in Warren, Ohio, the third of eight children. His younger brother, Terrance E. Wilson, is president and CEO of a hospital in Indiana.
“My father (Thomas E. Wilson) was a physician, and that’s actually how I got interested in health care,” he said. “My dad introduced me to a local CEO of a hospital, and I got interested in health care administration as a career.”
Wilson said he was drawn to health care’s mission of service, as well as the maturing business side.
“We’re really trying to improve the health of the people that we serve. We’re helping them battle heart disease, we’re helping them battle cancer,” he said.
Name: James M. Wilson
Company: Spectrum Health
Family: Wife, Randi; children, Jimmy, Erin, Ryan, Kelly, Meghan
Business/Community Organizations: School and church volunteer
Biggest Career Break:Being hired as CEO of New Jersey hospital at age 24.
Wilson graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1976, and then took a master’s degree in health care administration from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. From an internship in Binghamton, N.Y., at age 24 Wilson was hired to run the 100-bed Southern Ocean County Hospital in Manahawkin, N.J.
“To have those opportunities at a young age really provided an opportunity for my career to accelerate at a very young age,” he said.
From there, he moved to St. Agnes Hospital in Philadelphia, where he spent the bulk of his career. That hospital, part of a Catholic health care system, eventually merged with a nearby hospital and three years ago became the St. Agnes Continuing Care Center.
Wilson left Philadelphia to become CEO at St. Catherine of Siena in Smithtown, N.Y., which included 300 beds for acute care, a 240-bed nursing home, a 298-unit senior citizen housing complex and a medical office building. A Catholic health care system had taken over the financially troubled Long Island hospital and was struggling to bring the books back into the black.
In late 2001 and early 2002, 475 registered nurses belonging to the New York State Nurses Association went on strike for 104 days. According to the Long Island newspaper Newsday, the nurses had little trouble finding other work to carry them through until the strike’s conclusion, and even were recruited on the picket lines. The New York Times reported that St. Catherine spent $12 million to keep the hospital running, following what Wilson said was the bishop’s directive to maintain services. The nurses cited mandatory overtime, understaffing and a desire to put a union-sponsored health care plan in place as reasons for the strike, area newspapers reported at the time.
“It was probably the most challenging four months of my entire career, and at the same time, four of the more fascinating months of my career, as well,” Wilson said. “It was the first collective bargaining strike I have ever experienced, and I hope it will be the last one that I experience.”
Wilson said the strike convinced him that “a collective bargaining unit” interferes with the relationship between management and employees.
“It changed the way that I look at the relationships we have between our employees and everyone on management. It changed the way I establish and work on those relationships,” he said. “It convinced me the absolute best health care environment for our patients and physicians is one in which the board and administration work directly with all employees in creating the kind of culture we want for our patients, rather than a collective bargaining unit where there’s a go-between.
“No one comes out of a work stoppage in a hospital better. It’s not a win situation for either side.”
Wilson said he did “due diligence” on Spectrum Health before uprooting his wife, Randi, and their five children, all East Coast natives, and bringing them to Grand Rapids’ Midwestern habitat. The two oldest children are in college, two are at Catholic Central High School, and the youngest attends Forest Hills Central Middle School. They are involved in soccer and lacrosse. His daughter, Erin, is a sophomore on the Marist College lacrosse team in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
“It’s been an interesting culture change from New York to Grand Rapids, but it’s gone very well. I think they all like the fact that there’s a lot less traffic than New York,” said Wilson, who is active on school committees and at his church.
When construction is done at Blodgett in 2010, Wilson said he expects the hospital to employ about 1,800 people.
“If Blodgett’s going to be successful with this initiative, it’s going to be very important to reconnect with the community and help the community understand what we do here,” Wilson said. “We are not a specialty hospital. We are a community, teaching hospital.
“There’s been so much change in health care around Grand Rapids in the last 10 years that we have a challenge: We need to get our message out. We need to be prepared with all of our programs.”