Bentley made the announcement during Thursday’s board meeting, at which Jennings was present.
Because WellStar is a public agency, it is subject to the Open Records Act, which requires the organization to name any CEO finalist 14 days in advance of a vote to hire him.
The board is expected to vote on his appointment at a specially called Aug. 18 meeting.
Jim Budzinski, who has served as WellStar’s interim CEO since the board abruptly fired CEO Dr. Greg Simone in September, will return to his role as executive vice president and chief financial officer, saying “I’m not going anywhere.”
Jennings, 65, said, “I’m excited that the more I have a chance to meet the doctors and the management team at WellStar — in 35 years covering over 100 hospitals in 15 states I’ve seen the gauntlet of individuals — and I can tell you that this system over the last four years has a lot of high-energy, smart physicians and managers and employees, and so the ability for me to re-engage on a larger scale again with that kind of talent is extremely exciting.”
A native of Dalton, Jennings’ first job after earning a degree in pharmacy at the University of Georgia was to work for former Marietta Mayor Bill Dunaway at the Dunaway Drugs in his hometown.
“Dunaway Drugs would customarily select graduating seniors to bring into their drug store chain, and he got my name somehow,” Jennings said. “It may have been because I was president of the senior class of pharmacy school. I actually wanted to come to Marietta when I graduated from pharmacy school, but Dalton, the carpet business was just beginning to mushroom and a lot of people in Atlanta didn’t even know Dalton existed, and so Bill could not get any other pharmacist to go to Dalton, and so he encouraged me to go back.”
Jennings later worked for Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton, starting as a pharmacist and rising to senior vice president and chief financial officer. From 1983 to 1991, he served as CEO of a number of acute care hospitals, including Doctors Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, which is now part of Emory Healthcare; Clearwater Community Hospital in Clearwater, Fla.; and Palms of Pasadena Hospital, a St. Petersburg, Fla., facility.
Jennings served as chief operating officer of the for-profit Tenet Healthcare from February 2004 until December 2006, where he was responsible for operations of Tenet’s 69 core acute care hospitals and other facilities in 13 states. He worked there for 10 years and is credited with helping Tenet survive the wake of lawsuits brought against it for alleged Medicare overbilling in 2002.
“When we got into the details of this thing, it was all centered around six hospitals out in California,” he said. “And one of my peers who ran that division unfortunately lost his job, as well as my boss, who was COO at the time, and the CEO and chairman of the board of the hospital were all fired. That’s when a year later, the new CEO afforded me the opportunity to be the COO of the company and save the day,” he said.
Jennings set about instituting reforms at once.
“We believed our brand was damaged overall, and so the only way to come back from that was to be seen as a very high-quality organization concentrating on patient care outcomes and clinical procedures,” he said. “By the time we got to 2006, our scores were beating many of the big, well-known not-for-profit hospital systems across the country, and so with that foundation we were able to regain the trust of the doctors and employees … and then we also put in a lot of stringent policies and procedures regarding legal issues, compliance and risk management so we could assure ourselves that no one manager in a big company like that could put the company in jeopardy again.”
Although retired from corporate life, Jennings never retired from health care. He serves on the board of Jackson Healthcare in Alpharetta, a doctor-staffing firm. He is also an owner of a small company called Impact Benefit Management Solutions in Alpharetta, an insurance firm, which is now in its third year.
Jennings said when he retired in 2007, it was not because he was ready to get out of hospital management.
“The three years as COO of Tenet required me to fly all over the country, and so I basically was only home Saturday and half of Sunday for three years, and my wife and I talked about it, and I just was not doing justice to my marriage, and to my children and my grandchildren. (I) decided to do the right thing as a committed family man. If the WellStar opportunity required immense travel, I would not have been interested, but the fact that it’s local and even though you work hard, and you may have night-time meetings and things like that, at least I’ll have an ample opportunity to be a good father, husband and grandfather,” he said.
Jennings, who has lived in Kennesaw for 11 years, said he and his wife, Patsy, intend to spend the rest of their lives here.
Bentley said the terms of Jennings’ contract were still being worked out but would be available at the Aug. 18 meeting.
Last fall, the board paid $225,000 to Oak Brook, Il.-based executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, who found Jennings, Bentley said.
“We had a tremendous amount of applicants. There was tremendous interest in this job,” Bentley said, adding that he didn’t have the exact number of applicants on hand.
Jennings explained how he came to be WellStar’s CEO finalist.
“Randall Bentley somehow found out about me through sources I don’t know, and as they were surveying the list of candidates they had externally as well as internally — Jim Budzinski, who by the way is an outstanding person and an outstanding manager — they just believed that coming out of the leadership of two doctors, Dr. Simone and (the late Dr. Robert Lipson), that many of the doctors felt like they needed someone with clinical experience in addition to business experience. And so I think when Randall found out that I was a former pharmacist as well as a very successful businessperson of several health care organizations, I think the light bulb went on in his head. He counseled with some people to get some information on me and called me up to meet me in person.”
Having lived in the community as well as interacted with several WellStar physicians who are in his Sunday school class at Marietta First United Methodist Church and elsewhere, Jennings said he has followed WellStar over the years.
Moreover, “By growing up in Dalton, I’m real good friends with the original Kennestone team: Bernie Brown; Warren Gordon, who was over HR; Glenn Black, who was the CFO — they are still long-term friends of mine,” he said.
So he has been aware of the controversy that rocked the system when Simone was terminated last year, followed by several other high-level WellStar executives.
“I don’t have any more details than what everybody else has read in the newspaper, and I felt like those matters are very sensitive, and even some of them are things that might need to be in the confines of the board of the hospital and those individuals themselves, so I don’t know anymore than you or anyone else knows about that,” Jennings said. “What I do know is I know Greg Simone, I’ve met with him several times, I knew Rob Lipson, met with him several times, and all I can say about those two gentlemen are they are both outstanding people, outstanding doctors, and the quality of WellStar as it exists today is greatly attributable to what those two doctors did,” Jennings said. “They both got their master’s at Kennesaw State, which is unique at the time … they’re very far-sighted and visionary individuals, and so I have nothing but good things to say about them and my interaction with them, and whether I get this job or not, would always be complimentary about what I think they have done for health care in this community.”
Jennings moreover was impressed with the WellStar board, which he said has a good balance of physicians and community leaders on it.
Jennings and his wife, Patsy, were high school sweethearts at Dalton High School. The couple has three children and seven grandchildren, all of whom live in Cobb County.
“We are fortunate to have an excellent candidate with extensive national health care experience right here in Cobb County,” Bentley said. “We believe his leadership experience at several large, multi-state health systems will be very beneficial as WellStar navigates the challenges and opportunities associated with the rapidly changing healthcare environment.”
WellStar, a not-for-profit health system, includes Cobb, Douglas, Kennestone, Paulding and Windy Hill hospitals; WellStar Medical Group; Urgent Care Centers; Health Place; Homecare; Hospice; Atherton Place; Paulding Nursing Center; and WellStar Foundation.