Health & Family

New Carolinas HealthCare System CEO brings national reputation, promise to ‘Keep Pounding’

Gene Woods, New Carolinas Healthcare CEO

The governing board of Carolinas HealthCare System reached outside its core of experienced, highly-paid homegrown executives to find a chief executive to replace the retiring Michael Tarwater.
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The governing board of Carolinas HealthCare System reached outside its core of experienced, highly-paid homegrown executives to find a chief executive to replace the retiring Michael Tarwater.

When Texas hospital executive Eugene “Gene” Woods was introduced Thursday as the next CEO of Carolinas HealthCare System, he pledged to spend time listening to employees and garnered big laughs when, pointing to his Carolina Panthers blue wrist band, he promised to “Keep Pounding.”

Woods, 51, who’ll replace the retiring Michael Tarwater, said he’ll start work at the Charlotte region’s largest hospital system in early May.

“I believe in collaboration,” he said at a news conference with reporters, Carolinas HealthCare board members and select employees. “The luxury I have is that I’m coming to an organization that is phenomenally successful already, so it’s not about fixing something. … I plan to spend a lot of time with the front line because they really know what’s going on – more sometimes than us ‘suits.’ 

Woods, who has more than 30 years of health care experience, received unanimous approval from the Carolinas HealthCare board after a nine-month search that included face-to-face interviews with nine candidates, from both inside and outside the system.

Edward Brown, board chairman, said Woods rose to the top of an impressive array of candidates.

“You can have somebody who knows the industry very well but is not a natural leader,” Brown said. “But this guy (Woods) is a natural leader. … He is easy to talk to. He is smart, but he listens. He listens with his eyes, ears, mind and heart.”

Tarwater praised

While praising Woods, Brown also thanked Tarwater for his 35 years of service. “Mike has done an incredible job … of positioning us for the future.

Tarwater, 62, who has said he’ll retire at the end of June, spoke briefly, welcoming Woods. “You’re going to love it here,” Tarwater said.

Tarwater said he had known and admired Woods through their work with the American Hospital Association, where Woods is chairman-elect and scheduled to become chairman in January 2017.

Their tenures will overlap for a few weeks before, as Tarwater said, “I get out of his way and let him do his thing.”

When Tarwater added that he planned to stay in Charlotte and “get my health care here,” Woods smiled.

“No pressure,” he said, eliciting laughter again.

Eugene Woods spent 5 years as president and chief operating officer of CHRISTUS Health in Irving, Texas, with more than 50 hospitals and long-term care facilities, 175 clinics and outpatient centers, and 30,000 employees in the U.S., Mexico and South America. Carolinas HealthCare has about 40 hospitals and 60,000 employees across the Carolinas.

Earlier in the day, as his appointment was announced at 7:30 a.m., Woods entered the board room with his wife of 22 years, Ramona, and their younger son, Marcus, 14. “This is quite an exciting day for the Woods family,” he said with a smile. “I have been following this organization for a number of years. … This organization dreams big and achieves big.”

Woods comes to Charlotte after five years as president and chief operating officer of CHRISTUS Health in Irving, Texas, a nonprofit, Catholic system with more than 50 hospitals and long-term care facilities, 175 clinics and outpatient centers, and 30,000 employees in the United States, Mexico and South America. It’s similar in size to Carolinas HealthCare, an $8 billion public, nonprofit enterprise with about 40 hospitals and 60,000 employees across the Carolinas.

‘A great hire’

At CHRISTUS, Woods’ departure was announced Thursday “with mixed emotions,” said CEO Ernie Sadau. “While I know Gene will be successful in his new role, we will certainly miss his presence.”

In an email, Sadau said Woods, the chief operating officer and second-in-command, had “taken a strong hold of our operations, ensuring consistent achievement of important operational and performance metrics.”

Woods’ fluency in Spanish has been particularly helpful, Sadau said, as CHRISTUS strengthened its presence in Mexico and began expanding to Colombia and Chile.

Sadau said Woods’ reputation as a health care leader is well-known; he’s been named three times as one of the top 25 minority executives in the country by Modern Healthcare. And he has also served “as a role model to other minority health care executives,” both inside and outside CHRISTUS Health, Sadau said.

Gene Cochrane, executive director of the Duke Endowment, which annually makes grants to health care institutions including Carolinas HealthCare, praised the board for “bringing more diversity” to the system and for choosing a new leader with experience in other cities and at other hospital systems.

“My 30-second first impressions were very positive,” said Cochrane, who met Woods at a reception Wednesday for health care leaders. “He seemed very warm and very personable. … I think he’s inheriting one of the best systems anywhere.”

He commands a lot of respect from people in the industry. … He’s really about, ‘How do we improve the care? Patient first.’ He’s the real deal.

Thomas Giella, head of health care services for executive recruiter Korn Ferry

Thomas Giella, head of health care services for executive recruiter Korn Ferry, said that his firm placed Woods in the Texas job in 2011 and that Woods is a “great hire” for Carolinas HealthCare.

If he wasn’t taking the job in Charlotte, Giella predicted Woods would have been “on everyone’s short list” for CEO jobs that will come open at several large U.S. health care systems over the next three years.

“He’s very bright. He’s very humble. He gets things done,” Giella said. “He commands a lot of respect from people in the industry. … He’s really about, ‘How do we improve the care? Patient first.’ He’s the real deal.”

Salary not available

Woods will be the third CEO of the Charlotte hospital system. Earlier leaders were called directors who basically oversaw the single charity hospital, Charlotte Memorial (now Carolinas Medical Center), according to Jerry Shinn, author of “A Great, Public Compassion,” a history of the hospital.

After arriving in 1981, Harry Nurkin became the first CEO and began the turnaround – from one hospital to a system of health care facilities – that his protege Tarwater has continued since 2002.

The system is on sound financial footing, with $3 billion in cash reserves, according to Standard & Poor’s rating agency.

Earlier this month, Carolinas HealthCare released 2015 figures on total compensation for top executives. Tarwater, among the highest-paid hospital executives in the country, received $6.6 million in total compensation in his last full year as CEO. That was an increase of 26 percent over the previous year’s $5.3 million.

Hospital officials declined to say how much Woods will be paid. As a public system, it is required by law to disclose compensation of senior executives for “the last completed fiscal year.” The system released its 2015 figures last week and won’t disclose 2016 compensation until early 2017.

Karen Garloch: 704-358-5078, @kgarloch

Eugene ‘Gene’ Woods

Age: 51

Family: Wife of 22 years, Ramona Woods. Two sons, Antonio, 20, and Marcus, 14.

Personal: Born in Rhode Island. Because his father was in the U.S. Navy, the family moved a lot. As a child, he lived in Spain, his mother’s homeland, then moved to Pennsylvania for grade school and high school years.

Education: Pennsylvania State University for bachelor’s degree in health planning and administration, and master’s degrees in business administration and health administration.

Work experience: President and chief operating officer at CHRISTUS Health since 2011. Previously chief executive officer of Saint Joseph Health System in Lexington, Ky., and chief operating officer at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.

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