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VOL. 132 | NO. 8 | Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Ugwueke Takes Reins as Methodist Healthcare CEO

By Andy Meek

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Michael Ugwueke’s first day on the job as CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, a post he assumed Jan. 1, included a round of meeting the troops.

After 10 years at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Michael Ugwueke has taken over the top job at the organization. His first day as CEO was Jan. 1. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The new chief executive of the Methodist organization visited all six of its hospitals, meeting employees and front-line staff and sharing his appreciation that they were there on New Year’s Day, a holiday for many people.

And he came bearing cookies.

“It was very moving to see their commitment and dedication to the system,” he said, almost a year after the announcement came down that he’d been tapped to replace longtime Methodist CEO Gary Shorb.

Shorb was named Methodist’s CEO in 2001 and led the organization for the next 15 years. Ugwueke is only the ninth CEO in the organization’s nearly 100-year-history. That’s “nearly,” because the centennial comes next year – a significant milestone that it will greet with a chief executive whose new set of responsibilities was once something he never could have even dreamed up.

Time was, Ugwueke was a young man of 21 who’d come to the U.S. from war-torn Nigeria with $4,000 in his pocket.

The seeds of his future health care career were planted early. He lost his younger brother for lack of access to health care and saw many people die unnecessarily during a civil war for lack of care.

He thought about one day becoming a doctor. He didn’t have the money for medical school, so health care administration offered him another way to achieve his goal.

Ugwueke joined Methodist in 2007 as CEO of Methodist South Hospital. Two years later, he was promoted to also oversee Methodist North Hospital.

In 2014, he was named as president and chief operating officer for Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.

“This was not a linear process for me,” Ugwueke said. “Over the years – I’ve been in this business 30 years – I’ve had numerous opportunities and mentors along the way. I cannot tell you I planned this or that it was a carefully crafted career path. What I did do was that for every job I encountered or was given an opportunity to do, I did the best that I can to advance and accomplish those goals. And along the way, I was given multiple opportunities as a result of that.

“When I came to Methodist 10 years ago, I certainly did not anticipate I’d be serving as the CEO 10 years after getting here.”

Nevertheless, there it was last February. Methodist board chairman Alan Graf said at the time that in picking Ugwueke – a striver who did everything from construction to delivering pizza to pursue his college and graduate education – Methodist was going with the right man. Someone who “will continue to lead the organization to stay focused on (Methodist’s) vision and purpose to be at the very best for all who walk through the doors of our hospitals.”

He is serving an organization that includes 13,000 associates and hundreds of physicians.

One focus of Ugwueke’s is “continuously communicating with our associates.” To that end, he updates the entirety of the Methodist team on a weekly basis to let them know what’s going on across the system.

Planks of Methodist’s strategic plan he wants to make sure remain priorities are things like serving every corner of the Memphis community; continuing to strengthen and build on relationships with partners like the University of Tennessee Health Science Center; and shepherding major development projects like Methodist’s $275 million investment into its flagship hospital at 1265 Union Ave., which is getting a significant update.

“The industry is also changing, particularly with the recent election,” he said. “There’s a lot of unknowns, particularly with how the industry will be shaped. That’s a concern, and that’s an area I’ll be personally involved in making sure we’re well-suited and well-prepared to address whatever comes out of that.”

Overall, he says leading Methodist, “is an honor I don’t take for granted.”

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