Riddle finds happiness with Mary Free Bed position

March 12, 2012
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It’s strange how things often seem to work out for the best.

Kent Riddle celebrates his first year as CEO of Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital this week, having taken over the provider’s reins March 14, 2011. It’s a job he readily admits that he loves. But it’s also one he turned down the first time he was offered it.

“I’d say this job was a great big break, and I didn’t even know it at the time. I wasn’t looking for it, and I said no at first because I wasn’t really looking to do something else, and I didn’t think I was really qualified for it. So I said no — for about a half-an-hour,” he said.

“I love it every day. Mary Free Bed has been my life for the last year.”

Riddle was quite familiar with Mary Free Bed when he moved into the CEO’s office, having joined the hospital’s board in 2004 and having served as chairman from 2007 through last year. Now he is directing a $48 million renovation and expansion project — likely the most expensive development the hospital has undertaken.

Prior to saying “yes” to the medical business, Riddle spent nearly 30 years in commercial real estate. Shortly after he graduated from Purdue University with a degree in construction management and engineering in 1980, he opened the Riddle Development Corp. and Interstate Properties Inc. in Denver, and was an active commercial real estate developer for eight years. He also started Colfax on the Hill there, a downtown neighborhood business association that is still operating. He was so successful that he made Denver Magazine’s list of “young business people to watch” in 1985 when he was 27.

Riddle left Denver three years later to join Steelcase Inc. as a senior project manager for the firm’s facilities. Then, in 1994, Steelcase named him its director of corporate real estate, a post he held until 2000.

“That got me all over the world of mergers and acquisitions. That was a great break. That was a great job,” he said.

  Kent Riddle
Organization:
Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital
Title: CEO
Age: 53
Birthplace: Bloomington, Ill.
Residence: Alto
Family: Wife, Susan, and children Kelly, Scott, Jonathan and Katie.
Business/Community Organizations: Board chairman for Camp Henry, American Hospital Association, American Medical Rehabilitation Providers Association, Michigan Health & Hospital Association, Heart of West Michigan United Way and Degage Ministries.
Biggest Career Break: Becoming director of corporate global real estate for Steelcase Inc. in 1994.
“I was doing business in all these different cultures and in quite a variety of things. We were acquiring businesses, selling off and acquiring real estate, being involved in mergers of businesses — and to do it in Thailand, the Middle East, throughout Europe, South America and then Australia was quite an exposure to a lot of things. So that was probably my first big break, I would say.”

Riddle then became executive vice president for development and operations of Workstage LLC, a joint venture Steelcase entered into with Morgan Stanley, the Gale Companies and three others. He served in that post until 2008, when he opened Riddle Motors Works LLC. Under that banner, he restored and sold vintage autos produced from 1902 through 1967.

His favorite of the 37 or so classics he owns is the 1910 Steam Car manufactured by the White Motor Co. The American-made, steam-powered convertible touring car sat four and offered 20 horsepower. It was the auto of choice for President Teddy Roosevelt when he was in office.

Riddle’s model was made in the last year White produced the car.

“It’s a touring car and it’s all original. It’s covered with brass,” he said. “There aren’t very many around. I looked for 20 years to find a 1910 White Steam Car and I finally found one. I had to go out to Oregon to convince the seller to sell it.”

He calls Riddle Motors Works his “lifestyle business” and said he was semi-retired when he started it four years ago.

“I’ve collected pre-war cars my whole life and I had a large collection. I just wanted to manage the collection — you can do that and make a living at it. So that was always my goal, and I was really loving doing that for about two-and-a-half years until (Mary Free Bed) came up,” he said.

Riddle lives in a rural section of the county near Alto with his wife of 31 years, Mary, whom he said was his high school sweetheart in Bloomington, Ill. They attended Purdue University together where Susan earned a degree in speech and hearing science. She went on to complete a master’s degree in audiology from Denver University while Kent was running his real estate development firm.

Susan, who survived a horrible car crash 10 years ago that nearly claimed her life and damaged her eyesight, volunteers at Mary Free Bed and runs her own business.

“She breeds and raises alpacas, which is perfect for her. So we have an old car collection and alpacas on our property,” he said. “I think she saw an ad about them one day. We started to investigate it and just got very interested in it. She loves it. She loves spending time with them every day.”

Kent and Susan dated for six years before they tied the knot. They have four grown children: daughters Kelly and Katie and sons Scott and Jonathan, who range in age from 22 to 28. When he isn’t working or restoring a vintage vehicle, Riddle loves to travel, climb, camp and backpack with Susan.

Riddle has been active locally ever since he arrived here. Today, he chairs the board of directors for Camp Henry in Newaygo and belongs to multiple organizations. Perhaps the most important is the American Medical Rehabilitation Providers Association.

“It’s important especially now because Mary Free Bed needs a lot of input and exposure to other kinds of best practices around the country just to learn from them, and so that’s one thing we get out of that association. Mary Free Bed has been a member, but I’m now a member, so that’s an important one,” he said.

Some might feel that being the head of Mary Free Bed is an unusual position for a former commercial real estate developer to find himself in. But Riddle said his background actually has prepared him for his current post. He said doing merger and acquisitions work, running his own businesses and being a passionate deal maker, like most developers are, all have served him well at the hospital.

“One of the things Mary Free Bed needed, and still needs, is partnerships — collaborative ventures with others in order to make what it is that we do even better. So having done a lot of that kind of thing, I had that background,” he said.

“Looking back, I think that just having someone from the for-profit sector come in to do a not-for-profit hospital and begin to run aspects of it in a very business-like way was important.”

Looking forward, Riddle said he plans to continue to direct most of his effort and energy over the next year into Mary Free Bed, or as he put it, “Just more of the same: just kind of putting the nose to the grindstone.

“We’re building our network and taking care of more and more patients all the time. It’s really building Mary Free Bed up to the next level, and I’m going to stick with it for, hopefully, many years. It’s not something that was ever on my radar, but now that I’m in it, I absolutely love it.”

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