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New kid on the block: Thomas Feurig takes over as chief executive officer at Little Rock's St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center.

In the cafeteria line at Little Rock's St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center, Thomas Feurig puts down his tray to introduce himself to a doctor in green surgical garb.

"And what do you do?" the doctor asks the tall, blond-haired man with the boyish, unfamiliar face.

"I'm the chief executive," Feurig says modestly.

It takes a moment to sink in. But then the doctor smiles and begins to laugh. It's the "I hope you know what you're getting yourself into" laugh.

Feurig became president and chief executive officer at St. Vincent on May 26. He replaced Jack Reynolds, who announced his retirement last summer and officially stepped down at the end of 1991 after 25 years at the state's second-largest hospital.

Since then, Reynolds has moved into the hot seat as director of the state Department of Human Services. He was to have remained in a management advisory capacity to St. Vincent for the remainder of the year.

Now, Feurig is on his own.

He didn't waste time. On his second day at St. Vincent, Feurig met with employees at 6:30 a.m., spoke with Reynolds on the telephone and acquainted himself with his office.

And he observed.

"I plan on listening," Feurig says. "I'm not planning immediate, dramatic actions. St. Vincent does not need dramatic change."

Then, he adds with a smile, "That will be in the second week."

Feurig is a Michigan native with an athletic build and All-American good looks.

He has spent the past decade as an executive with Wheaton Franciscan Services Inc. The 811-bed WFSI-Milwaukee System consists of three hospitals, two nursing homes, a home health care agency and corporate support services.

In 1989, Feurig was named executive vice president of the system. He was promoted to president last fall.

Before that, Feurig was president and chief executive officer of the 476-bed St. Joseph's Hospital of Milwaukee, a WFSI-Milwaukee System affiliate.

WFSI has operations in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. The regional holding company controls the WFSI-Milwaukee System, which is the largest provider of health care in the city.

A Step Removed

Feurig was a young, upwardly mobile executive in Milwaukee.

Why move to Little Rock to head one of seven hospitals operated by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Health Corp. of Louisville, Ky.?

"That's a question I've been asked a lot," Feurig says. "The honest answer is the opportunity to work with a hospital and its employees again ... I was president of a holding company. I missed working directly with medical staffs and department heads ... Each hospital had its own president. I felt a step removed."

Tom Sheahan, chairman and CEO of WFSI-Milwaukee System, was not surprised to see Feurig go.

"I knew he was looking ... to move back into a situation in which he would have a significant hands-on role," Sheahan says. "He moved from a hospital position to a system position that cut him off from the things he loved to do."

At 42, Feurig is taking over one of the best-known medical centers in the region.

The 717-bed hospital was established in 1888 on East Second Street in downtown Little Rock. After four decades at 10th and High streets, St. Vincent moved to the corner of Markham Street and University Avenue. It has been there since 1954.

Last year, St. Vincent had an operating profit of $11,392,697, which ranks second in the state behind St. Edward Mercy Medical Center at Fort Smith.

St. Vincent's occupancy rate of about 80 percent is one of the state's best. The rate is especially impressive given the climate of the health care industry.

What about 1992?

St. Vincent is in a state of transition. And its major competitor, Baptist Medical System, has restructured. BMS is taking a more aggressive, consumer-oriented approach, and Baptist President Russell Harrington Jr. is taking on a higher profile.

Still, St. Vincent is solid.

"For a lot of people, St. Vincent is the only hospital in the state," one industry insider says. "St. Vincent and Baptist have always been rivals, and Baptist is better now. But St. Vincent is still good. It will always be good because it has a reputation to uphold."

Get To Know Me

Feurig plans to maintain a high profile, just as Harrington is doing. The new kid on the block wants to learn the neighborhood quickly.

Feurig was on the boards of several charitable organizations and was active in community activities at Milwaukee.

"A major institution should provide leadership," he says. "... And I enjoy it.

"I |said~ during the search process that to be accepted within the community, I have to earn it. That's true whether it's in Little Rock or Milwaukee."

Feurig obviously did something right during the search process.

He was chosen from 84 candidates screened by the Chicago-based search firm Heidrick & Struggles Inc.

One of the candidates was Lee Frazier, the executive vice president for operations at St. Vincent.

Before the search process began, however, St. Vincent board members said they expected Reynolds' successor to come from outside the state.

"It was a hard position to fill," says Gene Fortson, who chairs the St. Vincent board and is president and CEO of Stebbins & Roberts Inc. of Little Rock. "We had a series of cuts and fine tuned our criteria. We needed someone with the proper experience, especially given what is happening in health care. When we got down to the interview process, Tom was the outstanding candidate."

During the five-month interim between Reynolds' departure and Feurig's arrival, Executive Vice President Eldon Dingler assumed the role of acting president and CEO.

Dingler did not apply for Reynolds' job.

"We needed some new leadership," he says. "I'm 60 years old and in the twilight of my career. I felt St. Vincent needed a relatively young man. We don't change CEOs very often at St. Vincent."

On The Bench

Who is Thomas Feurig?

He was born in Milwaukee, but his parents moved to East Lansing three months later.

His father, the late Jim Feurig, was the team physician for the Michigan State University athletic teams. Tom Feurig lived a kid's dream, assisting his father at athletic events.

Feurig's first exposure to health care came when he was in the fourth grade. His father was working at a Michigan State hockey game. Between periods, Tom Feurig would help the doctor sew up cuts.

"I didn't pass out," he says. "So I guess I was destined for a career in health care."

When reality caught up with his dreams of playing college sports, Feurig stuck with the books at Michigan State in East Lansing. He earned a bachelor's degree in personnel management there and later earned a master's degree in hospital administration from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

He retains a keen interest in sports, especially Big Ten athletics. The Southeastern Conference might take some getting used to.

Smiling, Fortson says one of the reasons Feurig got the job at St. Vincent was because he did not gloat when Michigan State defeated the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville during a basketball tournament in Hawaii.

"That's the kind of guy he is," Fortson says.

Feurig's reputation is as clean as his looks.

"My first year in high school, I knew I wanted to be in health care administration," he says. "I know that sounds really, really corny, but it's true."

Sheahan, his friend and mentor at WFSI-Milwaukee, would not doubt that.

"He is impossible to replace," Sheahan says. "...It would have taken a long time to develop the trust we had in Tom. So we've reorganized."

Hospital administrators now report directly to Sheahan.

Meanwhile, Feurig has a big hospital to run at a time when health care administration is akin to Russian roulette. Feurig's predecessor acknowledged as much when he washed his hands of hospital administration.

"No doubt, health care will change at a rapid pace," Feurig says. "What happens will be impacted largely by federal health initiatives. But you don't talk about survival. You talk about thriving. If you talk about survival, you're taking it to the wrong level. The institutions that do well are those that don't hang their heads but instead take challenges head-on and make changes.

"Is it a great time to be a hospital president? My answer would have to be yes. If I don't believe that, it's not going to work."
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jun 15, 1992
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