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Issue: November/December 2010
Business Hall of Fame: Caring Inc.
Thomas J. Strauss incorporates servant leadership and a patient-first philosophy into everything at Summa Health System.
Sitting in one corner of Thomas J. Strauss’ office at Summa Health System is a shovel. It’s not just any shovel, though. Plated in silver and resting inside a glass box, it has been used at one of the many ceremonial groundbreakings Strauss has presided over in his 10 years as CEO of Summa.
This shovel may be nothing more than a fancy knickknack, a nice memento to a long-forgotten photo op. Or this shovel could hearken to a time when the 58-year-old wasn’t guiding one of the largest and most successful health care companies in Ohio, but instead was learning leadership lessons while on the floor of a massive Pittsburgh steel mill.
⊲ When I was getting my doctorate of pharmacology degree, I rounded with interns on patient floors and saw how health care was delivered directly to patients. I realized one thing on those rounds, and that’s the fact that the workers at the bedside are the champions of patients.
⊲ The patient is the only reason we are around, and the first 15 seconds a Summa employee comes into contact with that patient represents our successes and failures.
⊲ People need to be held accountable, and I need to be held accountable. If anyone is treated outside our value system, they have a right to stand up and say, “This is not what Strauss said should be done.”
⊲ The struggle in life is balancing family and work. When my kids were young, I forced myself to be home two nights a week and then all of weekends. I coached baseball, and I forced myself to be on that field at 5:30 p.m. regardless of what was happening at work. I’ll never forget those times.
Strauss’ introduction to the working world was as a crane hooker at the U.S. Steel Homestead Works outside Pittsburgh, then the world’s largest steel producing plant. Strauss, whose father was a steelworker, worked in the mill during the summer to make money that would go toward his tuition as an undergraduate at Duquesne University, where he was studying to be a hospital pharmacist.
For Strauss, the job was miserable, but not because he spent his days in blazing heat, hooking various heavy objects to the plant’s cranes. What disturbed him, he says as he thinks about those five years in the mid-to-late 1970s, was the fact that giving your all on the job was not necessarily a good thing.
“I’ll never forget being in a culture where people, because you were working hard, came beside you and said, ‘You’d better slow down, or you’re going to get hurt,’ ” Strauss says. “It was devastating to me.”
While that steel mill is long gone — it closed in 1980, and the site has evolved into retail development — the thing he took away from that job has lingered. It’s the idea that people should be rewarded not punished for working hard and doing everything they possibly can to do a good job.
That lesson has founded the basis for Strauss’ fervent belief in servant leadership, the ideas and values of which are printed on just about everything Summa publishes, from its annual reports to promotional materials to the card titled “You Are Summa,” which is given to every employee.
Strauss pushes the idea that Summa exists because of its patients and that employees should either be serving the patients or serving someone who is serving the patients.
Strauss teaches a four-hour class on servant leadership to all management employees and gives a 45-minute presentation at every new employee orientation. He tells them Summa’s success rests on the moment of truth, the first 15 seconds an employee comes into contact with a patient.
“I tell them that if they remember nothing else, to remember this moment of truth will make or break us,” he says, “and I am empowering you today to take whatever steps are necessary to satisfy that patient, and you will never get in trouble.”
It’s a philosophy that has led to accolades from U.S. News and World Report, which annually ranks hospitals and health care systems and has named Summa Akron City and St. Thomas hospitals among America’s Best 50 Hospitals four years running.
With more than 10,000 employees, Summa Health is the largest employer in the five-county area it serves. With about $1.6 billion in annual revenues, it is one of the largest drivers of the economies in that same geographic region.
And yet, Strauss’ office looks more like a living room than the office of a president and CEO of a billion-dollar health care business.
There is no huge, mahogany desk. In its place is a sleek black one that sits in a corner of the large room. The desk is immaculately clean, nearly empty, save for a phone that sits on its glassy surface.
The most noticeable things in the room are the reminders of family, something Strauss maintains is a higher priority than success in work.
“Faith, family and friends,” he says. “I love my work, and I give my all, but those other pieces are more important.”
On the other side of the room is a seating area: a glass coffee table surrounded by four chairs, a love seat and two end tables. Displayed on the two tables are photographs of two of the things Strauss prizes more than anything else. One photo is of his oldest grandchild, Ashley, now 3, wearing a frilly white dress and a pink bow in her curly hair. The other picture shows Brennan Ruth Ann, now 2 but an infant in the photo, lying on her belly with her head up and staring directly into the camera.
Unseen is the voice mail message saved on Strauss’ phone, a message left the day before on his 58th birthday by 2-year-old Aidan Thomas Strauss. It’s a message that moistens Strauss’ eyes when he talks about the pure joy it brought him when he first listened to it.
“After raising three boys,” Strauss says in an attempt to describe what it is like being a grandfather, “it was balls, balls, balls all over the house, so when you hold this little girl in your hands, and you look into that face, and you realize this is your son’s daughter, you realize how much God loves you because of the unconditional love you feel at that moment, holding that baby.”
Strauss knows to make the most of those moments, especially given the demands of his job. Thomas Knoll, now a special assistant to the CEO but the Summa board chairman in 1999 when Strauss was hired, says he sometimes wonders how Strauss keeps the schedule he does without cracking.
“He goes constantly and takes people with him,” Knoll says. “He lends real vitality to the organization. People elevate their levels of energy to keep up with him.”
That schedule takes him beyond the hospitals and health system. Strauss has held several community leadership positions. He was chairman of the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce for two years. He has been involved with the United Way of Summit County and is co-chairing, with his wife, Susan, Habitat for Humanity’s capital campaign.
He serves on the Firestone board and is involved with Neo77, Akron Tomorrow and the Austen Bioinnovation Institute.
“There is barely an organization in Akron that hasn’t been touched by him,” Knoll says.
Hard to believe, then, that Strauss never saw himself as CEO material. At Duquesne, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, Strauss studied to fulfill his life’s ambition of being a hospital pharmacist. After graduating, he did that job for a year before going back to school to earn a doctorate of pharmacy.
“I thought I wanted to do more,” Strauss says. “I wanted to work up on the floor. I wanted to impact patient care. I needed more stimulation.”
Strauss eventually landed on the floors of Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, where he worked until starting up the city’s first in-home intravenous pharmacy.
Strauss moved up the corporate ladders of pharmaceutical companies from there, eventually landing as vice president of Caremark, overseeing the Central United States. He had been through four mergers in five years and didn’t like the direction his life was going, so he gave it all up.
“At that time, I was in a search for significance,” Strauss says. “What is it that makes life truly important? My faith became pretty strong, and I realized that if you only get satisfaction out of work, you will never be satisfied.”
Strauss landed in Cleveland, with Meridia Health Systems, where he was put in charge of non-hospital businesses, something he proved himself adept at.
He was named chief operating officer of Meridia Suburban Hospital in 1992. Kathleen Rice, now the COO of Summa Western Reserve Hospital, was the director of Suburban’s pharmacy at the time.
Strauss shined at Suburban, Rice says, particularly when the hospital merged with Brentwood Hospital.
“That was monumental,” Rice says. “He was combining two cultures. Because of his communication and people skills, we were able to bring those cultures together.”
Strauss left Meridia after it merged with the Cleveland Clinic and joined Summa in 1999. Knoll says he was a natural fit.
“Listening to him, you could tell he had a special quality and a sense of how he viewed people,” Knoll says. “He had a very high set of moral values, and that just came through extremely clear in our interviews.”
Strauss had been with Summa for less than one year before president and CEO Al Gilbert announced he was retiring and appointed Strauss to the top job.
Gilbert, it seems, made a good decision. Strauss has more than doubled the size of Summa, most recently having overseen the acquisitions of Barberton Hospital, Wads-worth Rittman Hospital and Robinson Memorial Hospital in 2007.
In 2009, Summa struck a deal with a group of doctors to jointly operate Cuyahoga Falls General Hospital, which has been renamed Summa Western Reserve Hospital and will be relocated in northern Summit County. Strauss says this work has positioned Summa Health at the forefront of turning health care away from a fee-for-service model.
“The only way hospitals get paid is if they have a lot of sick patients in the house,” Strauss says. “There is a good flu season or whatever and your beds are full and you make a lot of money. Isn’t there something wrong with that picture?”
Strauss says he wants to flip the industry from sick care to health care. He says health care reform is important and needed because it addresses patient needs. And patients are what Strauss believes in.
Knoll recalls the many times he has walked with Strauss through the halls of Akron City Hospital and seen the CEO stop to help patients.
“He asks them, ‘May I help you?’ ” Knoll says. “Then he takes those steps with them to make sure they get to the right location.”
1970 Entered a pharmacology program at Duquesne University, where he earned his undergraduate and graduate degree. “I believed I would be a hospital pharmacist all my life.”
1983 Was serving as the assistant director of patient care modules at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh when two companies, Baxter and American Hospital Supply, approached him about starting up a home infusion pharmacy. “I said to both, ‘If you build this pharmacy in Pittsburgh, I’ll come with you.’ ... American said they would do it, so I went with American.”
1989 Left Pittsburgh and the pharmaceutical industry and landed at Meridia Health Systems, where he oversaw non-hospital business.
1992 Named COO of Meridia Suburban Hospital. At the time, Surburban had the worst pneumonia mortality rate of 31 hospitals in Greater Cleveland. “We had to figure out how to turn it around. I came to Summa for help, and we went from worst to the best.”
1994 Meridia Suburban merged with its neighbor, Brentwood Hospital. “In order to make that happen, I gave up my job, and the president of Brentwood gave up his job, and we both interviewed for the new job. The good news is I got the job.”
1999 Left Meridia after it merged with the Cleveland Clinic, and joined Summa Health System as president and COO.
2000 Took over as Summa CEO.
2001 Summa acquired Cuyahoga Falls General Hospital.
2006 Summa acquired Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna.
2007 Summa acquired Wadsworth-Rittman Hospital and Barberton Hospital.
2009 Summa Health and Western Reserve Hospital Partners physician group announced a joint venture to operate Cuyahoga Falls General Hospital as a for-profit hospital and change its name to Summa Western Reserve Hospital. The agreement includes relocation to a new full-service facility in northern Summit County.
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