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."
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.
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 nonprofit also reported $231 million in unreimbursed care for the uninsured, charitable care, Medicaid and Medicare losses as well as free community health programs.
COBB EXECUTIVE PROFILE
EDUCATION: University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C.: Masters of Science in Business Administration 1985; University of Georgia: Bachelor of Science Pharmacy 1969; Dalton High School, Dalton
FAMILY: Wife of 46 years, Patsy, also from Dalton, 3 married children (son and 2 daughters), 8 grandchildren, all live in Atlanta area.
HOBBIES: Playing golf, studying history, rhythm guitar. LESSON LEARNED THE HARD WAY: There are no secrets in life at any level, so just be open and honest with people. You can sleep better at night when there are no secrets at any level of your life.
ADVICE TO THE NEXT GENERATION: One of the best pieces of advice that I ever heard and followed was “success is when preparation meets opportunity.” I worked very hard to learn everything I could about each position that I was afforded the opportunity to do. Each set of learned skills made me succeed even more in the next opportunity, and you get more calls for opportunities when you create a reputation that you actually know what you are talking about. An equally important piece of advice is that it takes years to create a positive reputation and only one thoughtless night to destroy your reputation, so guard against people and events that can hurt you in many ways. “Just say no!”