William L. Bradley
Leaving a legacy
Bill Bradley calls the years he’s spent as Washington Regional Medical Center’s chief executive “a dream come true.” “When I lived in Tulsa, we would come over to a football game or over to visit Beaver Lake or something on occasion,” says Bradley. “Every time I would drive by Washington Regional, I would tell my wife, ‘My dream job would be to be CEO of Washington Regional.’”
When he retires after 13 years of service this November, he’ll leave behind a strong legacy, says WRMC board member Woody Bassett.
“He has left a lasting mark and leaves a strong foundation upon which to launch the future for the medical system,” Bassett says. “That’s why we put his name on a brand new building at Washington Regional.
“Perhaps Bill’s finest legacy is that he showed all of us that anything is possible at Washington Regional.”
“I believe Bill is leaving an eternal legacy,” says Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce President Steve Clark. “Through his actions and words, he has written his name on the heart of virtually all he has met. He is that person that sees around the corner and works to solve that problem or leverage that opportunity before it becomes a crisis or opportunity lost.”
Bradley says his affinity for contributing to the success of hospitals hit him early: His father, a dentist who served in both the Navy and the Air Force, encouraged Bradley to volunteer at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Little Rock on school breaks.
“My dad always insisted that I do something productive,” says Bradley. “That was really the beginning of my exposure to health care and hospitals and that sort of
“[Bill Bradley] is exceptionally good at what he does. His steady leadership and excellent management skills have been instrumental in the extraordinary growth of Washington Regional’s medical system and medical center and in the enormous expansion of health care services for the community.”
— Woody Bassett
thing. I thank him in hindsight for making me do that because it really introduced me to what has been my life’s work.”
Bradley and his family were in Bonham, Texas, where his father had a dental practice, when Bradley’s mother unexpectedly passed away. Bradley was in the ninth grade.
“She had a sudden cardiac death,” says Bradley. “It’s obviously permanently etched in my memory. We were watching television, she and I, and all I remember is her saying, ‘Oh, oh.’ Then she fell out of her chair. I went to get my dad, he asked me to go to the neighbor’s house, and that was it.
“It was obviously a life-changing event, but life throws a lot of curve balls at all sorts of people.”
Bradley’s father took him and his sister back to his hometown, Little Rock, where he could get help with the children from family.
“It was a tough move, because I had to leave a lot of my friends that I had kind of grown up with in elementary and junior high,” recalls Bradley. “But it is what it is. What’s the old saying? ‘Tempered steel is the strongest?’ So I think that’s part of the process.”
After high school, Bradley headed up north to the University of Arkansas to study industrial engineering, where, he says, he “fell in love with Fayetteville.” He also fell in love with his wife, Stephanie.
“I was raised in the church, but she got me reinterested in it as a college student,” he says. “We went to University Baptist Church, and I think that’s when my faith became much more important to me.
“She’s been a great partner for me my whole career. She’s the glue in our family, and I couldn’t have been more fortunate.” He pauses for a moment. “I’d better stop talking about it, or I’ll start crying.”
AIR FORCE AND BEYOND
When he graduated from the university, he decided to follow his father’s footsteps into the Air Force.
“My claim to fame in the Air Force is that I was at three different air bases, none of which ever had an airplane,” he says. He was offered the opportunity to go through pilot training while serving, but he turned it down.
“You get separated from your family a lot more,” he explains, and, laughing, adds, “The other aspect of it is that you don’t know what kind of plane you’re going to get when you start. If I knew I was going to be driving a sports car versus a bus, I might have been much more tempted.”
Bradley served at an Air Force base in Turkey for two years, where, he says, he and Stephanie found themselves fairly isolated from their American lives.
“There was no television,” he says. “We had Armed Forces Radio, and they had a movie theater on the base.
“[Stephanie and I] took a course in Turkish language
— the basics. So if you would go off the base out into a local village or something you could say ‘Hi, how are you, thank you, how much is this?’ — those kinds of very limited interactions. I remember it took about six weeks, and then we worked up to our first trip off of the base. We were pretty excited. We walked into this store that sold a lot of brass and copper, which was common over there, and the first words out of the shopkeeper’s mouth were ‘Hi! Can I help you? Would you like a Pepsi?’ In English. I thought, ‘I think I just wasted about six weeks of my life.’”
Though Bradley considered making a career out of the Air Force, ultimately, he decided against it. The first job he would get outside of the service served to demonstrate to him what career field not to go into.
“I liked it for about a day,” he says, wryly, of the job, which was information systems oriented. “It probably would have resulted in a decent career, but it just didn’t have the people, team orientation that I was looking for. It was the difference between a job and a calling.” He stayed for about a year, until he saw an ad in the Tulsa newspaper for a position at St. John Hospital. When he applied and got the job, he says, it was immediately apparent that he had found that calling.
“If the senior administrator of the hospital thought a department had a particular issue that they wanted addressed and researched, they sent me there,” says Bradley. An example: Bradley was sent to study the processes in central sterile supply when it seemed to the powers-that-be that things could be happening more quickly in that department.
“They made the carts that went up to surgery, and on the carts would be everything that was needed from a supply standpoint for that particular case,” Bradley says. “They had an assembly line of how it was done, and I spent every day for about 10 weeks in that department, figuring out why they were having trouble keeping up with the demand. My focus was, ‘How could that assembly line be run more efficiently? If they needed additional labor, where would the right place to put that be?’
“I felt like I knew what was going on in that department so well after 10 weeks that if someone called in sick, I could do their job. It couldn’t have been a better beginning job for what I wound up doing with my career.”
“Engineers are problem solvers, and Bill has always been that person who is the first to see the problem or opportunity and then craft action to address [it],” observes Clark.
Bradley would spend four years at St. John, studying every nook and cranny of a working hospital. That was followed by a stint as a consultant with accounting giant Peat Marwick that found him traveling around the country, learning from hospitals in different regions.
“At St. John, I got exposure to the core of the hospital and problems within the departments to work on,” he says. “But that was just St. John. When you go to a firm like Peat Marwick, it’s a variety of different hospitals, so I was again blessed with some very good experience there.”
But, he says, it was when he ascended to the CEO position at a hospital at the tender age of 33 that he really hit his stride.
“I had a 200-bed hospital in Poplar Bluff, Mo., and that’s when my career, as it was going to be, began.
I enjoyed it immensely. I was at that hospital for nine years, and what I found out there is the value of your teammates in a hospital and the challenge of working with physicians closely. I found out, ‘You know, I really like this.’”
Fast forward to 2004, when the road that began with him volunteering at the VA Hospital as a teenager led to his “dream job” at Washington Regional.
“I love it here,” says Bradley. “The big attraction to me here is that it’s locally owned and governed. You get a lot better decisions made that way. Our Board of Directors and senior management all live here. They have been patients in the hospital. We’re not competing against other hospitals for funding. We kind of make our own way.
“And I think the fact that the community is so vested in Washington Regional and feels some ownership of it themselves is a big plus for this hospital and health system, as well.”
If you talk to Bradley for any length of time, the word “change” will come up frequently. WRMC itself has certainly gone through a great deal of change under Bradley’s leadership.
“The old adage is that a picture is worth a thousand words,” says Bradley. “If you just took a picture of this campus when the hospital was moved from North College, it’s now twice the size as it was then.”
“Under his leadership, Washington Regional went through some of the best economic times Northwest Arkansas ever experienced and some of the very worst economic times, with bankruptcies and foreclosures becoming the daily headline,” says Clark. He points out that Bradley avoided layoffs during the worst of the economic downturn by creating a system that reduced all staff salaries a small percentage rather than eliminating positions outright. “Bill managed all of that with his steady hand and commitment to helping others.” Clark goes on to name some of the initiatives accomplished by WRMC under Bradley’s tenure: The creation of new centers like the Center for Health Services, which provided the region with the Walker Heart Institute and Ozark Urology outpatient and diagnostic services; the Pat Walker Center for Seniors and the Center for Exercise; the Willard Walker Hospice Home; the Total Joint Center; the mobile dental clinic; Primary Stroke Center; the first Ronald McDonald House in the area; the Women and Infants Center — the list goes on and on.
“Washington Regional’s march to excellence, I believe, began with Bill Bradley’s leadership,” says Clark.
For David G. Ratcliff, WRMC’s chief medical officer, the establishment of a dedicated intensivist program at the beginning of Bradley’s tenure is a standout accomplishment.
“In the fall of 2004, Washington Regional became the first hospital in our region — and to my knowledge, in the state
— to have a dedicated intensivist program,” says Ratcliff. “This has been supported by the National Quality Forum as one of the ‘Best Practices,’ and was one of the first three Leapfrog group-endorsed standards of excellence in quality of care. It was a significant capital commitment to staff our critical care units with a boarded critical care specialist who provide dedicated continuous bedside care to our patients for more than 200 man-hours per week. This service, combined with further commitment of resources by the hospital, has enabled our hospital to provide a level of care that is typically only found in large academic centers and to participate in many national ICU performance improvement projects.
“From my perspective, Bill’s legacy to all of us entrusted going forward with operating the wonderful community asset that is Washington Regional is to proceed with a willingness to embrace change, be open to innovative methods of delivering care and being reimbursed for that care and to strive to position Washington Regional to deliver the highest and best clinical services that can be found at any hospital in our state or nation,” says Thomas J. Olmstead, senior vice president and general counsel at WRMC. “Our community deserves such a hospital, and Bill has done a great deal to deliver it.”
“Healthcare is very challenging,” says Bradley. “It seems like it’s always changing. But the reason that people go through all of the adaptability that’s required to thrive in this environment is that they want to make a difference. There are a lot of things I like about my job, but I am the proudest of my employees, my teammates in this hospital. They’re the ones that really apply that and make a difference every day.
“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve had good executive teams. This is the best one I’ve ever had, so that makes it hard to leave.”
In addition to the long list of accomplishments and initiatives spurred on at WRMC during his tenure, Bradley will also leave behind a new medical building named in his honor. The William L. Bradley Medical Center stands at 3 E. Appleby Road, across from the hospital campus. Bradley says the honor took him completely by surprise.
“It’s very humbling,” he says, emotion obvious in his voice. “I got the notice at a board meeting that they wanted to do that, and that’s probably the most emotional that I’ve gotten. But, you know, that evil ego on your shoulder starts saying, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool,’ and you’re on your way home driving, and each mile on your way home, the closer you get to home, you get more puffed up. I get there and tell my wife, and she says all the things that
a good spouse would say — ‘You deserve it, you’ve worked hard,’ this kind of stuff — and then within 10 minutes I was reminded that I needed to gather up and take out the trash because tomorrow was trash day. I think that’s a great story because it just offers the correct perspective.”
Bradley will remain in the position of CEO emeritus from Sept. 1, when senior vice president J. Larry Shackelford assumes the top position, until mid-November, when he officially retires. Professionally, he’s considering some options post-retirement, but personally, there’s no doubt as to how he’ll be spending his time.
“I have 10 good places to spend more time,” he says, referring to his grandchildren. On the day of the interview, he’s eagerly anticipating a birthday party for one of those grandchildren and a daughter-in-law, scheduled to happen that evening. “We have three kids who all live up here, so they’re close by. There are 17 of us. When we go places now, we kind of need a big table.”
Still, he says, he knows he will miss the people he works with and seeing, up close, the work that WRMC does in the community.
“Everybody wants to be in a career that makes a positive difference,” says Bradley. “That’s why most of the 2,700 people that are here, are here. If there’s anything that I think that helps your faith, it’s having a job that is way bigger than you. It does wonders for your perspective, it does wonders for your prayer life.
“This is a fascinating place. You can go to one corner of the building, and somebody is taking their last breath. You go over to another part of the building and someone is taking their first breath. Even today, after all of this time and all of these years, it’s an amazing place to me.”
“More than any other client or health care executive with whom I have worked in my 20-plus years as a healthcare attorney, Bill Bradley welcomes challenges and embraces opportunities to deploy novel and uncharted approaches in response to those challenges.” — Thomas J. Olmstead