MARIETTA — WellStar President and CEO Reynold Jennings spent his high school summers building houses with his father, a home builder in Dalton. When he wasn’t working, he was playing varsity baseball, football and running track.
The eldest of four boys, he was the only one who did not stay in the business — and also the first in his family to obtain a college degree.
At the University of Georgia, he discovered pharmacy.
“I felt like pharmacy combined two aspects for me — one, the science/medical part I liked but the other was the people part of the equation,” he recalls.
After marrying his high school sweetheart, Patsy, Jennings graduated and interviewed with his hometown pharmacist, the future mayor of Marietta, Bill Dunaway, who owned a chain of drug stores at the time.
“The reason I hired him was he had a perfect retail personality,” recalls Dunaway. “I was right — he is a tremendous personality and he did extremely well.”
From pharmacist to executive After three years as a pharmacist, Jennings became the director of pharmacy at Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton. During his 13-year tenure with the hospital, he rose to second in command.
In 1982, Jennings left to become CEO of Doctor’s Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. It would be the first of six career moves spanning four states. Two years later, when the owners sold to Emory Hospital, he moved his family to Clearwater, Fla., to be a regional manager for hospitals in three states with American Medical International.
Next was a move to Tampa to be a regional executive for National Medical Enterprises. Jennings says it was there that “things got interesting.”
After the company’s psychiatric division ran afoul of the federal government, Jennings was asked to move to Dallas, Texas, to spearhead the corporate rebuilding.
“Part of that was getting the message out that out of a huge company with well over 100,000 employees, the errors in judgment had occurred with a handful of managers.”
Next Jennings joined publicly-traded Ramsey Healthcare in New Orleans as CEO. “While I had multi-state experience, I did not have Wall Street experience,” says Jennings.
Next stop would be a 10-year stint with Tenet Healthcare. He moved to Atlanta as executive vice president, and ended as COO before finding himself in familiar circumstances: Tenet was accused by the federal government of defrauding Medicare.
“The situation with Tenet was not an illegal situation … but I had the same challenges at hand,” he said.
Jennings spent the next year travelling six days a week to meet with doctors and insurance companies across the country to repair the damage.
By 2007, Jennings said he was ready to retire from corporate life in order to be a husband and grandfather yet again.
Out of retirement
Settled in Marietta and working with several health care service company start-ups, in June 2011, Jennings received an unexpected call from a member of the WellStar board of directors. “When the call came to talk to me about being CEO, I made him repeat it three times,” he said.
His first boss, Bill Dunaway, said “On the outside looking in, it was perfect timing for WellStar; they needed someone like him. I believe it’s one of the most demanding jobs in the state.”
“I felt like it was divine providence that I could be the right person at the right time to continue moving the system forward,” Jennings said.
Preparing for health care reform
WellStar has five hospitals, more than 12,500 employees, and 500 doctors and practitioners in its medical group that logged 1.3 million patient visits in 2012.
Audited 2012 financials reported operating revenue of $1.46 billion and a bottom line of $86 million. The non-profit also reported $231 million in unreimbursed care for the uninsured, charitable care, Medicaid and Medicare losses as well as free community health programs.
Jennings said between the reimbursement cuts caused by sequestration and reduced Medicare reimbursements in the Affordable Care Act; innovation is essential.
“Part of my job is to take my inherent experience and help guide this organization into what can happen … and how fast it will happen,” said Jennings.
“The main thing that is a challenge for me is that it is a major cultural change for every hospital and every doctor’s office.”
One such innovation is a recent alliance with Piedmont Healthcare to create Georgia Health Collaborative LLC, a nonprofit to share clinical-care knowledge and seek cost reductions through economies of scale.
Jennings says WellStar is also in the information-gathering stages of patient-centered medical home concepts that align doctors and services and provide patient navigators to streamline processes. WellStar’s Center for Health Transformation is serving as central digital library to capture all points of information and best practices.
Jennings said, “What we are about is the end product — did you give the best quality, safest and most efficient care you could give?”
Reflections on a 44-year career
“If there is a key to my success, it is being able to break down very complex things into how it affects people, and then understand when to move forward. … Then I pray a lot about it,” he said.
Jennings attributes his faith and genuine love of people as central to his success. He also believes playing team sports shaped his approach.
“At the end of the day, I’m trying to make it succeed for everybody — the team — not just for me.”