Felker Infuses Life Lift

July 9, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Norman Felker comes to work every day with the assurance that he’s saving lives. That’s what has kept him going for more than 20 years in a business that relies on a raw material that “walks around on two feet.”

Michigan Community Blood Centers supplies 23 Michigan hospitals with whole blood and a variety of products extracted from it. But blood donated through MCBC can end up almost anywhere, including Iraq, where Felker’s 22-year-old grandson, Eric Griffen of LakeOdessa, was wounded by shrapnel from a roadside bomb earlier this year.

“On an ‘irregular regular’ basis, we’ve been shipping blood to the military,” said Felker, MCBC president & CEO, who served four years in the National Guard but never left the state.

“They know my person by her first name, and they call her up and say … ‘Have you got something you can ship off today?’ And we always try very hard to have whatever they need. That’s real important to us, too. It goes to Iraq. That’s where my grandson is, who just earned the Purple Heart. So I’m glad it does go there.”

Felker oversees 425 staff members in four locations: Grand Rapids, Saginaw, St. Joseph and Traverse City. They collect, test, process and distribute nearly 100,000 pints of blood annually.

All the work is performed according to federal regulations, Felker said, and the organization is regulated as a pharmaceutical manufacturer. It is licensed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the Michigan Department of Community Health.

Felker has changed hats several times over the years. Raised in the Grand Rapids area, he attended three elementary schools and both Kelloggsville and Union high schools, as his family moved frequently so that his entrepreneur father could fix up houses and sell them at a profit. Eventually, he landed at the General Motors plant in Wyoming, and attended General Motors Institute to work in the engineering department.

Then Felker decided he’d had enough of numbers and formulas and sitting at a desk.

“I found out what I really wanted to do was work with people,” he said. “Sitting at a board, drawing all day in a corner was not exactly what I wanted to do. GM is like a small city and has so many things that you can do. So I just transferred around till I found something I really liked.”

That’s when he switched to human resources.

“The best job I had over there was working in benefits, and that was helping people get their bills paid and explaining what their benefits are and signing retirement papers and those things,” Felker said.

As part of that job, Felker organized blood drives. He joined the local boards of the American Red Cross and Grand Valley Blood program, which eventually encompassed three other blood programs in the Michigan Community Blood Centers. When MCBC found itself in need of a new leader in 1985, it asked Felker to take the job for a year. He agreed, and GM provided a “community service” leave of absence.

Needless to say, his GM leave has expired.

“It’s a feel good job,” Felker said. “You go home feeling very satisfied.”

The programs and services have expanded over the years. When Felker first started, the organization collected 47,000 useable pints of blood annually, and today, that number is 104,000 in four Michigan locations. Felker noted that while MCBC’s presence is strongest in Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Traverse City and St. Joseph, the American Red Cross is bigger in the blood industry statewide, partly due to a 1960s agreement that gave the Red Cross exclusivity in the Detroit area.

Like any other business, MCBC must respond to the needs of its customers: hospitals. “Almost all the services that we have, have been requested by the hospitals. And because they wanted them, we developed them,” Felker said. Besides whole blood, that includes:

*Collecting blood components while returning the rest to the donor.

*Removal of certain blood components as treatment for certain diseases.

*Mobile blood donation center (bus).

*Stem Cell/Cord Blood Bank, which had collected and stored the blood from more than 1,800 umbilical cords by the end of the 2006 fiscal year.

*DNA/HLA laboratories, which allow tissue-typing at the genetic code level within three to four days, instead of waiting five to six weeks from more distant laboratories.

*Red cell reference laboratory, used for the most complex or unusual cases.

*Infectious disease testing laboratory, through which all MCBC donations are processed.

*Advanced tissue typing in conjunction with the National Marrow Donor Program.

*Education program.

*Professional development.

“When people look at us they think, yeah, we give you our blood, they take it to the back door, and they send it to the hospitals. It isn’t quite how it happens. There’s a lot more to it than that,” Felker said. “When I came in 1985, we used to take orders in the morning and deliver blood in the afternoon. Now it takes 24 hours just to test the blood.”

Marketing plays a huge role in recruiting enough donors to keep up supplies, Felker said. MCBMC needs an average 144 donors per day in Grand Rapids alone. “We do a lot of marketing,” he said, from advertising one-time collection days to telemarketing to past donors and reaching out to students. “Schools are big for us — high schools,” he said. The organization also has monthly stops in areas around West Michigan, such as Grandville and Coopersville.

According to an IRS document covering the tax year ending March 31, 2006, the organization reported a balance of $1.9 million on revenue of $26.2 million, and net assets of $16.9 million for the same time period. The vast majority of MCBC’s revenue comes from payments for its blood products and testing. Hospitals pay between about $50 and $175 per pint for whole blood and the various components extracted from it, Felker said. Unlike many nonprofits, fundraising is not a major contributor to MCBC’s bottom line, at just $653,063 for the fiscal year ending in 2006.

Earlier this year, Felker was named chairman of the Alliance for Health, a local nonprofit health-planning agency that serves as a first reviewer for some medical capital projects and tries to pull the local health care community together to address industry issues. Among issues currently being studied are electronic medical records and quality data collection, as well as dealing with the state’s 1.2 million uninsured residents.

“I believe in what they’re doing,” Felker said. “I became its chair in May. I think the Alliance for Health has a place in holding down the cost of medical care. I think what they do is important, so I’ve been spending a lot of time there.”

In the meantime, you’re not likely to see Felker join other septuagenarians in retirement.

“I like it too much,” he said of his job. “As long as I can be an asset to the organization, I think I’ll probably be around. It’s something that grabs you … I just really like the whole deal.

“I heard one place that the average transfusion is (distributed to) 3.3 (people). If we’re doing over 100,000 units, that’s 33,000 transfusions, and — I don’t know how many people are in Grandville or Jenison — but that’s a goodly part of Grandville or Jenison whose lives we’re helping save every year. That means something.”     

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