Candice Saunders will be promoted when current CEO Reynold Jennings’ contract ends on Dec. 31, 2015.
The WellStar Board of Trustees ensured there will be no change of course for the health system by selecting Saunders, who earned her stripes as a nurse and then worked her way up the administrative ladder, now serving as executive vice president and chief operating officer of WellStar.
“The mark of a great organization is being able to promote from within,” Jennings said. “She will bring a breadth of knowledge and experience that will ensure a successful transition and future growth opportunities.”
Saunders, 60, who has two grown sons with her husband, Don, was promoted to COO of the WellStar Health System in March 2013.
Since then, Saunders said she has worked with staff from all of WellStar’s hospitals and outpatient clinics.
“It has been a very rewarding role,” Saunders said.
Saunders said the board of trustees started an initiative to create “leadership continuity” at WellStar, so when someone retires or moves on to another opportunity there is another person ready to take the reins.
The transition over the next year will allow Saunders to work directly with Jennings, “so there will be no loss of momentum,” she said. “I will get the benefit of his mentoring.”
This continuity is a strategy Saunders supports companywide, pushing team members to advance their skills.
“We are committed to growing our leadership internally,” Saunders said.
Board focused on internal candidates
The WellStar Board of Trustee’s Succession Planning Committee was tasked with the internal vetting process for the CEO position.
Janie Maddox, chairwoman of the WellStar Board of Trustees, said the board started looking for Jennings’ replacement as soon as he was hired because of the short-term contract.
“We knew when we hired (Jennings) what our time frame would look like,” Maddox said.
The board reviewed applications from two other internal WellStar employees, who Maddox did not want to name.
On Feb. 6, the board unanimously voted 16-0 to select Saunders, who Maddox said has been part WellStar’s vision, mission and strategic planning for seven years.
“I think without a doubt, (Saunders) was the best person we could choose,” Maddox said. “She is somebody who knows the system intimately well.”
Maddox said Saunder’s contract is still being negotiated, so the length of the contract and the salary is not finalized.
Jennings, who was selected in August 2011 in a 13-0 vote by the board of trustees, drew a nearly $1 million salary, with yearly performance-based bonuses adding between $340,000 and $630,000, according to his hiring contract.
The five-year contract also gave Jennings 30 paid vacation days, a $12,000 annual automobile allowance, a $2,400 cell phone allowance and $3,000 towards financial planning/tax preparation services.
A former nurse focused on patients
More than 35 years ago, Saunders began her career as a critical-care nurse at the Plantation General hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
She has a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of South Florida in Tampa, and master’s degrees in business administration and health-services administration from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
After the announcement about her promotion with WellStar, Saunders said she did not see herself becoming the president of a regional health system when starting out.
But from the beginning of her medical career, Saunder said she took on management and governance duties.
Prior to joining WellStar, Saunders was vice president of clinical strategy and service lines for Inova Health System in Falls Church, Va.
“The leadership roles allowed me to create the environment,” Saunder said.
For decades, Saunder said she has used her influence in decision-making positions with hospitals and academic institutions to provide the best of patient care to the region.
“More than 1.4 million people rely on our services to live a healthy life,” Saunders said about the WellStar Health System. “The voice of our patients is very strong.”
Maddox, who has served on the board of trustees for 15 years and is finishing her two-year term as WellStar’s first woman in the chair position, said she adores Saunders.
“Not only is she smart and capable and experienced ... but her original caregiving spirit … it just always comes through,” Maddox said.
WellStar’s place on business lists
Saunders joined WellStar in May 2007 as president of WellStar Kennestone Hospital, overseeing the hospital’s blue tower expansion, the Kennestone Outpatient Pavilion construction and the level II trauma designation.
As COO, Saunders developed a Hospital Presidents Council to increase efficiency and improved communication of WellStar’s five hospitals.
Saunders said in the healthcare field, everything is accomplished through teamwork.
WellStar was recently listed 39th in Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies Places to Work For, as well as in AARP’s Best Employers for Workers over 50 and Working Mother Magazine’s 100 Best Companies.
What sets WellStar apart, according to Saunder, is a strategy of having physicians involved in the decision making process, including how to add to the network and navigate changing healthcare laws.
“We are constantly learning,” said Saunders. She said the network will continue to expand the type of health services offered in the area.
WellStar Health System is the largest not-for-profit health system in Georgia and serves residents in five counties, including the WellStar Kennestone Regional Medical Center, as well as the WellStar Cobb, Douglas, Paulding and Windy Hill hospitals.