A Children’s Story

Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin was facing significant challenges when Jon Vice was hired in 1979 as executive vice president and later promoted to chief executive officer in 1984. The hospital was growing and providing quality care, but its facility along North 17th Street and Wisconsin Avenue near downtown Milwaukee was woefully inadequate, despite several additions and improvements during the 1960s and 70s. The hospital also needed to cut costs to improve its bottom line.

That’s when Vice set into motion a series of actions that literally reversed the hospital’s fortune and helped establish the facility as one of the most highly regarded children’s medical centers in the nation.

In 1988, the hospital moved to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Complex at Watertown Plank Road and 92nd Street in Wauwatosa. Since the move, Children’s Hospital has expanded several times, including the current project: a 12-story, 425,000-square-foot tower that will increase the number of beds in the hospital from 236 to 294 and provide room for another 72 beds in the future. That project will be completed in 2009.

The hospital also partnered with the Medical College of Wisconsin to build a $140 million, 298,000-square-foot biomedical and translational research facility.

Under Vice’s leadership, Children’s Hospital’s yearly admissions have grown to about 23,000. Vice has led Children’s Hospital and Health System of Wisconsin through 28 years of unprecedented growth and expansion.

“Jon is a dynamic leader. He is a visionary. He likes to take organizations and make them better. He likes to take advantage of opportunities as he sees them,” said Ed Zore, president and chief executive officer of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. and a 20-year member of the Children’s Hospital board of directors. “He is always looking into the future to see where they can go. He has taken Children’s Hospital from a very good organization to a world-class one.”

Vice recently announced that he is planning to retire as the CEO of Children’s Hospital, marking the end of an historic era for the facility.

“I just think it’s time for someone else to have an opportunity to play in the sandbox,” Vice said. “I want (the transition to a new CEO) done in a nice, organized way.”

The Children’s Hospital board has organized a search committee and recently appointed Oak Brook, Ill.-based search firm Witt/ Kieffer to lead its search for a new CEO.

“My personal goal is that they find someone that is so good that in three or four years they wonder why they kept me around so long,” Vice said.

Although there is no definitive timeline, the process of finding Vice’s successor is expected to take nine months to a year.

Vice said he is prepared to remain in his position until that candidate is found. He also plans to be available to help his successor get started.

“I care too much about the organization, and there are too many moms and dads counting on us to have it go any other way,” Vice said.

When Vice was hired to lead Children’s Hospital, he already had a reputation for leading turnarounds at children’s hospitals. He had been the administrator for the children’s hospital in Birmingham, Ala. He previously was the associate administrator for the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati.

“Cincinnati was doing some restructuring, so I worked my way up through that, and then I found out that Birmingham Children’s was in trouble, so I went back to help turn it around,” Vice recalled.

In addition to the move from downtown Milwaukee to Wauwatosa, Children’s Hospital has grown a subsidiary health system throughout the state under Vice’s leadership.

The Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has subsidiaries throughout the state, including Children’s Hospital and Health System Foundation, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin-Kenosha, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin-Fox Valley and Children’s Health Education Center. The hospital system ranks as the fourth-largest Children’s Hospital System in the nation, serving children and families throughout Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northern Illinois.  

“John has been a very visionary leader, he always had a vision of what he wanted to accomplish. and then he would go out and figure out how to do that,” said Larry Rambo, Humana Inc. regional CEO for the Great Lakes region and chairman of the Children’s Hospital Foundation board.

When Vice came aboard at Children’s Hospital, the facility had some cost-cutting to do to help improve the bottom line, and marketing the quality of care was a challenge because of the physical state of the facility.

“One of the issues we saw was a lack of full-time faculty,” Vice said. “We received some resistance from the private practice community about bringing in the necessary full time faculty.”

Another goal of Vice and his team was to simply improve the quality of the product (patient care) at the hospital. “We really stressed the quality care aspect of things, by building up our nursing staff and physician support,” he said.

The original Milwaukee Children’s Hospital had 36 people in the central nursing administration office who were in complete control of nurse scheduling.

“It just wasn’t effective. There was no personalization,” Vice said. “So, we created a new position called nurse manager and made those 10 individuals responsible for the scheduling of their unit on the floor. It gave a lot more local success to individual nurse management.”

However, Vice said the move to Wauwatosa was the key accomplishment of his career.

The board, management and the medical leadership at the hospital had been locked into an ongoing debate about how to resolve the facility problems at the original site in Milwaukee.

“There were quite a bit of politics involved with the business community and individual donors and supporters at that time,” Vice said. “I think ultimately the right decision was made. It was good for the hospital and good for the community.”

The new hospital in Wauwatosa was completed in 1988.

By 2005, Child magazine ranked Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin as the third-best pediatric hospital in the nation.

“It is regarded as one of the best in the country and it is that way because Jon Vice is at the helm,” Zore said.

Jon Vice

Title: Chief executive officer
Company: Children’s Hospital and Health System, Milwaukee.
Hometown: Prairie Grove, just outside of Birmingham, Ala.
Education: Master’s degree in hospital and health Administration from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Family: Wife, Teresa; five children (Jon, Lisa, Jeff, Jessica and Jay) and four grandchildren.
Best advice ever received: "Be happy in your work, have your principles and your ethics and never deviate from them. Don’t apologize if you think you are doing something right, and surround yourself with good capable people."

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