Inside Track: Wilson is drawn to the executive side of health
Michigan Blood CEO’s first job was running a 100-bed hospital at the age of 25.
Jim Wilson comes by his passion for health care honestly.
Growing up as one of eight children of a physician in northeast Ohio, Wilson latched on to the medical field at a young age. But unlike his father, who worked directly with patients, Wilson found himself more drawn to the administrative side of the industry, working at a large scale to help entire communities.
“I didn’t really have an interest in the medical side, but in terms of how it all operated. I grew up kind of developing and learning a sense of service,” Wilson said. “And the excitement of the health care field for me is that you spend your day helping to improve the quality of other people’s lives.”
Wilson was appointed CEO of Michigan Blood last fall after coming over to the Grand Rapids nonprofit to serve as COO a year earlier. He has worked in the realm of health care for more than 40 years.
After completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame and his master’s from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Wilson’s first big test came when he was appointed to run a 100-bed hospital just west of Long Beach Island in New Jersey — “at the ripe old age of 25.”
“I was given the opportunity to be the administrator of a 100-bed hospital that had its own board of trustees, its own medical staff and its own community that it was part of — and I was given that opportunity at a very young age,” Wilson said. “And I was working not only in that community in terms of all the community work that you do, but learning all the governance you do and the work with the medical staff and hospital staff. I think in terms of what I wanted it to be and the things I wanted to do, that was clearly my first big break.”
That hospital was part of a larger regional medical system and after about four years there, Wilson was promoted to a larger hospital in the same system, then-Memorial Hospital of Burlington County, located about 40 miles west in Mount Holly. Three years into his tenure at Memorial, Wilson was promoted to chief operating officer for the entire system, a role he held for three years.
During his time in New Jersey, Wilson met his wife, Randi, a Mount Holly native. While running an entire operating system, Wilson also began to start a family, and the couple had five kids in seven years.
“People used to ask me what my hobbies were, with five kids in seven years that was my only hobby — raising a family,” Wilson said.
Wilson held the role of COO for five more years before moving on to be president and CEO of what was then St. Agnes Medical Center, a member of the national Franciscan Health System.
Working as a key cog in a national health system and as the head of a hospital in a much larger metropolitan area proved another chance for Wilson to cut his teeth. The competition was more intense, but after about five years, Wilson was tapped to move up again, this time as president and CEO for one of Franciscan Health System’s integrated care network of primary care physicians, covering a network of the system’s eight geographies.
When that health system dissolved, Wilson left to become CEO of St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center, a Catholic hospital in upstate New York.
Wilson was hired to turn around the hospital, which was struggling financially. It was a different opportunity than what Wilson was used to, but he attacked the challenge with aplomb.
“In my time there we were able to turn it back into a well-run acute care hospital and it was doing much better than it had when we came there,” he said.
Through an executive search committee, Wilson was tipped to an opportunity at what was then a fairly new health system developing in Grand Rapids — Spectrum Health. He relocated his family to Grand Rapids in 2004, back to his Midwest roots after more than a quarter-century on the East Coast.
“It was a very comfortable relocation for me from the start — but it took about two years for the family to talk to me at the dinner table,” Wilson said.
After three years as a system vice president, Wilson assumed the role of president of Blodgett Hospital, and oversaw the more than 150-year-old hospital’s transformation.
“We almost completely reinvented Blodgett in my time as president,” Wilson said. “We built the new building, renovated the existing and through working with physicians and staff we reinvented a new culture at Blodgett.
“There was a lot of excitement and you now know it as it exists today.”
As Spectrum underwent a reorganization, Wilson left and eventually landed at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital as the chief operating officer. He worked for Mary Free Bed for almost two years until he was tapped by then-Michigan Blood president Bill Rietscha to come over as COO, where he would have an opportunity to take over when Rietscha retired.
While Wilson readily admits Michigan Blood is different from his previous hospital work, his passion for health care still shines through.
“What I find exciting here is that every unit of blood we collect goes to patients in hospitals that absolutely have a critical need for it. It’s not a casual thing that we do here,” Wilson said. “Everything we collect is a critical need of someone in a hospital, primarily in Michigan, and that for me is where the passion comes from and where the excitement is.”
Wilson’s hobby still is his family. All five of his children went on to play Division I collegiate sports at either the varsity or club level, and until the youngest graduated recently, he enjoyed watching their games.
He still enjoys gathering with his entire family, which now includes one grandchild with another on the way. His children live all over the country, so he looks forward to the time they are able to spend together, especially if it can be on the water or at the beach.
When he thinks back on his first chance out of college, as a fresh-faced 25-year-old in charge of a small hospital in rural New Jersey, Wilson thinks the board was able to see the values he held dear and which have steered his career ever since.
“I talk about it in terms of the ability to collaborate, to cooperate, and to bring a passion to your work for what you’re doing. Those three things have always have been very important to me,” Wilson said. “You put that together with strong interpersonal skills and a lot of energy, I think also they identified an understanding of change and the need for change and ability to work in a very dynamic environment that is constantly changing.”