The Hamilton Spectator

Shakeup at top of St. Joseph’s Healthcare could become expensive

Deficit-ridden hospital network may have to pay out golden handshakes ranging from $600K to nearly $1.2M


Cash-strapped St. Joseph’s Healthcare may have to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance to two leaders who left within months of a new president taking the helm.

Cheryl Williams was vice-president of clinical operations and chief nursing executive, while Agnes Bongers was chief communicat­ions officer on the 14-member executive team. Together, they may be owed severances ranging from nearly $600,000 to nearly $1.2 million.

Their departures come just over four months after Michael Heenan took over the president’s job on Nov. 27 and are part of a major shakeup at the top of Hamilton’s public institutio­ns that a governance expert said could have a significan­t effect on the community.

It’s also about one year after St. Joseph’s finished paying a golden handshake of roughly $1.4 million to former CEO Dr. Tom Stewart, who left his job in January 2021 over a Caribbean vacation during COVID.

In addition, the potential payouts are at a time when the hospital’s board of governors has approved a deficit of $46.4 million by the end of the fiscal year on its budget of $775 million. St. Joseph’s was nearly $20 million in the red after the first nine months of the fiscal year.

“I wish to express our sincere appreciati­on to both Cheryl and Agnes who served on the executive leadership team with profession­alism and grace, always keeping in mind the needs of our patients, families, staff, physicians, and the broader communitie­s we serve,” Heenan stated in a message obtained by The Spectator that went out to staff, physicians, learners and volunteers on April 4 under the subject, “Change in executive leadership.”

Governance expert Richard Leblanc said it’s common for presidents and CEOs hired from outside of the organizati­on to make

Their departures come just over four months after Michael Heenan took over the president’s job on Nov. 27 and are part of a major shakeup at the top of Hamilton’s public institutio­ns

leadership changes and bring in their own team.

“An outside hire can really shake up an institutio­n,” said Leblanc, professor of governance, law and ethics at York University. “Generally speaking, the outside hire comes in with a blank sheet of paper and is free to make strategic and executive changes. They don’t have pre-existing relationsh­ips with senior management. The inside hire is the opposite.”

It is common for hospital leaders to have severances of one to two years pay in their contracts. Stewart had a twoyear golden handshake, while Heenan’s contract sets out a maximum payout of one year.

St. Joseph’s did not answer questions about whether it was paying out severances to Williams and Bongers. The hospital network refused to make their contracts public. That informatio­n was provided by St. Joseph’s when Stewart left the organizati­on.

Williams made $416,121 in salary and taxable benefits in 2023. She has been a hospital vice-president since about 2010 starting at Rouge Valley Health System then moving to Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington before going to St. Joseph’s around 2020. She started out as a registered nurse at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and earned a PhD in nursing science from the University of Toronto.

Bongers was paid $177,640 in 2023. She left her job as an editor at The Spectator to go into hospital communicat­ions in 2009, starting at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) and moving to St. Joseph’s in 2015. She has a masters of communicat­ion management from McMaster and Syracuse universiti­es.

“Both individual­s have been valued members of the leadership team and the hospital has benefitted greatly from, and we thank them for, their contributi­ons,” St. Joseph’s said in a statement.

The departures of the two senior leaders are part of major change at the top of Hamilton’s public institutio­ns.

HHS has a new CEO starting April 15, Mohawk College is searching for a new president as Ron McKerlie is leaving when his term ends on July 31, and McMaster president and vicechance­llor David Farrar will step down at the end of his fiveyear term on June 30, 2025.

“It’s not good for CEO succession to happen all at once,” said Leblanc. “Institutio­ns should communicat­e with one another to stagger their succession so that you don’t have wholesale leadership change in top institutio­ns within a local community.”

The departure of so many presidents and CEOs in under two years makes it more difficult to have a smooth transition, said Leblanc.

“These are major institutio­ns,” he said. “They’ve got a material effect on the economy, on the citizens — nothing is more important than health and education.”

The changes are even more jarring when the hires are from outside of the organizati­ons, said Leblanc.

Heenan came from Humber River Health, although he held leadership roles at St. Joseph’s from 2003 to 2009.

The new CEO and president of HHS, Tracey MacArthur, came from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.

Mohawk and McMaster have not named their new presidents yet.

“An outside hire creates uncertaint­y,” Leblanc said, speaking generally. “You don’t want four outside hires in a local community because an outside hire shakes up the chemistry and does not have pre-existing relationsh­ips with the police force, with stakeholde­rs, with the nurses. They have to establish all of those relationsh­ips from ground zero.”

Leblanc says only about 25 per cent of leadership positions go to those outside of the organizati­on.

“The lack of an internal hire could mean that the board might have dropped the succession ball,” he said. “Internal hires are much more effective. They understand the organizati­on. They tend to cost less.

They tend to be more successful … Smooth succession, generally, is an inside hire.”

Leblanc says the board should start succession planning ideally on a new leader’s first day on the job.

“The longer you wait, the more likely it is that you’ll have to go to the outside,” said Leblanc. “Succession planning, generally, for education and health is not as well done as it is for public companies. What tends to happen is they wait.”

However, sometimes boards seek out outside hires because they are looking for change, said Leblanc.

“The fact that it’s an outside hire signals, and I’m speaking generally here, that a shakeup was needed and they wanted someone from the outside,” he said.

Heenan said in a second staff memo obtained by The Spectator that Elizabeth (Liz) Harrington was appointed interim director of communicat­ions and public affairs on April 10. She has worked at St. Joseph’s since January 2023 and will now help develop a communicat­ions strategy going forward.

“As with any organizati­on, the needs and roles within the leadership team can evolve over time,” the hospital network said in a statement. “St. Joe’s is confident in the expertise and commitment of our current leaders.”

 ?? ST. JOSEPH’S HEALTHCARE PHOTO ?? Michael Heenan, president of St. Joseph’s Healthcare.
ST. JOSEPH’S HEALTHCARE PHOTO Michael Heenan, president of St. Joseph’s Healthcare.

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