Lori Wightman – Runner-Up – 2005 Business Person of the Year

Firmly Rooted

President of New Ulm Medical Center spearheads key hospital and clinic modernization effort to enhance community life while sinking deep roots into New Ulm.

Photo by Jeff Silker

Lori Wightman had no intention of staying in New Ulm.

When she accepted an assignment from Allina Health Systems in July 2002 to serve as interim president of New Ulm Medical Center, she intended to keep it exactly that. “I figured I’d be here six months, that I’d just keep things held together until a new president could be found,” Wightman says. “I didn’t necessarily want to stay in New Ulm.”

Then she got to town. The rolling hills and thick forests charmed her. So did the people, with their neatly manicured yards and their dedication to their German heritage. But mostly, it was the situation she walked into at the Medical Center that changed her mind and made her want to stay.

“All of my previous CEO positions had been turnarounds—hospitals that were in trouble,” Wightman says. “Those aren’t a lot of fun. They’re like eating broccoli; it’s good to do, but it’s painful. Then I got here. This hospital and clinic are thriving. Exciting things are happening here. The leadership team is all stars, and the medical staff is a snappy group. It all made this a really attractive opportunity for me.”

But it wasn’t until her boyfriend, who lives three-plus hours away in Fargo, pointed that out to her in one of their nightly phone conversations that Wightman connected the dots. “He said, ‘I don’t understand why you’re not a candidate for the permanent position. You tell me how much you love New Ulm Medical Center and how much you love New Ulm. This position is everything you’ve ever wanted to do. You should be a candidate,’” Wightman remembers. “And when I thought about it, I realized he was right.”

So she called the chairman of the board to officially throw her name in the ring. In February of 2003, about the time she expected to be moving on, she became the permanent president of New Ulm Medical Center. “I’m glad it hit me in the head,” the ebullient redhead laughed late last fall. “This job is so perfect for me.”

Wightman has been a nurse, the general manager of a professional basketball team, and a political campaign manager. She’s a Registered Nurse and a Certified Healthcare Executive. She has been in charge of multiple health-care facilities, multiple employees and multiple million-dollar budgets. In New Ulm, she has taken the helm of a major regional health care center with about 500 full-time employees and net revenue of at least $55 million.

The New Ulm Medical Center (NUMC) includes both a 62-bed hospital and a clinic with 30 practicing physicians. It has inpatient and outpatient mental health and substance abuse services, a chemotherapy department and a birth center. It serves a community of almost 15,000 people and a county with a population near 27,000.

Wightman is delighted to be part of something that works so well. “This place almost runs itself,” she says. “It has great senior leadership and great physician leaders. It’s a perfect place for me to be.”

When Wightman joined the NUMC administration in 2002, the facility had just finished the first phase of fundraising for a tremendous renovation and expansion project. The building, built in 1962, had last been updated in 1989 when all of the inpatient units were consolidated on the second floor. Under Wightman’s watch, the facility is undergoing a $9.8 million overhaul that will add new space and improve existing departments.

“This renovation is a long time coming,” Wightman says. “We broke ground in 2004, but this project had been in the planning stages for at least two or three years before that.”

It started with a capital campaign that raised $1.17 million from the community itself. “A lot of that came from the medical staff, the physicians and employees,” Wightman reports. “They all really put their money where their mouths were.”

That money, which was raised before blueprints had even been drawn up for the project, was pivotal when it came time to convince Minneapolis-based Allina, the parent company of NUMC, to help finance the rest of the renovation. Wightman said presenting the project to Allina was far easier with a million-dollar commitment already in the bank. “That money absolutely helped in making a case within Allina,” she says. “It was a huge vote of confidence from the community, and that made a difference.”

The hospital broke ground for the project in May 2004; by the end of November, most of the additions were already complete. The majority of renovations should be finished by May 2005, with finishing touches wrapping up in July. “So far, we’re on schedule—and on budget,” Wightman says. “It’s actually going quite well.”

When it’s all over, the clinic will be significantly larger (“We’ll have room to recruit five more physicians,” Wightman reports); the Emergency Room will more than double in size—and will get a much needed facelift from its current circa-1970s style. The chemotherapy department will triple in size, “like changing it from a closet to a bowling alley,” and the radiology department will grow large enough to house an on-site MRI. There will also be a new chapel, a new front entrance, and a new coffee shop on the first floor.

In the meantime, however, Wightman has been watching it all unfold from a tiny office underneath the clinic—her temporary home while the real administrative offices are closed off by construction. From there, she works on the many other initiatives she’s undertaken since becoming president: completing work on the Automated Medical Records system, which is scheduled to go live next fall; coordinating and continuing the Trailblazer Initiative, a comprehensive, long-term approach to improving both patient satisfaction and employee engagement; and helping connect participants in the Heart Safe Communities program, which is trying to get automated external defibrillators into as many public places as possible.

“When you’re interim, you can’t start new initiatives,” Wightman says. “But once I became permanent, I could. And that has been a lot of fun.”

Despite Wightman’s skepticism about moving to a town of 15,000 deep in southern Minnesota as a single woman with no children, she has grown to love life in New Ulm. She and her dog, a 7-year-old Newfoundland named Katie, have made more friends than she ever expected. “I think I’ve met as many people through my dog as I would have through kids,” she laughs. “It’s been really surprising. I think that now I know a greater percentage of the community here than I ever did in my hometown of Fargo.”

The dog certainly helps, but so does her position at the New Ulm Medical Center. Once the interim part of her title went away, she felt free to become part of the public personality of the facility. She attends Chamber of Commerce meetings. She donates blood regularly (and has grown to love the New Ulm custom of serving Schell’s beer to donors). And she’s become, in her own words, an ambassador for NUMC.

“Part of my role is to represent this place throughout the community,” she says. “That’s important, because we’re the third-largest employer in town and we have a responsibility to be a good employer. We are also a neighbor to many people in this town and we have a responsibility to be a good one. And we’re the health-care experts here, so we have a responsibility to share that expertise with the community.”

From early Monday morning until Friday afternoon, hospital responsibilities are her only concern. But come Friday night, she’s either headed north to Fargo—or eagerly awaiting a visitor of her own. Her long-time boyfriend still lives in Fargo—and still calls every night at 10 p.m. to talk about the day’s events.

“We’ve been doing this long-distance relationship thing for three years now,” she admits. “And you know, it works out just fine. We both have jobs that require a lot of care and feeding, and that’s what we do all week long. Then, we just get together and goof off on the weekends. It’s a nice way to do it. I just have to separate Monday through Friday from the weekends.”

Next on her agenda, however, may be to learn a few German phrases. Although she has always found the town’s deep connection to its roots endearing, she found herself scratching her head during one of her first leadership seminars at the chamber.

“Half of the overheads the presenter used were in German,” she remembers with a laugh. “I didn’t know what they said. But he just said that he couldn’t find a better word in English to explain his point. And everyone else in the room seemed to understand.”

She chalks it up to part of the charm that makes New Ulm such a great place to live. “I really like New Ulm,” she emphasizes. “It’s a comfortable place to be.”

Queen Bee

When Lori Wightman’s then-husband decided to purchase a professional basketball team in 1995, she didn’t even know how many players were supposed to be on the court at any given time. She was already well entrenched in the health-care industry and had neither the time nor the inclination to pay attention to sports.

Then, three weeks before the season started, she became general manager of the Fargo-Moorhead Beez.

“We had no uniforms, no shoes, no bus, no place for the players to live,” she remembers. “We hadn’t even sold any tickets for the first game. And there I was, with three weeks to put it all together.”

So Wightman fell back on the skills that had already served her so well in her health-care career: an ability to get work done through others, to provide a vision and a game plan, to organize the necessary tasks, and to hire the right people for the job.

“Those are transferable skills,” she says. “They apply to any situation, whether I’m running a basketball team or running a clinic. I didn’t know how many people needed to be on the court, but I didn’t need to know that. That’s why I hired a good coach. And that’s why I made sure that all the coach had to worry about was basketball. I just brought him in and got out of his way.”

By the end of that first season, the Beez had clinched the International Basketball Association (now merged with the CBA) championship and had secured the top attendance records in the league.

“It was just unbelievable,” Wightman says. “And what’s interesting is that I approached that job just like I would have approached anything. I hired stars and got out of their way. You have to let people do what they’re good at doing.”

Doctors In The House

None of the doctors who practice at New Ulm Medical Center are actually employees of the hospital or clinic. And that, NUMC president Lori Wightman says, is one of the best things about the facility.

“Basically, all of the doctors belong to the Physicians Group of New Ulm,” Wightman explains. “But they have a professional service agreement that says they can only work NUMC; their contract says that these physicians will sell their services only to this hospital and this clinic. We do all of the billing for them, and then we pay them a lump sum of money and they divvy it up themselves. And it works very, very well.

“I like this arrangement quite a bit,” Wightman adds. “The physicians are not our employees, and they are proud of their independence. But the medical center and the doctors are very much linked; it’s more like a marriage than a merger.”

Wightman is a bit surprised that such a setup hasn’t become more typical in the medical industry. “This relationship is really a well-kept secret,” she says. “And that’s too bad, because it should be duplicated.”

Heart To Heart

Lori Wightman would rather that no one in New Ulm ever has a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). But the president of the New Ulm Medical Center knows that’s not necessarily possible. So she’s helping to make sure that the arrests that do happen don’t have to be fatal by encouraging businesses and other public places to install automatic external defibrillators in the places where people live, work, learn and play.

“Our goal is to get an AED into every public place in town,” Wightman says. “And New Ulm is already ahead of the game, because all of the police cars already have them and all of the public schools already have them.”

To get the word out to the rest of the community, NUMC has developed the Heart Safe Communities program, a partnership between NUMC and Allina Hospitals & Clinics that offers to put AEDs in public places for just $2,200. A storage case, a site visit and training for five people are also part of the package.

Studies have proven that when SCA victims are defibrillated within three to five minutes of the incident, their chances of survival increase dramatically. And because operating the device doesn’t require any sort of advanced training, it makes sense to put the AEDs where they can be most helpful.

“Anyone can use it,” Wightman explains. “Most people assume that they wouldn’t know how to do it, but you really can’t do it wrong. When you open the cover, it tells you exactly what to do.”

A woman’s voice calmly goes over the instructions for the AED, from removing the victims clothing to using the defibrillator itself. And because the machine automatically analyzes the victim’s heart, it won’t let you do anything that could cause additional damage.

“You cannot hurt someone with this,” Wightman confirms. “The machine wouldn’t let you shock someone if they didn’t need it.”

Wightman says that getting AEDs into every possible public building will make a big difference in many lives. “The faster you can get to somebody, the better,” she says. “That’s what this is all about.”

No Ausländer Here

Besides her work as president of New Ulm Medical Center, Lori Wightman in a relatively short period of time has managed to sink roots into the frothy soil of Gemütlichkeit. According to Brian Tohal of New Ulm Economic Development, Wightman has played a “significant role” in a community-based visioning and strategic planning effort called, “Ach Ya, too!” She is an active Rotary member, and serves through that organization’s STRIVE program as a youth mentor. She also serves on the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

© 2005 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Sara Gilbert Frederick

A freelance writer from Mankato.