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CEO TALK: New St. Joseph’s Health CEO says job “like a dream come true”

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The incoming president and CEO of St. Joseph’s Health says he is “so excited” about the opportunity to work for a faith-based health-care system because it’s something he’s pursued “for many years.”

“This is like a dream come true,” says Leslie (Les) Luke, who spoke to CNYBJ on Jan. 17.

Luke will succeed Kathryn Ruscitto as the health-care system’s 14th president and CEO on Feb. 20, St. Joseph’s announced on Jan. 13.

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St. Joseph’s Health employs more than 4,600 people, according to the 2016 Book of Lists. The organization in July 2015 formally joined Livonia, Michigan–based Trinity Health, which describes itself as “one of the largest multi-institutional, Catholic health-care delivery systems in the nation.” St. Joseph’s Health transferred the nonprofit sponsorship from the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities to Trinity Health’s Catholic Health Ministries.

Luke currently serves as interim CEO of Tennova East, a seven-hospital system in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Luke was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but was raised in Hawaii where his parents are from. His father was a general surgeon who completed his training in Syracuse in 1955, St. Joseph’s said.

The St. Joseph’s job represents the fifth time in his career that Luke has served as a permanent hospital CEO.

In 1991, he received his first CEO role at a 50-bed, nonprofit hospital in Kentucky. Since then, he has served as CEO of three other hospitals.

In 2006, he joined Franklin, Tennessee–based Community Health Systems Inc., where he held several key leadership roles including his current position.

Luke, 55, holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in health administration from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Luke and his family will relocate to the Syracuse area from Brentwood, Tennessee.

 

Q&A

CNYBJ posed several questions to Luke about his new job, his plans, and his background. What follows is a transcript of the discussion:

 

CNYBJ: What do you find most appealing about the top leadership job at St. Joseph’s Health?

LUKE: “First of all, I’ve always wanted to work for a faith-based system. I like how many faith-based systems, particularly Trinity [Health] and St. Joseph’s, [do] a nice job of balancing their mission to their patients and community with a margin, [or] financial stability. The second piece that really impressed me was that during the interview process, the physicians, the staff, and the executives … they were all very loyal and very dedicated to the hospital and its mission. I haven’t felt that in many organizations but it really, really stood out. And when you have a group like that, then the odds of success and being able to lead the organization through the future goes way up.”

 

CNYBJ: St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center underwent about a decade-long, capital-improvement project that included an emergency-services department, a surgical tower, a surgical suite, and a new lobby. Did that make the organization more attractive as an entity you’d want to lead?

LUKE: “Definitely … Any organization that continues to invest into itself and into the services that it offers the community is one that’s very progressive and so St. Joseph’s has done a very good job at not just keeping up with what’s going on but actually planning for the future. I think it’s been fabulous.”

 

CNYBJ: St. Joseph’s joined Livonia, Michigan–based Trinity Health in 2015. What are the benefits of being part of a larger organization such as Trinity Health?

LUKE: “Mainly, its resources and scale. When you belong to a large organization, you have many more resources in terms of expertise, capital … which you otherwise would not necessarily have … with a standalone hospital. That’s one thing. The second thing is you have more consistency in how you approach things. The nice thing about a large organization … it has a lot of experience in different markets and so you have a lot of best practices, which you can then bring in and be consistent with these other hospitals in delivering quality care, financial results, things like that. Trinity Health, too, as an organization, is simply outstanding. I’ve had the opportunity to take a look quite at a number of different organizations and worked for a quite a number of them, and Trinity again, matches St. Joseph’s really well because it knows how to balance the mission and the margin.”

 

CNYBJ: St. Joseph’s has lost money in the last few years. What steps can you take to strengthen the organization’s financial operations?

LUKE: “First of all … St. Joseph’s has about $650 million in [annual] revenues, so the losses that they’ve been experiencing over the past three years … you should be concerned about them but it’s not to the point where it’s really critical. So we can methodically, logically, and carefully work through all of the issues and get back to a positive bottom line. To do that, my approach generally is from the volume and quality angle. The reason you do that is because as you grow volume and you grow patient loyalty and quality, you’re able to actually build your revenue line and many times that by itself is sufficient to overcome any financial issues that the organization may have. The other thing, too, is as you improve quality, your costs actually go down. A lot of people think it’s the other way around that you have to pay more for quality but that’s actually been proven to be the opposite case. The better your quality, your costs go down, which actually improves your bottom line. I’m going to go at it from that angle. Now, granted, we have to very prudent about the expense side. We have to watch just like any household watches their expenses and we’ll be doing that. We’ll have good financial discipline.”

 

CNYBJ: The news release announcing your hire referred to the first 90 days. What are your early plans when you begin your new job?

LUKE: “Well, the first thing that I always do … I do a lot of listening and talking to folks as far as their perception of where the organization is and where they think it needs to go … and then build a unified vision for the future. Now, they already have that in place as far as their business plan, but, at the same time, I think it’s important to make sure that everybody really understands it… initially, it’s to establish the vision and then over the next period of time, it’s to assess where the organization is and if there are any gaps and then to make plans to fill in those gaps and make sure that we can move steadily along. I’ve done quite a number of transitions as an interim CEO … the 90-day plan is kind of my life and so this is kind of … going to be more of the same, except it’s going to be a different institution, different players, and my main objective here is to make sure the organization moves along very smoothly, to stay calm during the first 90 days, be very methodical at what we do.”

 

Father’s Syracuse connection

The St. Joseph’s release indicated that Luke’s father trained as a surgeon in Syracuse in the 1950s.

CNYBJ asked Luke if he knew where his father was trained. He says he’s not sure because it happened prior to his birth and his mother didn’t recall the location, either.

“We know that they were here because of the pictures of the snow,” he quips.

Luke hopes to figure out the answer to that question once he moves to the area.

CNYBJ also asked if his father’s connection to Syracuse was a factor his decision to accept the St. Joseph’s CEO job.

“I thought it was kind a neat circle of life. The second thing is … I thought if he were alive today, I think he’d be quite pleased with, first, that I’m serving in a Catholic institution and, second, that I’m in the medical field and managing a major hospital there. I think he would’ve been quite pleased,” he says.

 

Contact Reinhardt at ereinhardt@cnybj.com

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