Bob Ritz assumed the role of president of Mercy Medical Center-Des Moines in July; it’s his fourth executive role in a health administration career that has spanned more than 25 years. Most recently, he served four years as president and CEO of St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, Ill. Prior to graduate school, the West Virginia native chose to spend a year working in a hospital kitchen to learn the business from the ground up. As Mercy’s president and CEO, Ritz heads a health care organization with 52 locations in Greater Des Moines, including Mercy’s Sixth Avenue campus, Mercy Medical Center-West Lakes hospital in West Des Moines and Mercy Clinics. He reports to Dave Vellinga, who led Mercy-Des Moines for 13 years and is now president and CEO of Mercy Health Network. 

What spurred your initial interest in health care administration? 

I had some family members in health care. Quite honestly, when I was in undergraduate school, I decided I wanted to be in a field where I could work with a lot of people. And I wanted to work in large organizations where the demand for their services would not go away. I grew up in West Virginia, and it didn’t take long to see what happened to the steel and coal industries. ... Health care in general I thought would be a field that would be exciting and that would be around forever. 

How did you get started? 

I went to graduate school at (The Sloan Program of Health Administration), which is part of Cornell University. It’s one of the more traditional programs for teaching health care administration. ... The year between (college and graduate school), I worked in the hospital in Wheeling where my uncle was on the medical staff. I asked the COO if he would help me get familiar with the business. ... He asked me where I wanted to work, and I said, the kitchen, housekeeping and the long-term care facility. I actually spent almost the entire year in the kitchen because I liked it so much. I liked it because I could go out on the floors and pick up trays and talk to nurses and patients and doctors. Looking back, if there was one thing that gave me the greatest contribution to my appreciation for the medical staff, it was probably that job. And I’ve never lost that to this day. 

What has been your most challenging leadership role? 

My position in Connecticut (as president and CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital and Health System in Waterbury from 2002 to 2008) was the toughest. The organization was really challenged from all different angles. There was a loss of support from the community; financially, the pension plan was only funded at about 50 percent of the liability. I remember watching cash to make payroll on Thursdays for Friday, and I remember dealing with the bondholders directly, because candidly, we were in default on the bonds and they could have called the bonds. 

What sort of leadership tone do you try to set? 

I don’t know if it’s a tone, but maybe a style. I like to work as closely as possible with doctors and staff. I think that our ability to navigate the future is optimized when we have people on board who understand that they’re appreciated, but also that they’re included. ... One of the most important things to me is pride. I like to spend a lot of time on culture and pride. I believe both of those things are first, intrinsically related, and secondly, are the difference between success and failure in a lot of organizations. I personally believe that culture starts at the top, and the style of leadership will in fact influence the culture. 

What type of civic involvement did you have in Illinois? 

Not only in Illinois, but from day one, I’ve been involved with the chamber of commerce and United Way. My father was the chair of the chamber of commerce (in Morgantown); when his term expired, I became a member. I’ve been involved with United Way since 1987. In that year, I served as the chair of the missions and allocations committee. I actually got to go and meet with people and agencies and see the services they provide and find out that was a good place for our money to go. That was pretty cool to see the services in action. In fact, it probably affected my charitable life as well. 

Have you had a lot of requests already to serve on boards? 

There’s this old saying that you can’t drink from a fire hydrant because you’ll be more thirsty afterwards. Of course, that’s one of my biggest downfalls. But I want to be respectful and take some time. I’m involved in a couple of boards already, and I think that’s probably good for a start. I’ve got that classic illness of not being able to say no to people. 

What do you see happening with health care demand in the next few years? 

If I could tell you what was going to happen with demand after the Affordable Care Act, you’d probably want to stock-pick from that. However, I will tell you that we’ve been providing care to individuals in our communities who are uninsured or underinsured for years. So to me, much of this is about structurally giving them peace of mind they didn’t have through coverage, as opposed to access. 

On the other hand, this whole issue about where they receive care, and whether they receive care at the appropriate level, perhaps that’s going to change. Historically (that care has been provided in) emergency departments, and because of that, there was a lack of follow-up care. The new system will give people that relationship. ... I don’t see us getting a flurry of activity overnight here. In fact, I think candidly, if the intent of this legislation and all the hard work people have been doing come true, we’re building a system that destroys our current business model. 

Mercy has grown tremendously in the past 10 years. Do you think the growth will moderate? 

Relative to growth and facilities, we’re going to spend the next six months working on a plan for Mercy. I think after that, we’ll know better how to answer that question. I think if anything, we may be looking at how we need to deploy our Mercy services. And we’re going to spend a whole lot of time working on what we call the Mercy Experience, so that all of our locations are providing a single experience of service and quality excellence. ... We’re actually hiring a director of experience, and we’ll be spending a lot more time on what I call the hospitality portion of what we do. 

Does Mercy collaborate with UnityPoint Health to any extent? 

I hope so. I’ve had conversations with both Eric Crowell and Bill Leaver since I’ve been here, and I think we should be collaborating. I don’t think there’s tremendous value in one organization trying to get ahead of the other, because, quite honestly, both organizations are very respected and great additions to the community – we both need to be strong. But if I were to tell my staff, “We’re going to close down this program at Mercy downtown or Mercy West Lakes,” they’d say, “What’s up with that?” because we’ve been competing so long. But if the proper opportunity is put up first, then perhaps people could see that the two organizations could work together. To the extent we can periodically do that kind of inventory, that would be good for all of us. 

What kind of activities do you enjoy?  

I like to visit patients; I like to spend time getting to know staff. I like to try to golf once in a while; it’s ugly. I run every morning – just a couple of miles now. When I first left Cornell, I was running 60 miles a week.