Always willing to listen

Ask someone about Kevin Conlin, and the words you'll hear repeatedly are integrity, teamwork and a willingness to listen. As president and CEO of Via Christi Health, he oversees a health system that employs more than 9,000 people, including more than 5,000 in Wichita.

But he lets the network of hospitals and other facilities be the public face of Via Christi, and when he talks about the system, it's always in terms of "we."

So unless you catch him in a free moment — and there aren't many because his days often include both breakfast and evening meetings — you aren't likely to know that he loves golfing, once wanted to be a football player and says the thing that keeps him up at night is how to be ready for what he sees as "a phase of unprecedented change" in the health care industry.

Physician Robert Kenagy, chief medical officer at the Wichita Clinic, has worked with Conlin as a health care provider, through the Wichita Business Coalition on Health Care and on the board of Preferred Health Systems, the insurance company Via Christi sold last year.

He characterizes Conlin as "always very responsive and approachable" with "a willingness to hear us out."

Lynnette RauvolaBouta, senior vice president for mission integration at Via Christi, was recruited by Conlin 5 1/2 years ago.

"Something that I appreciate is that I am able to lead the areas that I am responsible for, and I don't experience Kevin as a micromanager," she said. "I feel free and able to move things forward, and I really appreciate that."

Conlin is a few months into his seventh year as the leader of Via Christi. His office in the former Thorn Americas building near 37th North and Rock Road includes signs from his road to Wichita:

* The Smoky Mountains scenes on two walls were given to him by employees at the former Baptist Health System in Knoxville, Tenn., where he was CEO.

* The clock on his desk is a tribute from his time as CEO of DePaul Medical Center in Norfolk, Va.

* The crystal hands are from Don Brennan, a friend who was president and CEO of Ascension Health, a health system based in St. Louis. Conlin was president and CEO of one of its subsidiaries.

Also on his desk are two books from Via Christi: a personalized Bible and "Leadership Prayers" by Richard Kriegbaum, with its entries on delegation, courage, even budget.

"This is a great book that I call upon a lot," Conlin said, noting that he often picks up Kriegbaum's book before meetings.

His background

Conlin, 52, is a native of Wilmington, Del., who grew up wanting to be a starting outside linebacker for the New York Giants.

He got intrigued with health care at his first job, washing dishes at a hospital while in high school, and earned a degree in biological sciences with a minor in English from Rutgers University.

That's where he also got interested in management, and when he started looking for the overlap between the two, someone mentioned hospital management.

He talked his way into a meeting with the CEO of the local hospital and asked, "What do you do, and what's it like, and what are the challenges?" And he learned that an advanced degree was recommended, and that the best place to get one was Duke University.

So Conlin went to Duke, earning his master's of health administration. As he looked for a residency, he looked to multi-hospital systems.

"My sense was, that was the wave of the future," said Conlin.

He found a residency, then a job with Baptist Health System, at its hospital in Birmingham, Ala. He rose to vice president for ambulatory services. And he met and married Linda, his wife. They have two daughters.

From Birmingham, Conlin moved to Knoxville, first as administrator of East Tennessee Baptist Hospital and then — at 31 — as acting CEO of the Baptist Health System. "I think the board was very courageous," he said.

The position didn't become permanent because the board "wanted someone who was Baptist. I'm Catholic."

Instead, he went to work for the Daughters of Charity National Health System and became CEO of Hotel Dieu Hospital in New Orleans, then held other Catholic health systems positions before joining Via Christi.

Conlin was the middle child, with two older sisters and two younger brothers. "I guess I'm supposed to be the well-adjusted one," he said.

"It was fun growing up in a big family.... You learn that there are other people around you whose views are important. You learn to support others in that type of environment."

That shows up in his leadership. Time and again he speaks of his team — eight direct-reports and about 80 executives across Via Christi:

* "One of the strengths of Via Christi Health is that we do have a very strong team," in reference to leadership changes within Via Christi.

* "Our teams have been working on this for the last couple of years," in reference to opening a new hospital in far west Wichita.

* "I find that particularly satisfying, to see other members of our team accomplishing that," in reference to Via Christi meeting health care needs.

Looking ahead

Conlin said his biggest challenge is keeping the organization financially strong in a highly competitive environment.

"We've succeeded at that.... But that's a challenge."

In addition to its hospitals, Via Christi Health includes outpatient centers, senior services and home services, in Kansas and northern Oklahoma.

Conlin said he and his team want to grow Via Christi, but he shared no specifics. The health system will be looking at "what the future's calling for and what the future's going to value."

Until now, he said, success often meant high volume. Now, "they're looking for value — the right services provided at the right time for the right cost.... It causes you to rethink what the smart growth looks like."

That's the same issue being looked at by the Wichita Business Coalition on Health Care, for which Conlin is a board member.

Executive director Ron Whiting said, "Kevin has, from the very beginning, been not only a strong supporter but instrumental in several ways.... He has always been very fair and willing to recognize the hospitals' roles and willing to have a frank and open discussion."

RauvolaBouta said Conlin "gives a lot of thought to situations and issues, analyzes them, and I think seeks counsel as he believes he needs to do so, then makes a decision. I think he always does so with a respect for people."