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Joel Wernick: Charting the course

A Table with a View

Joel Wernick, president and CEO of Phoebe Putney Health System, stands outside the crosswalk and Bistro at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. (Special photo)

Joel Wernick, president and CEO of Phoebe Putney Health System, stands outside the crosswalk and Bistro at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. (Special photo)

ALBANY — A former colleague, Nolan Walters, once put together a special project for his paper on the 10 most powerful people in Columbus, Ga.

It was a well-written piece by the former Albanian, one I often thought of copying here. But, what a difficult task coming up with the truly most influential and powerful people in the city — not just the most widely known, but the most powerful.

The first picks would be fairly easy. For example, in Albany, Joel Wernick would be near, if not at, the top of anyone’s list.

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The Bistro at Phoebe Puntey Memorial Hospital is a quiet alternative to the hospital cafeteria. (Staff Photo: Danny Carter)

THE BISTRO AT PHOEBE

When I called Joel Wernick’s office to schedule an interview, I knew it would take some maneuvering to find an hour to meet with him. He’s always accommodating, but he’s extremely busy.

To get him to commit to taking time for the interview and leaving the hospital campus would be near impossible. After offering Wernick the choice of any restaurant in town, he suggested the Bistro at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital.

Located on the second floor of the tower complex just before you enter the bridge leading to a parking garage, the Bistro is a small dining area, offering an alternative to the main cafeteria. The main attraction to me was a huge window which allows diners to look out and see a large portion of the facility.

We each had the large trio salad for $7.49, which features a large scoop of house-made chicken salad, egg salad and pimento cheese on a bed of baby greens. We also has a fresh fruit cup ($1.79) which featured melons, grapes and berries. Completing the menu were chips at $1.09. Total ticket was $20.94.

The food was excellent. And, the restaurant is tucked away from a busy hallway and away from patient areas, almost providing the atmosphere of a busy office building rather than a hospital.

-- Danny Carter

He’s in the news often. He’s the No. 1 guy at the top employer in the area — Phoebe Putney Health System. He has a strong personality and is considered a visionary.

Those who agree with the vision laud his wisdom. Those who are disagree with it are just as passionate in their criticism.

For his part, Wernick appears uncomfortable with the notion that he is so influential, or even that some might consider him a powerful or potentially polarizing personality.

WHAT IS 'A TABLE WITH A VIEW'?

A Table With a View is an occasional feature that involves a lunchtime interview with an interesting person from the community.

We invite an individual to lunch, and he or she chooses the restaurant. We record the lunch conversation and share what we talked about with our readers — that’s the view part. We also include a menu of what we had for lunch and the cost.

If you have a suggestion of someone you’d like for us to “share lunch” with, give us a call at the news room, (229) 888-9344, or email us at southview@albanyherald.com.

“I think this community has a segment of people who are very outspoken on a number of issues,” Wernick says. “I think maybe there is no downside to that. You come to understand your point of view may not always be the only way.”

It’s a high profile role, and Wernick does not shy away from making decisions, or trying to do long-range planning in order to be ready to meet the health care needs in Southwest Georgia years from now.

“I stand in perpetual amazement at our volunteer board members, who are not looking for fame or recognition, but bring their unique skills to help improve a community asset that is now more than a $1 billion business … a very successful business.”

“People don’t often appreciate the fact that I don’t push a button and make things happen,” he said. “I work as part of a governance system. While I am a spokesperson and the most easy target for disagreement out there, our board is moving in a direction that they have set out as a strategic vision.

“Sometimes that vision bumps into people who have other visions of the world. In some cases that plays out as a rivalry. In some cases, as negative commentary, and in some cases it plays out as litigation.”

Acknowledging that you can’t please all the people all the time, Wernick is confident in what he believes has been accomplished during his 25 years in the Phoebe top spot.

“Just look back,” he said. “I encourage anyone who wants to do a scorecard to look at what was here then, and what we have now. If you can’t find some positives, you don’t have your eyes open.”

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Joel Wernick is pictured with Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard. Wernick just celebrated his 25th year as CEO at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. (Special Photo)

That Wernick is a leader is no surprise to his friends and family back in Fort Smith, Ark., where he grew up.

He was president of the student body in his high school and a starter at tackle on his high school football team — a team that won a state championship.

“To this day, some of my closest friends are people from that football team and the school,” he says.

He still keeps up with his high school coach, and compares the closeness of his teammates to the team in John Grisham’s book “Bleachers.”

“That’s similar to the connections we still have.”

He also has fond memories of his hometown.

“I was a low B average student, but was involved in a lot of different things at school,” Wernick said. “I had a diverse group of friends. They were generally middle class students with hard-working parents.

“I feel fortunate growing up in a community that had a strong value system. My hometown had a curfew for anybody under 18 and it was enforced. If you were on the street after 10:30 p.m., the police would pick you up and take you to jail and call your parents.

So what drew Wernick to the medical administration field?

A part-time job working for the local hospital while he was a high school student gets the credit. The job allowed him “to see a lot of different things.”

Wernick said he would hurry and get his assigned tasks completed, leaving him time “to explore different parts of the hospital.”

“I thought I wanted to be a physician,” Wernick said. “Somewhere along the way, I saw an operating room procedure. Back in the day, some of those were bloody things.

“I almost passed out watching a case, not an unusual occurrence.”

That was the end of his physician dreams.

He also worked briefly in other jobs, including assembly line work at the Whirlpool factory in Fort Smith. Wernick said he took some satisfaction in the manufacture of a “real” product,” but was lured back to hospitals and the service industry.

“I found myself intrigued by the business side of hospitals,” he said. “I came to appreciate the diversity of all kinds of professions that come together under one roof.

Once he realized he was smitten with the idea of a hospital administration career, Wernick took the necessary steps. He enrolled at the University of Arkansas and received an undergraduate degree in business administration with a focus on human resources. He then attended Xavier University in Cincinnati and got a masters in hospital administration.

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Joel Wernick (Special Photo)

His 25 years at Phoebe Putney have been years of personal growth, but more visible is the physical growth of the campus, and the expansion of what health professionals working here can accomplish. That growth is essential to Wernick’s personal vision.

He wants to grow enough to allow Phoebe to offer services which will allow people in Southwest Georgia to stay here for treatment, and not have to travel long distances unless they choose to do so. Traveling to receive medical care is expensive and physically draining on patients and family members, he said.

The growth has brought about significant changes in the operation of Phoebe and the responsibilities placed on Wernick.

“I used to know most of our work force, and while I still do orientation for new employees and get to meet people that way, I don’t have the proximity to them I used to have,” Wernick said. “That’s one of the negatives about our growth. Our organization has grown, and I have an excellent chief operating officer.

“He handles a lot of day-to-day activities. My job has become more strategic and broad based. In days past, I had a key that would open every door at Phoebe Putney. Now, I have one key that opens the door to my office.”

Still, you sense that Wernick still knows most everything that goes on under the Phoebe roof.

“My approach is to hire very talented people, make sure they know the direction the organization is going let them operate as independently as possible to do their jobs. … I don’t micromanage.”

Despite the freedom, Wernick has high expectations from his managers.

“I expect them to be perpetual students of their professions,” he said. “I don’t need to know what a manager knows, but I do need to feel confident that what they know is important to our organization, that they are students of their professions, that they remain aware of changes in their professions. That is part of my expectations.”

Despite the changes, Wernick said he still enjoys leading the orientation session, and relating to staff members.

“I still enjoy getting out and walking the floors and interacting with people.”

In his free time, Wernick is an avid reader and a sports fan. In addition to being a die-hard University of Arkansas supporter, he follows the Chicago Cubs, a love fostered by trips to Wrigley Field in Chicago in his younger days. Until recently, trips to Wrigley continued to be an annual event for Wernick and a fellow Albany businessman.

“I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors,” he said. “One of the things that encouraged my original acceptance of this position was that, much like my hometown, this was a regional center set in the middle of an agricultural environment that provided good access to hunting and fishing.

“It also had a good airport that connects you to the rest of the world.

“I’m not a golfer, but I enjoy being out on a nice golf course. Most of the courses I play are generally out of town. I just enjoy being outdoors with good people.”

Wernick says you wouldn’t label him a beach person; he favors the mountains.

“I love national parks. I have a trip planned to go down the Grand Canyon rafting a year from now. Most of my bucket list involves traveling to unique destinations. … I would love to see the pyramids.”

What does he see himself doing five years from now?

“Looking back with satisfaction of playing a role in Phoebe Putney and this community successfully navigating the Affordable Health Care Act. We’ll soon know some of the byproducts of this revolutionary change in health care. There are many uncertainties.”

Whatever the future holds, Wernick does not see himself in any type of political role.

“I have had people ask me about it (running for office), perhaps even encouraging me to do so,” Wernick said. “I have so much respect for people who offer to public services and the sacrifices they make.

“I’ll start most every gathering my recognizing the public officials who are attending. My life has been consumed by Phoebe. … It (politics) is not on any bucket list. My hero is Bodine (Jeff) Sinyard, someone who can run a business and commit so much of their time to the county. And before him, Gil Barrett.”

Politically, Wernick sees himself as a moderate. “That moderation probably has me more liberal on social issues and more conservative on fiscal issues.” he said.

If Wernick were not in hospital administration, his choice of professions might surprise you.

“I wouldn’t mind being somehow connected to archaeology. I am fascinated by things old. By civilization and trying to understand why things are the way they are. Things like Stonehenge have always fascinated me.

“Or maybe a history professor. I may have been a landscape architect. I’ve always enjoyed designing things outdoors.”

Any regrets?

“Life is not perfect,” he reflects. “No one in the baseball Hall of Fame batted a thousand. I try not to have a whole lot of regrets. Some things I wish we had handled differently. There are always things we could have done better. We reflect on our successes and learn from the non successes.

“Life is not perfectly round. I don’t dwell a great deal on what might have been.”