The lone CEO in the nearly four decades of operations for Citizens Memorial Hospital is set to retire at the start of next year, and his successor is already on board.
Donald Babb, 78, announced his retirement May 23 in a letter to medical staff members, employees and volunteers. The retirement is effective January 2020, at which time Gary Fulbright, the Bolivar-based health care system’s chief financial officer, is expected to take over as CEO.
Hospital officials say Fulbright beat out six other candidates outside the CMH organization for the position.
Babb is CMH’s first and only CEO, and Fulbright came on as the third employee nearly 38 years ago. Babb, who has served more than 50 years in the health care industry, said he had considered retirement for the past several years.
“It came to a point where I just need to make a decision,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 50 years, so someone else needs to try it out.”
Babb noted he knew last year he would be exiting at the end of 2019. Fulbright was among those under consideration by the CMH Board of Directors for the position late in 2018. By January, they made the offer to Fulbright.
“The consensus was that he would be the right one,” Babb said. “There was no question about that.”
CMH Board Chairman Patrick Douglas could not be reached by press time, and board member Brad Gregory deferred comment to Douglas.
With Fulbright’s lengthy knowledge of the CMH system, Babb said there wasn’t an urgency to publicly announce the future leadership change at the start of the year. He said the timing was appropriate to notify the staff by late May.
“I felt like staff needs to know and I wanted to let the physicians know. I felt like it was the right time to announce it,” he said.
As CFO, Fulbright has worked alongside Babb in contracting for physicians throughout the health care system. He said attending the organization’s board meetings for nearly four decades will serve him well in the CEO role.
Fulbright said he had known for a couple of years Babb was looking to retire. Taking on the CEO role was something he had thought about mostly in passing for a few years.
“I wanted to make sure it was a good fit for me and for the organization,” he said. “I was mostly just wanting to try and help him transition out in some way. I didn’t necessarily think this was the plan.”
The current CFO isn’t the only longtime CMH employee who will be promoted early next year. The health care provider announced June 4 that Renee Meyer would succeed Fulbright in the CFO role. Meyer, currently director of finance for the CMH Foundation, has worked for CMH for nearly 27 years after joining as an accountant in 1992. She was promoted to her current position in 1997.
When CMH first opened, Babb worked with five physicians and 92 employees. Now, there are 2,200 employed by the health care system. In the early, days there were 56 beds in a 45,000-square-foot building. Today, the Bolivar hospital has 86 beds, and the system operates 34 clinics, five independent living communities and two retail pharmacies, as well as a residential care center and six long-term care facilities with a combined 705 licensed beds.
CMH provides services in eight southwest Missouri counties.
“Our growth since the day we opened has always been planned,” Babb said.
In 2016, the health care system’s gross revenue had grown to $435.2 million. By the end of 2018, that total increased to approximately $500 million – a nearly 15% jump, Babb said.
Part of that plan has been to grow the health care system’s physician roster. Babb said CMH has recruited 11 physicians this year, increasing its roster to 101. It has 49 more physicians on its recruiting list for the next two to three years, he added.
“That’s exciting for all the communities that we serve, but for the organization as well,” he said.
No construction projects currently are active, Babb said, but the organization began operation in April of Lake Stockton Healthcare Facility, a 90-bed, $8.7 million project. Its construction was completed in January.
He said CMH is now turning its focus on expansion of its Bolivar hospital, which currently is in the planning phases with Kansas City-based HMN Architects Inc. No cost estimates or contractor decisions have been made at this point for the project, Babb said, adding the expansion would touch on all patient areas in the hospital.
As the health system continues its consistent growth trend, Babb and Fulbright said a merger deal such as the one CMH originally entered in October 2016 with CoxHealth is unlikely to occur again. The deal for CoxHealth to purchase CMH, valued at $120 million, fell through in mid-2017.
“I don’t believe so,” Babb said of additional potential mergers. “We’ve made the decision to stay independent, and unless health care turns upside down, we’re probably going to stay that way.”
The road ahead
During his lengthy career, Babb has received numerous honors, including the Missouri Hospital Association’s Distinguished Service and Visionary Leadership Awards, and the American Heart Association’s Missourian Award.
With nearly four decades devoted to CMH, he admitted to having some mixed emotions of leaving his longtime workplace in a few months.
“There’s always the emotion you have of a place you’ve been involved in for 38 years, as well as the emotions with retiring,” he said. “I still enjoy working; I love to work. But I feel strongly about Gary taking the role here. I don’t know what I would have done if he had said no.”
While he’ll have Babb on the job through this year to gather insight into the CEO role, Fulbright said he fully expects to be asking questions and seeking advice from the longtime CMH leader for some time to come.
“He’ll kind of be a celebrity when he comes back as he knows everybody and everybody knows him,” Fulbright said. “I want what’s best for him. So, my goal is to do as good a job as I can and help him feel that it was a good decision.”
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