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Fenske sees challenges, prosperous future

William Fenske, chief financial officer at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar, is interviewed Tuesday by the Willmar City Council. Fenske is the second of two finalists for the city-owned hospital's top executive position. Meeker Memorial Hospital CEO Michael Schramm interviewed for the position over two days last week. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Working with local clinics, area hospitals and larger health organizations will be crucial to Rice Memorial Hospital's future success, William Fenske told Willmar city officials Tuesday.

"We have significant opportunities to become that regional referral center we were a few years ago," Fenske said. "It's going to take a different approach. We aren't going to be able to do it alone."

Tuesday was the final installment in four intensive days of interviews with the two finalists -- Fenske and Michael Schramm -- for the top leadership position at Rice Memorial Hospital.

The candidates have each undergone two days of meetings and question-and-answer sessions with the hospital board, the Willmar City Council, hospital managers, physicians, local clinic representatives and other key stakeholders.

A search committee will meet Thursday to review the process and decide which candidate to recommend to the hospital board. The board is expected to make its choice on March 18.

Whoever is selected will become the chief executive of the city's largest public entity, overseeing a $90 million annual budget.

Fenske, 46, has been the chief financial officer at Rice Hospital since 2006. His background includes executive positions at Winona Health Services in Winona and at Agnesian HealthCare System in Fond du Lac, Wis., both highly competitive health care markets.

While he was with Agnesian, he helped launch a retail pharmacy and medical equipment venture and also was involved in the development of an open-heart surgery program.

These are challenging times for hospitals, Fenske said Tuesday.

But he said he's optimistic about Rice Hospital. "I see a positive future because I see all of these opportunities," he said.

During a lively discussion that lasted 90 minutes, City Council members had many questions about how Fenske would tackle issues such as marketing the hospital, helping recruit doctors and forming strategic relationships with other providers.

"We're facing some challenges, one of them being orthopedics and the other being plain old competition. How are we going to meet those challenges?" asked Doug Reese.

Fenske said collaboration will be critical.

"The days of competing against each other for the nickels and dimes are over. There's not enough money in the system," he said.

He said one of the things he would do as Rice CEO would be to develop initiatives that strengthen and expand local services, particularly in important specialties such as orthopedics, cardiology and cancer care.

Fenske said he'd also place an emphasis on the kind of excellent care that patients are seeking.

"That comes first and foremost. That is the single item people are expecting us to do, and we have to ensure we're doing it," he said. "If we can provide the service, patients will come here."

Council member Bruce DeBlieck wanted to know what Fenske would do to help recruit physicians to Willmar.

If the hospital is strong and thriving, it will encourage doctors and other health care professionals to choose to practice in Willmar, Fenske said.

He said he'd work with the local clinics to support their recruitment efforts. Willmar also needs to foster a home-grown health care work force by offering scholarships and other assistance to encourage professionals to return here when they complete their training, he said. "We have to be unique in how we're recruiting. We're competing with the metro areas."

A strong local economy and city support for the hospital will help as well, he said.

"Rice Hospital is a critical piece to the economy here," he said. "It's greater than the $10 million budget. It's one of the reasons people come to Willmar."