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Rice board picks search consultant as it seeks new CEO

WILLMAR -- The Rice Memorial Hospital Board of Directors has picked Witt/Kieffer as its consultant to help in the search for a new chief executive for the city-owned hospital.

The deal is contingent on being able to negotiate the fee and sign a contract.

Board members made the decision Wednesday night after hearing presentations from Witt/Kieffer and from the other search firm under consideration, Quick Leonard and Kieffer.

Wayne Larson, chairman of the board, called the choice "a toss-up."

Both the consulting firms are leaders in health care executive recruitment. Both have experience working with publicly owned hospitals, and both proposed a similar process for how the search will be conducted.

At around $108,000, including expenses, Witt/Kieffer is the more expensive of the two. Quick Leonard and Kieffer offered a flat rate of $75,000 for its professional fee, plus expenses.

But in the end, board members leaned toward Witt/Kieffer as the better fit for a rural Minnesota hospital.

"I'd like to see us pick the one we think would do the best job," said board member Mike Gardner.

The board plans to try to negotiate the fee with Witt/Kieffer before signing a contract, however, in hopes of getting a reduced rate. Larson said he'll call for a special meeting if negotiations are unsuccessful.

Rice Hospital was left without a permanent CEO after the departure last month of Lawrence Massa. Massa, who had been the hospital's chief executive for almost 15 years, has taken a new position as executive director of the Minnesota Hospital Association.

It's only the second time in almost 40 years that Rice Hospital has had to replace its top executive.

Jim King, a partner in Witt/Kieffer's Minneapolis office and one of the two consultants who'll be assigned to the search, said it's unusual for a hospital to have such longevity among its top staff.

"You've had tremendous tenure in your leadership and that's a blessing," he said.

The question now facing the board is how to find the right person who can continue to move the hospital forward, King said.

"It is so important that this hospital and this part of Minnesota have a great leader," he said.

King said Witt/Kieffer would start the search process by meeting with the board and with stakeholders -- such as physicians and community representatives -- to learn about Rice Hospital's culture, its strategic goals and leadership needs.

A detailed job prospectus would then be put together and a pool of candidates developed.

The consultants would help screen candidates, conduct background and reference checks, and identify a slate of half a dozen semifinalists, who would then be narrowed to the finalists, King said.

"We never come with a prepackaged slate of candidates," he told the board. "We tailor the candidates to meet your needs. ... Our job is to bring to you the very best candidates."

The entire process, including the negotiation of a salary and contract with whoever is hired, should take four to six months, King said.

At least four or five people at Witt/Kieffer will be assigned exclusively to the Rice Hospital executive search, he said.

King said the company has a history of successful placements at several hospitals in the Midwest, most recently a publicly owned hospital in Ames, Iowa. Its CEO placements have an average tenure of eight years -- twice the national average, he said.

Witt/Kieffer also is the search firm that successfully recruited Massa away from Rice to the top position at the Minnesota Hospital Association.

In another move Wednesday, the Rice Hospital Board launched discussion about establishing a search committee to guide and oversee the search process.

To ensure a wide perspective, board members want to include a mid-level staff person from the hospital, who can represent hospital employees, and a city official. They also want two doctors representing each of the local medical clinics, as well as two or three board members.

Dale Hustedt, the hospital's interim chief executive, will start contacting people in the near future so appointments to the search committee can be finalized.