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CEO candidate says good relations key to hospital's future endeavors, successes

Meeker Memorial Hospital CEO Michael Schramm on Thursday said he believes there is "a tremendous amount of positive potential for Rice Memorial Hospital." Schramm is one of two finalists for the CEO position at the city-owned hospital in Willmar. He was interviewed Thursday by members of the Willmar City Council. Bill Fenske, Rice's current chief financial officer and the second CEO finalist, will interview Monday and Tuesday. Longtime CEO Lorry Massa resigned late last year. Tribune photos by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The words "communication," "openness" and "relationship" came up often Thursday as Michael Schramm was interviewed by Willmar City Council members for Rice Memorial Hospital's top leadership position.

Schramm said he would be visible and accessible, and would work to establish good relations with everyone from hospital employees and the board to local physicians, city officials and the public.

"I believe in communicating openly," he said. "I believe the approach needs to be engaging stakeholders."

Schramm, 38, is one of two finalists to become Rice Hospital's new chief executive officer.

Thursday was day one of four intensive days of meetings and interviews with Schramm and with William Fenske, the other finalist for the position. Schramm returns today for another round of interviews, including a noon session with the city-owned hospital's board of directors.

Fenske, Rice Hospital's current chief financial officer, will be interviewed Monday and Tuesday.

A search committee is expected to recommend its choice to the hospital board on March 18.

Whoever is hired will take over the leadership of Willmar's largest public entity. Rice Hospital and its associated entities, the Rice Care Center and Rice Home Medical, employ some 900 people. Last year the Rice organization had more than $90 million in operating revenue.

Schramm brings a background and experience that echoes much of the health care environment in Willmar. A native of Winner, S.D., he grew up in a rural town. He has led a city-owned hospital in Arlington, Minn., and, since 2002, the county-owned Meeker Memorial Hospital in Litchfield.

In Arlington, he was involved in integrating a hospital and clinic into Sibley Medical Center and Clinic and undertaking a large building project. In Litchfield, he helped Meeker Memorial Hospital accomplish a financial turnaround and launch a $26.5 million building project that will be completed this summer.

"Why would you like to become the CEO of Rice Hospital?" Willmar Mayor Les Heitke wanted to know.

Schramm said he sees a promising future for Rice and wants to be part of it.

"I really believe that there's a tremendous amount of positive potential for Rice Memorial Hospital," he said.

He had praise for the hospital managers he met Thursday morning. "They had really good questions. It was a really engaged conversation," he said.

Schramm appeared relaxed over soup and sandwiches with city officials. He chuckled when Michael Schmit, the city administrator, said, "At least you didn't wear your Litchfield Dragon colors," a reference to the long-standing sports rivalry between the Litchfield and Willmar high schools.

Many of the questions from city officials zeroed in on hospital finances and physician relations.

A sound financial footing is critical, Schramm said.

"Certainly any successful organization needs to be strong financially to achieve your goals and accomplish your mission," he said.

But things such as quality of care and customer service also are important, he said.

Not all hospital services generate a profit, but they can provide a much-needed benefit, he said. "Hospitals provide tremendous value to communities."

Schramm said he would work to foster a positive relationship with local doctors and to seek partnerships that are patient-centered and bring mutual benefits.

"My approach would be to establish good lines of communication and knowing what their issues are... I firmly believe we have to be working together moving forward in the future," he said.

Asked if he would single out a career accomplishment he's most proud of, he said it would be the collective efforts that went into integrating the hospital and clinic in Arlington and solidifying the finances and undertaking a hospital expansion in Litchfield.

"I'm very proud of what we've been able to accomplish in Litchfield," he said. "Our organization is very much poised for growth."