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Rice CEO candidate puts priority on community role

Rice Memorial Hospital Board members interview William Fenske, the hospital's chief financial officer, who is being considered for the institution's CEO position. He is the second of two finalists to be interviewed for the post. Michael Schramm, CEO of Meeker Memorial Hospital in Litchfield, was interviewed over two days last week. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

WILLMAR -- What's best for Rice Memorial Hospital and what's best for patients and the overall community are the principles William Fenske says he will follow if he's selected as the city-owned hospital's next chief executive.

"The hospital needs to play the lead role in providing health care to the community. We are a community hospital," Fenske said during an interview Monday with the hospital board of directors.

Fenske, 46, the current chief financial officer at Rice, is one of two finalists for the top leadership position at the hospital.

He began a two-day round of interviews and meetings Monday with the hospital board, hospital managers, physicians, the Willmar City Council, the Rice Health Foundation and other key stakeholders. Two days of interviews also took place last week with the other finalist, Michael Schramm, the chief executive at Meeker Memorial Hospital in Litchfield.

A search committee is expected to make a hiring recommendation to the hospital board on March 18.

The hospital chief executive is one of the city's key positions. Whoever is hired will take over the leadership of Willmar's largest public entity, with annual operating revenue of more than $90 million and 900-some employees.

Fenske showed a pragmatic view as he fielded questions from the hospital board Monday about hospital goals, strategic planning, partnerships with other health organizations, and Rice Hospital's future direction.

He said one of his priorities will be to strengthen Rice Hospital's role as a regional referral center. He also would concentrate on strengthening and expanding services in orthopedics, cancer care, cardiology and neuroscience.

Making Rice Hospital a place for patients to receive these specialized services "needs to be our focus for the next five years," he said.

Fenske said he'd work to find common ground and maintain good relationships with the local physician clinics and smaller community hospitals in the region.

"It needs to be a collaborative approach. Gone are the days of trying to do everything independently," he said. "We need to think as a community of providers. How are we going to do that? We're going to do it with open and direct communication. ... We need to take the relationships and build on them."

Fenske said he'd also listen to patients about what's important to them.

He promised a realistic approach as well. If an initiative isn't supported by financial projections or demographics, or if it's not something that patients want, "then we need to focus on something different," he said. "We have to understand our market and we have to understand what is reality for Rice."

Fenske, who grew up in Marshall, has a strong background in finance. He was chief financial officer at Winona Health and at Agnesian Health Care in Fond du Lac, Wis., before being hired in 2006 as chief financial officer at Rice Hospital. He also has experience in health care operations. While in Fond du Lac, he was the president and CEO of Agnesian Health Enterprises, a startup initiative which he helped develop into a $25 million service.

He said he's passionate about being in health care. "It's the passion to take care of people," he said.

A key question Monday for the hospital board was how Fenske would make the transition from being chief financial officer at Rice to chief executive officer.

"CEO is different. How do you picture your style? What kind of CEO would you be?" asked Richard Engan.

"It would be dramatically different," Fenske responded. "The CEO needs to have the balance of the organization in mind."

He said he would be approachable and accessible.

"I have three years of visibility and I have three years of trust I've built already. I'm ready to hit the ground running," he said. "I'm going to have to demonstrate my visibility in patient care areas. I'm going to have to be visible at the clinics. Visibility is critical."

He said he'd also want to be visible in the community and at the state and national policy level.