HOLLAND — The line of succession for Holland Community Hospital’s chief executive was in place well before Judy Newham started giving serious thought last fall to moving on
As Newham interviewed candidates three years ago for a vice president position, she sought a person that some day would replace her.
She found in Dale Sowders a kindred spirit who shares her operating philosophies of always putting the mission of the organization first and fostering a culture of trust and confidence among the various factions of the hospital community. Sowders, the 41-year-old chief operating officer at Holland Community, will succeed Newham as CEO and president Feb. 1.
When choosing Sowders in 1999 to become the hospital’s vice president of clinical operations, and then COO a year later, Newham knew she was essentially hand-picking her eventual successor. She wanted someone with the talents to take on much more than the “technical issues” of the CEO’s position.
“It was a very deliberate search because I knew I was looking for someone who was pretty unique. I was looking for someone who could look me in the eye and talk about service and talk about the soul of an organization,” Newham said. “He’s shown he’s the person for the role. He’s earned it.”
Holland Community’s board of directors accepted Newham’s succession plan in December and appointed Sowders as just the seventh president and CEO in the hospital’s 85-year history.
“He understands us, the culture and the strengths of the hospital,” board Chairman Rich Lievense said of Sowders. “We expect a lot of the same performance and culture to continue.”
Sowders served as vice president of clinical operations for a year after joining Holland Community in 1999. A 15-year industry veteran who previously worked in executive positions at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare in Evanston, Ill., Sowders assumed responsibility for most day-to-day operations of Holland Community in 2000.
He sees his biggest initial challenge as maintaining the trust among the hospital staff and the community that Newham has cultivated and enjoyed over the years.
“I look forward to building on the strengths that have been put into place,” Sowders said.
Newham announced her retirement Jan. 11 as CEO and president, ending 11 years as head of the 213-bed acute-care hospital. She’s credited with extending care out into the community through numerous outreach initiatives that were maintained even during a period of tight financial conditions in recent years, as well as maintaining the hospital’s fiscal stability during that period.
Newham, 51, will remain with the hospital and its two-year-old foundation as a senior consult, focusing on areas of staff recruitment and retention and complementary medicine. She called the chance to plan the succession of a new CEO a “rare opportunity.”
“It’s a really great feeling to stand in front of employees with a full voice and full heart and pass the reins to someone like Dale,” Newham said.
She called her decision to retire a personal choice driven by soul-searching that came following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the stroke suffered by her former husband and father of her son that made her “take a look at what’s important in life,” she said.
Newham will remain in Holland with her husband, Dr. David Johns, an emergency room physician in Holland. She plans to continue work on behalf of professional trade organizations in which she’s involved, as well as become involved in work built “around the needs of people who can’t help themselves that I’m not going to be able to do in this role.”
“It was just time,” Newham said of her decision to move on. “I must be attentive to what my heart is calling me to do.
“It’s a tough load to carry and if I look at the next 10 years, that’s not going to get any easier,” she said.
Sowders takes over at a time when Holland Community Hospital’s finances and patient satisfaction ratings “have never been better,” Lievense said. Patient surveys consistently give the hospital satisfaction marks in the high 90s.
The hospital is also coming off a strong fiscal year that saw it record an operating margin of 5.36 percent on revenues of $91.7 million.
Down the road, the hospital within the next year plans to complete work on a long-term strategic plan that will lay the foundation for future clinical services and facility expansions.
“We’re going to take a look at our product lines and make sure we have the facilities that last,” Lievense said.