There are many executives who immediately impress you with their business acumen and leadership skills, but a rare few add to these qualities a sense of grace and approachability that engenders a culture of openness in their organizations. Such is the case with Wendy Brandon, the CEO of Central Florida Regional Hospital in Sanford.
She speaks openly about the foundation laid early in her life, a nurturing blend of love, lavish encouragement and clear expectations that helped shape her values, as well as the drive that has accelerated her success. Her eyes sparkle as she describes her father’s passion for drag racing and the exhilaration she felt going to the track and feeling the ground-trembling, ear-ringing thunder of her father’s super stock car fly down the quarter-mile track.
Brandon’s is an interesting journey from life in a small town, just north of Nashville, to hospital CEO. As she reflects on her career, she concedes that with her penchant for math and science, if she could do it over, she may have become a physician. Instead, she has become a facilitator who directs the efforts of scores of doctors and healthcare providers as part of a network, the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), that includes 177 hospitals and 119 freestanding surgery centers.
Finding Her Calling
Brandon’s career in healthcare happened pretty much by chance. While working in the financial services industry, a woman who was part of a group she regularly went to lunch with heard about a job opening through her husband. Referring to Brandon, she told him, “I think I know just the person you’re describing.”
Brandon recalls, “Someone took a chance on me. I had the financial background, but no experience in the healthcare industry. But I wasn’t afraid of challenges or to ask questions, and that was my first step into healthcare.”
She cut her teeth setting up cost-accounting systems in rural hospitals, which gave her an in-depth understanding of hospital operations, as well as the right questions to ask and the data needed to provide the right answers. In the process, a career track opened to her that she could only describe as “a passion.” She went back to school at night to earn her MBA and began to advance in her new field.
“Once I got in, I knew I wanted to lead a hospital,” she shared. “I enjoy almost every aspect of leadership and motivating other people. For the first time I knew this was something I could do for the rest of my life. I never thought a profession could be so consuming to someone like me or that I would enjoy it so much.”
Brandon stressed that in a hospital, people entrust you with their lives, and those life-saving efforts can only happen when a team of very talented and dedicated people are working together.
“No matter how great a doctor is, and we have some remarkable ones, they can’t do it without others,” she said. “Helping to build, motivate and focus those teams and working with people who have such diverse skills has a very special appeal to me. When we work together to come up with a solution, whether it’s in healthcare delivery or in improving an administrative process, the results are almost immediate and make a noticeable difference.”
All in the Family
In a field where executives move from one hospital system to another Brandon recently celebrated her 23rd anniversary with HCA. It is a date etched in her mind because she started with the company on her husband’s birthday. According to Brandon, the values that guide the organization are the glue that has held her to it.
A pair of father/son Nashville physicians and a businessman, Jack (J.C.) Massey, who also built Kentucky Fried Chicken into a brand now recognized globally, founded the company. Their goal was simple: make hospital care better. Speaking of Thomas Frist Sr., M.D., a co-founder, Brandon said, “Dr. Frist retired by the time I came to work for HCA, but he was still involved. People enjoy working with certain individuals, but everyone adored Dr. Frist. Plus, my husband grew up with his kids, so I knew they were quality people.”
From the moment she started at HCA, Brandon noticed how much the company cared about its people. As a result, staff members come to work every day excited to be there and motivated to give their best because they themselves feel cared for. When she was just a few months into her first CEO position, Brandon went to her new boss about needing some family leave. To her astonishment, he said, “There are so many things in life more important than running this hospital; this is one of them. Call me when you come up for air.”
Value-Added and Regional Impact
Because HCA is a for-profit hospital, sometimes people view it differently. Yet, from a management and leadership structure, the company is, by necessity, extremely thoughtful about processes and resource management, which ultimately benefits patients. In addition, the company’s size and connection to such a large network of hospitals has some distinct advantages.
“I have the support system and expertise of 170 hospitals across the country, and that economy of scale has some tremendous benefits,” she said. “The best practices in one and the physician expertise in another can be accessed and shared by all the hospitals in our network. Our competitive advantage in purchasing power, lowering back office administrative costs, and utilizing shared IT resources can all be leveraged by our hospitals.”
These assets became a factor in HCA’s profile rising sharply in the region when they were chosen to build a 100-bed (which can grow to 500 beds) teaching hospital adjacent to the University of Central Florida College of Medicine campus in Lake Nona.
According to Brandon, it all started when she reached out to the school’s dean and vice president for Medical Affairs, Deborah German, M.D., about some of its doctors serving as adjunct faculty. “After that brief initial meeting, Dr. German drove all the way to Sanford to meet with us,” she said. “We wanted to get to know each other and talk about how we might be able to collaborate.”
To Brandon, meaningful connections and good fortune are not simply coincidences. She did not, however, foresee that arranging for German to meet with her division leader would result in a partnership to build the teaching hospital in Lake Nona.
“Both Dr. German and I believe in the significance of investing in relationships,” she said. “She was willing to come to my hospital and get to know me, and that meant so much. I’ve learned a great deal from her. When you make that type of investment, you never know where it will lead.”
Investing in relationships, in her staff and in her community, is one of the many things that sets Wendy Brandon apart and is why she is one of our 2018 Women’s Inspired Leadership honorees.
“When we work together to come up with a solution, whether it’s in healthcare delivery or in improving an administrative process, the results are almost immediate and make a noticeable difference.” – Wendy Brandon