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Greenville Business Magazine

Kenley takes the lead at AnMed Health

By Liv Osby

Taking on a new job leading a hospital during a deadly pandemic presents some unique challenges ranging from surging patient counts to mass vaccinations.

But new AnMed Health CEO William Kenley says one of the most singular is getting to know the people you’ll be working with when half their faces are covered by masks and social distancing means no in-person meetings.

“Once this is over, I will have to go through another introduction,” he says with a chuckle, “because your mind fills in what the rest of a person looks like when a person has a mask on. And sometimes it doesn’t do a good job.”

On the more serious side, assuming the role of hospital CEO during one of the toughest times the industry has ever weathered means tackling problems like not enough ICU beds or the staff to care for an ever-growing number of patients.

“Today, we are near our all-time peak in the pandemic. The inpatient side is beyond packed. And add on the vaccination challenge to that,” Kenley said in mid-January.

“I wouldn’t tell you this was a great time for a transition. We are working through a once-in-a-lifetime challenge. And it’s tough,” he added. “But having these tough times is accelerating the building of our culture at AnMed Health.”

Kenley, 56, grew up in the small town of Radford, Virginia, where he saw physicians and other health care officials as community leaders. That inspired him to attend Radford University with plans to go on to medical or dental school.

But along the way, after becoming a medical technologist, he took on some management roles, and found he enjoyed that side of health care. So he shifted his focus, earning his master of health administration from Duke University in 1990.

In the past 30 years, he’s held management positions at a variety of health systems, including Tennessee-based for-profit giant HCA Healthcare and nonprofit Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis, where he was an executive vice president before coming to AnMed, which is also nonprofit.

The biggest difference between the two types of systems in his experience, he said, is that for-profits make strategic decisions based on operational goals while nonprofits make decisions based on community need.

AnMed Health Board Chair Bill Kibler calls Kenley a proven leader whose values, leadership style and experience align well with the hospital’s culture and ideals.

“As we continue to take on the challenges of a complex and evolving health care environment,” he said, “I’m confident that he is the right person to lead our health care system into the future.”

Among Kenley’s biggest challenges so far has been staffing. The nation is already struggling with a shortage of doctors and nurses, putting unprecedented pressure on those who remain to fight the virus, which has also impacted staff.

AnMed has been as aggressive as it can be in the contract labor market, he said. But hospitals in South Carolina and around the country are facing the same challenge, so there’s only so much that can be done.

“We try to take care of our team the best we can … in a very difficult situation,” he said. “We’re operating above capacity in many areas, and our employees are doing the same. The team has been very innovative and creative to meet this need.”

Kenley also points out that the scene has been incredibly dynamic.

“One hour it’s staffing, another hour it’s the bottleneck or it might be the availability of beds or a certain supply, or moving a unit from non-Covid to Covid,” he said. “It’s putting great pressure on us, but it’s also an opportunity to show how we can adapt.”

AnMed, like other hospitals, has also faced challenges around the vaccination process, Kenley said.  

Just as they were told that eligibility was expanded to those 70 and older, the hospital mistakenly showed up as green on DHEC’s color-coded vaccine availability system, prompting a flood of interest from the community.

“We were inundated from folks all over the place wanting to schedule,” he said, “and we have been working hard to address how we can be responsive to that.”

By mid-January, appointments had been made through the end of the month, including a mass vaccination site at Anderson Civic Center where at least 500 people were expected to be vaccinated.

“It’s wonderful that the public wants to get the vaccination and we want to give it to them,” he said. “The reality is … we can only do what we have resources to do.”

While managing the pandemic, Kenley also has been tackling more traditional topics, such as growth. He allows that AnMed has plans to expand in terms of recruiting physicians and geographic locations, but was not prepared to provide details.

“We’re focused very much on growing our physician network, which is a huge strength, the engine of the system,” he said. “And we have opportunities when we look at access and scope of services and aggressively recruiting in those areas - family and internal medicine are big areas. We also intend to expand more in our primary and secondary service areas where the population and demand is growing.”

But even in the best of times, hospitals in the 21st century – AnMed included – are operating with about a 2 percent profit margin. So how will it finance that growth?

Kenley said AnMed has a strong balance sheet and can take on additional debt if necessary. But the hospital is “in a good position with the resources we have” to generate resources to fund growth, he said.

The credit rating firm Fitch gave AnMed an A+ last June.

“We have a comprehensive plan to consider over years how our finances will be affected,” he said. “And we are fortunate with the demographic growth and economic growth in the Upstate … which puts us in a great position to be able to grow in an aggressive and responsible way to meet need.

“Every market in the country is not like that.”

On Feb. 4, AnMed announced that it was embarking on a $42 million expansion project expected to be completed by spring 2023. Plans call for an all-private same-day surgery area and expanded

emergency services at the Medical Center, and for relocating maternity and nursery services to the Medical Center as well.

Outpatient growth and future clinical programs would be accommodated at the North Campus.

The hospital also announced that it would continue to aggressively recruit primary care and specialty providers, and that it has also created the position of chief strategy officer to lead future development.

Kenley said his strategy is simple – being “exceptional in everything we do … so we are the de facto choice” for health care, and ramping up communications so the community knows what AnMed has to offer.

“We’re in a competitive field in a competitive region,” he said. “We don’t have another hospital across the street from us, but we do have competitors. And we have to do a great job at sharing and helping folks … make the decision to choose AnMed Health.”

Since moving to the Upstate in September, Kenley and his wife, Carol, have done some hiking and visited the Lowcountry. Their son, Jack, who’d been drafted by the Detroit Tigers, was sidelined because of the pandemic and lives with them while getting ready for spring training, he said. Their daughter, Grace, is a pharmacy student in Alabama.

Kenley said his first days on the job have been a “whirlwind,” but adds the team at AnMed and the community have been extremely welcoming. And he credits his predecessor, Bill Manson, with maintaining stability and clarity of direction, and preparing AnMed for a new leader.

“This organization is ripe for taking on any new challenge,” he said. “I feel blessed to do what I do.”

AnMed Health:

Is a nonprofit hospital in Anderson, SC, that opened in 1908.

Is Anderson County’s largest employer with a staff of more than 3,600.

Has two acute-care hospitals - AnMed Health Medical Center in downtown Anderson and AnMed Health Women’s & Children’s Hospital on its North Campus near I-85.

The North Campus includes AnMed Health Cancer Center, AnMed Health Rehabilitation Hospital and more than 30 medical offices.

In 2009, it became affiliated with Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, NC, now Atrium Health.