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COVER STORY | Vol. 5, No. 27, July 7, 2005
(Fire Starter)

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Quint Studer

by Rick Outzen

The Story of a Fire Starter

People slowly fill the ballroom of the Seaport Hotel in Boston. It's Saturday morning and the group looks like it could use another couple hours of sleep. These are college professors in the third day of the annual conference of Association of University Programs in Health Administration. About 200 educators made it out of bed to listen to the keynote speaker, Quint Studer, CEO and founder of the Studer Group.

On the edge of a raised platform at the front of the conference room sits a short blonde man in his early 50s wearing a brown suit with a navy blue shirt and tie. He smiles to himself at the fact that no one, not even Ph.D.s, likes to sit in the front row.

Upon introduction, Studer springs to life, jumps up on to the platform and begins to speak.

As he revs up, he takes off his coat and places it over an empty chair in the front row. Studer relates, "Sometimes I have to calm down because I get too excited. I remember when Lynyrd Skynyrd was coming to my local town. I was so excited I bought all their CDs and learned all their songs—'Who's that girl, That Smell.'"

The audience laughs. "By the time Skynyrd came to town, I was too exhausted to go to the concert." The room roars with laughter. Already, he has won over this crowd.

Studer spends the next hour relating personal examples about how to change the culture of any organization and how these teachers can help their health administration students bring excellence to prospective health care employers.

His enthusiasm is contagious. His sincerity, humility and passion shine through. The room is awake now and hangs on every word—nodding their heads in agreement. One can almost see light bulbs popping on above their heads.

INVISIBLE BOY

Not bad for a small kid who grew up feeling like a reject. The audience doesn't realize that this dynamic public speaker has a speech impediment. It limits the words he can use to express his ideas.

"There are certain words I can't pronounce," Studer says on his private jet on the way up to his Boston performance. "I tend to pause at unusual times—not for effect, but because I'm trying to link words I can say. There are certain words I can always go back to. It may be repetitive, but it works for me."

Studer was born in 1951 and raised in a blue-collar family. They lived in a two-bedroom house in LaGrange, Ill. His sister, who was seven years older, had one bedroom, his parents the other. Studer slept in a converted walk-in closet.

His father assembled diesel locomotive parts at the GM ElectroMotive Division plant during the day, remodeled basements at night and worked at a junkyard on weekends. His mom worked as a teacher's aide at a pre-school during the school year and ran a tavern in Wisconsin during the summer with his aunt.

With his parents constantly working, Quint spent much of his childhood home alone. He loved sports and created his own baseball board game. He would take a clothes hanger and make it into a basketball goal he'd hang on his door. When he got older, he created his own newspaper using articles he wrote and pictures he cut out of the local paper.

They were escapes from his nightmarish time in school. Studer always ended up being the smallest boy in his class, the constant target for bullying.

Because of his speech impediment and his hearing problems—deaf in his right ear and only partial hearing in his left—Studer struggled to keep up. Feeling different from the other kids, he lived in fear of speaking out loud in class. He spent much of his time trying to become invisible.

"I perfected how to hide behind whoever was sitting in front of me," Studer remembers.

HERE'S TO YOU, MS. JAMES

By the end of second grade, Studer still couldn't read. His mother begged the principal to promote him to the third grade. She knew that repeating the second grade would crush her son's fragile self-image and only re-enforce his feelings of rejection and failure.

In the end, the principal relented and allowed Studer to advance to the third grade but only for a six-week trial period.

Fortunately for the young Studer, he got Ms. James as his third-grade teacher.

"Ms. James set me up for success," Studer says. "She knew I was terrified in class, but she would work hard to help me overcome my fears. She knew I liked sports, so she taught me to read by using the Chip Hilton books.

"When we had a class skit, she gave me a speaking part and spent hours helping me say my one line: 'I am as poor as ever.'

"Ms. James made me feel important and worthwhile. She rewarded me for my small successes."

It wasn't until sixth grade that Quint landed another teacher that pushed him to succeed.

"Mr. Fry put my desk close to his, so that he could help me without being obvious," Studer recalls. "Mr. Fry also had morning playground duty before school started. If you were small like me, you might want to walk to school a little early to play kick ball, but if you got there too early, then you got picked on. Mr. Fry sort of took me under his wing on the playground, too.

"Mr. Fry had a way of correcting me without making me feel bad about myself. I wanted to do better for him."

HIGH SCHOOL TORTURE

School life got even harder for Studer during high school. He stood a whopping 5-feet tall and tipped the scales at 100 pounds with socks on.

"My first two years of high school, I avoided the drinking fountains and lived in mortal fear of the bathrooms," he says. "I feared that if I went to a water fountain, some guy was going to pick me up and set me in the water. In the bathrooms, there was always someone lying in wait to push you into the urinals."

However, Studer found relief in sports, thanks to his soccer coach, Coach King. In 1965, soccer remained a relatively new sport to high schools and it had trouble attracting student athletes to play. Nobody got cut from the junior varsity team. Finally, Quint wore a uniform. Finally, he belonged.

Coach King played everyone and Studer entered the game for the first and third quarters. Bach then, the game was divided into four quarters, instead of two halves.

"Coach King kept me from feeling like a loser," says Studer, a slow, undersized forward. "If I made a mistake like missing a ball, he would praise me for working hard on getting to the ball. Then he would kindly throw in—next time, try to get a foot on it."

His senior season, the soccer team finished the year, 10-5-1, and actually tied the eventual state champions.

"I earned my letter and got to wear my letter sweater on Fridays," Studer says. "It was my first real accomplishment."

ARMY REJECT

The success on the soccer field failed to carry over to the classroom. Studer finished with a 1.3 grade point average, or a D average. It looked as if the military was Studer's only chance to get out of LaGrange.

"But when I went for the physical, they flunked me because of my hearing," Studer says, recalling another disappointment. "This was the height of the Vietnam War, when they were taking just about anybody off the streets. That is, everybody but me. Can you imagine how humiliating it was to be rejected by the Army?"

Studer prepared himself to join his father and uncles at the auto factory after graduation. On a whim, though, he took the ACT college entrance exam with his cousin near the end of his senior year. His test scores shocked everyone, including himself.

"Ken Taylor, my guidance counselor, told me that I just might make it into college," Studer says. "He helped me get accepted on probation to University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, a small college that offered special help to students with learning disabilities."

At the college, Studer needed to maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, or a C average, in his first semester, or he would get kicked out. He earned a 2.2. He eventually graduated with a 2.5 GPA with a bachelor's degree in special education.

His first teaching job came at Parker High School in Janesville, Wis., where he had worked during college as a student-teacher.

"It was a time of tremendous change in special education," Studer explains. "Congress had passed Law 94-142 that required public school districts to establish classrooms for handicapped children. Up until then, mentally retarded kids in Wisconsin were kept in colonies and institutions away from their families and the general population. We were creating education programs from scratch."

TEACHER STUDER

Studer served Parker High with three other special ed teachers. He focused on preparing his students for the workforce and helping them find jobs.

"I became very adept at taking a task and breaking it down into simple steps," he says. "For example, we had one girl who loved Popsicles but couldn't remember to take the paper wrapper off. I worked it out into a series of steps to help her.

"I found I was finally working with my strengths. All my years of playing alone had helped me develop my creative side. I was very good at finding solutions. And because of my struggles with learning, I could use my creativity to simplify tasks that were very complicated for my students."

Studer adds: "I also learned the importance of a job to a person. When our students found a job they just lit up. We had one student, Barb, who would wear her McDonald's uniform all the time. Not because she had work that day, but because she felt worthwhile when she wore it."

Studer returned to college and earned a master's in special education. Both the Janesville Jaycees and the Rock County Association of Retarded Citizens named him "Outstanding Young Educator of the Year."

BOTTOMS UP

Although he enjoyed professional success, Studer's personal life tumbled into shambles. The years of dealing with rejection and fear of failure took their toll. Studer felt worthless. He turned to alcohol to overcome it.

"When I drank, I felt confident," he says, describing his alcoholism. "I could talk to people and not be afraid. But it was destroying every relationship I had. On Christmas Day, 1982, I hit rock bottom. I was hungover from drinking until the bars closed on Christmas Eve and sitting in my living room staring at a Christmas tree without any presents. I was 31 and had had two failed marriages and was way in debt. Something had to change."

Studer started attending meetings for recovering alcoholics. He went to Catholic Social Services to receive psychological counseling to help deal with his fears of rejection and failure.

"I slowly started to put my life back together," he says. "I began working with the troubled kids at our high school—teen pregnancies and drug and alcohol problems. It gave even more purpose to my job."

His alcohol recovery also propelled Studer into health care, igniting a series of unlikely events and jobs that have catapulted him today to being considered one of the foremost catalysts for change in the health care industry in America.

His work with teen-agers suffering drug and alcohol abuse led him to join Parkside Lodge, a 35-bed substance abuse hospital in Janesville. He became its community relations representative.

At Parkside, he began working with local human resource people to develop employee-assistance and back-to-work programs for their companies. Once again, his teaching background, his personal demons and his ability to break down complex tasks into simple steps became his key assets.

WELCOME TO CHICAGO

His work at Parkside drew the attention of Janesville's only hospital, Mercy Hospital. It hired him as its community relations director. Studer gradually became the "go to guy" for the hospital's CEO. He climbed the ladder at Mercy to senior vice president of business development.

"After six years at Mercy, I wanted to run my own hospital," Studer says. "There was no way the CEO there was going to retire anytime soon. So, I sent out my résumé. No one was interested in hiring a master's in special ed as their CEO."

Finally, Studer heard from a consultant who was putting a management team together for a troubled hospital in Chicago. The hospital, Holy Cross, needed a chief operating officer. Seeing it as his path to CEO, Studer quickly accepted the COO post.

"I learned immediately what it meant to be incompetent at a job. I was not prepared for the challenge," he admits honestly.

Holy Cross is located on Chicago's south side. It sits on the dividing line between black and white Chicago.

"Our staff had to speak 14 different languages," Studer reports. "We had special visitation hours for gangs so that they could come check on an injured gang member and then go out to take retribution. We always had plenty of cops around because we were also the hospital for the Cook County Jail."

Holy Cross teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. It lost $9 million the previous year. Vendors delivered medical and other supplies, only if there was a check for them at the loading dock. If the new management team failed to turn things around, Holy Cross would close or be sold in 18 months.

The COO at most hospitals negotiates managed-care contracts, develops new medical programs and builds new buildings. Not at Holy Cross. The job entailed just stopping the financial hemorrhaging and surviving.

IMPOSSIBLE DREAM

All Studer's old fears of failure began to resurface. After about two months, Studer wanted to quit.

However, the new Holy Cross CEO wasn't about to quit. The management team held an off-site retreat to set new goals for the upcoming year. The team decided that Holy Cross should raise its reported 3 percent patient satisfaction to 75 percent in one year. Meeting the goal became Studer's job.

"I was chosen to work on patient satisfaction by default," he says. "The finance guy took the financial goals. HR had the employee ones. I was left with patient satisfaction.

"I immediately called Press Gainy, which did the patient survey, and asked them who could I call that had raised their patient satisfaction rating from the 3 to the 75 percentile in a year. They told me no one ever has. I knew I had an impossible goal. But because it had already been presented to the hospital board, I was stuck."

Studer decided the time had come to bail out of health care. He began networking with local businesses in hopes someone, anyone, might hire him.

"Finally a friend gave me a set of stickers for my mirrors," he says. "They said 'You're looking at the problem.' It was something my wife, Rishy, had been trying to tell me for weeks. I decided that I had to figure this out."

About the same time Southwest Airlines began flying out of Chicago's Midway Airport, which was only 20 minutes from Holy Cross. Southwest Airlines had earned national accolades for its customer service, and was the country's fastest growing and most profitable airline.

"The people at Southwest told me to focus on the employees, not the patients," Studer says.

His first forays around the hospital went disastrously. Studer would speak and he could see the employees, especially the nurses, begin to fall asleep. Gradually, he talked less and listened more. Studer realized the nurses needed certain requirements to do their jobs properly. Many were very simple.

"We started putting copy machines near the work stations, so they wouldn't have to leave their floor to make copies," Studer points out. "We opened the cafeteria at night, so the night shifts could eat. We got them more IV poles. It really was pretty minor things once we started listening."

Patient satisfaction ratings began shooting up each month, going from 3 percent to 14 percent to 17 percent to 34 percent and then—after just six months—Holy Cross reached 73 percent in December 1993.

"The more we worked with the employees, the happier our patients became," Studer recounts. "The next year, we jumped to the 94 percentile and the hospital made money."

National recognition soon followed. Hospitals & Health Networks & American Hospital Association named Holy Cross "Great Comeback of the Year."

CAN GET SATISFACTION

Studer says the lessons he learned from Ms. James, Mr. Fry and Coach King played a big role in helping him turn around the hospital and his life. Those lessons were: setting up someone for success by giving them the right tools, correcting someone without destroying them, giving reward and recognition and putting someone in a position to become successful.

A real epiphany, Studer says, that those lessons actually worked was a letter he got from the son of a patient, who had died at the hospital. The son wrote about how he promised his terminally ill father that he would not let him die alone. Unfortunately, on the day he died, the son could not make it to his bedside quickly enough. When the son did walk into the room, there was a nurse holding his dad's hand. The nurse told him that his father loved him and that his father had not died alone. Later, the son found out the nurse had actually clocked out and was there on her own time.

For Studer, suddenly the patient satisfaction numbers became meaningless. Here was a nurse Studer knew, had been helping and who had gone that extra mile to help a patient. It rekindled his sense of purpose and helped him remember why he got into health care in the first place.

Studer began accepting requests to speak to health care groups about the Holy Cross experiment. Health care officials from around the country came to observe how the Chicago hospital made such a dramatic turnaround.

One hospital that sent a team was Pensacola's Baptist Hospital. The Baptist officials asked him to speak to their leadership.

Within six months, Studer was asked to be president of Baptist Hospital Inc. Finally, Studer was in charge.

For the first time, he entered a situation without fear, without feeling overwhelmed, without feeling incompetent.

He was confident Holy Cross's lessons could be applied to the Pensacola hospital or any organization.

Patient satisfaction, which ranged between 9 and 40 percent, rose to 99 percent at Baptist. Employee turnover dropped from 30 percent to 12 percent. The hospital system made money, adding $1.8 million to its bottom line.

Awards flocked in: Voluntary Hospital Association Leadership Award (1997), Modern Healthcare Sodexo Marriott Service Excellence Award (1997), Excellence in Risk Management Award by Modern Healthcare Magazine (1999) and USA Today Quality Cup (2000). Inc. Magazine named Studer a "Master of Business," the only person to earn the designation in the health care industry.

By 2000, Studer felt torn between his new duties as the senior vice president of the entire Baptist health care system and the growing demand to spread his gospel of excellence through better leadership and employee satisfaction. He finally decided to form the Studer Group and speak across the country.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

The Studer Group is now a nationally recognized health care consulting firm. Its more than 100 employees help organizations create environments that make health care a better place for employees to work, physicians to practice medicine and patients to receive care. Unlike other companies that thrive on the area's low wages, the Studer Group pays a minimum of 75 percent of the national average for every position in the company.

Studer does what he finds he does best—teach and mentor. At least four days a week, he's on the road giving his talk. At night, he answers e-mails, writes articles and checks on his employees.

More often than not, the day's speeches have sparked another possible project. On the flight home from the AUPHA speech in Boston, Studer outlines a possible new section for his company's Web site that will focus on hospital administration for teachers, students and working administrators.

Studer, the small, speech- and hearing-impaired boy who feared failure and worked so hard to become invisible, has risen to become one of Pensacola's best-known national ambassadors and a high-profile community activist.

Thousands in heath care and other industries relate positive feelings about Pensacola because they heard a Studer speech.

In Pensacola, Studer and his wife, Rishy, have made numerous donations to local causes—most are done quietly without any fanfare. Probably, the pair's most public donation was the $200,000 they gave to the Westgate Snoezelen Center, a special sensory facility for disabled children, in February.

Four years ago, they bought the Pensacola Pelicans, a minor league baseball team that was on the brink of disbanding, and helped turn it around into a source of community pride.

Studer also is the freight train pushing the development of the 27.5- acre Trillium site across from Pensacola City Hall into a multi-use site, with public space along the waterfront, a multi-use baseball stadium, maritime museum, university marine research center, and commercial and retail and residential.

Although the process has been rocky and filled with personal attacks and misinformation, Studer remains committed to the major, visionary waterfront development. The criticism hurts him no more, not like it would have 40 years ago.

The difference now is Studer underwent many fires in life. He came out no longer afraid of being the reject or a failure. He battled alcoholism and won. He knows who he is, what his strengths and limitations are and possesses a passion to make a difference in the world.

Instead of being burned by life, Quint Studer is truly a fire starter.

rick@inweekly.net


READ MORE ABOUT QUINT STUDER IN 'THE LAST WORD'