GRAND RAPIDS — He began his career as a sales engineer in Jackson, supplying parts to the aerospace industry. Now, Jim Miller engineers much of the activity at Saint Mary’s Mercy Medical Center, work that includes directing the construction of the $42 million Richard J. Lacks Sr. Cancer Center.
Miller has been chief operating officer at Saint Mary’s for nearly three years and in the industry for about 25. He said he left the aerospace business for the greener pastures of health care because of the challenges the field presented and the intrigue that surrounded it.
“It was different from anything that I had previously been exposed to. It was exciting and I really think that it fit well with my values and those things that my father instilled in me: respect for others, compassion and helping those who are less fortunate,” said Miller, who was born and raised in Jackson.
Ironically enough, Miller’s first health-care job was managing a radiology lab at Mercy Hospital in his hometown. Mercy was where his mother and father were born and where he met Barbara, his wife, who was a pediatrics nurse at the hospital.
“When I went to work there it was like being part of a family. It really was at that point in time and I felt comfortable with that fit,” he said. “Now I’ve come full-circle, ending up in a Mercy hospital, now Trinity. When I walked in the doors here, I felt the same kind of feeling that I felt back there, which was very refreshing.”
Miller stayed at Jackson’s Mercy for a few years after it was acquired by W.A. Foote Hospital. Then he accepted the post of executive vice president of a small rural hospital in Coldwater, a facility noted for its oncology program and a very busy emergency room. Five years later, he took a position with Detroit Riverview Hospital, where he worked with some of that city’s poorest residents.
“That was good for me,” said Miller of the move. “It was good for me from a personal development point and it was good from a career standpoint. I learned a lot about health care and providing it to the poor, and all the things associated with that, in downtown Detroit. It was an experience that I’ll never forget. I was fortunate to have gone through it.”
Miller said he learned the value of teamwork while at the small Coldwater hospital. There he was exposed to a variety of health problems from patients he got to know on a first-name basis — a unique circumstance for most executive vice presidents.
“You learn how to deal with people in a certain fashion. You’re more part of the team and that’s good. So you can carry that forward into the larger hospitals. I think that’s a measure of success because you’re only as successful as your team,” he said.
Miller arrived at Saint Mary’s in April 1998, another urban hospital and about the same size as Riverview. But that’s where the similarities end. The differences? Miller said that Saint’s has a stronger backing in the community and is more of a faith-based organization located in a nicer downtown area.
As for his job, Miller oversees most of the daily operations of the hospital, except for nursing services. Among his responsibilities are facility planning and design, medical staff relations, interacting with other executives at Trinity Health-owned hospitals and being the go-to guy when Saint Mary’s President and CEO Phil McCorkle is away.
“I’m responsible for the hospital when he’s not here. But I’m really just a member of the team,” he said.
Guiding campus construction falls to Miller and that plate is pretty full right now. Saint Mary’s should finish renovation of its award-winning emergency care department this summer. A large cardiology project will get underway soon and the hospital’s floors will be given well-deserved facelifts over the next few years.
“Nothing has been done to those in about 30 years,” said Miller.
But the biggest project of all is the new cancer center going up on the McAuley Building site at Cherry and Lafayette SE. The few people left in McAuley are being moved next door to Xavier Hall so the building can come down. It’s expected to take about four months and $1.4 million to raze McAuley and clear the site. Construction on the Lacks Center should begin in about a year.
“That’s really our No. 1 focus. We’re in the schematic design phase now and we’re moving along well in that phase with MAS, our architects. We’ve spent a lot of time developing that so we can see it come to fruition,” he said.
No one has to remind Miller that it’s been a tough decade to be in the healing business. He’s had a season ticket to much of the cost-cutting action over that period. But at the same time, he feels all the financial wringers that providers have gone through have had at least one positive effect on his industry.
“We are getting better at the business side of the operation,” he said. “We’re having to look at how we purchase supplies and services, more standardization among our facilities and how we contract for them. That’s helped us use our resources better.
“We’re becoming more focused on efficiencies in trying to become more productive. We’re using more management-engineering techniques and industrial engineers to learn how we can do things more efficiently from a work-flow perspective,” he added. “All those things that industry has done, we are trying to do on that side of the operation.”
When Miller isn’t poring over blueprints or talking with hospital physicians, he enjoys playing golf with his son James Patrick, better known as J.P. He said he is especially proud of J.P., who recently graduated from the University of Michigan with an industrial engineering degree. He also faithfully follows the U of M football and hockey programs, and he likes working outdoors with his wife, Barb.
“My wife and I are extremely close. We’ve been married 25 years and we have good friends in Grand Rapids.”
As for the future, Miller sees himself having to continue to deal with declining reimbursements and trying to find the necessary human resources to improve patient care. But he also sees Saint Mary’s continuing to be a strong organization, one that will be able to meet those challenges if it continues to accept the role it has been thrown into.
“We’re being forced as an industry and as a component of that industry to change, to focus more attention on how we’re utilizing the precious resources that we have. We’ve been entrusted with select resources,” said Miller.
“So we’ve got to continue to give patients the excellent care that they deserve. We need to improve the working environment for our employees. And we need to keep our costs in line for those people that purchase our services.”