Howes: Henry Ford CEO sees momentum building

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Detroit — Don’t ask Nancy Schlichting, CEO of Henry Ford Health System, to curb her enthusiasm about Detroit. She can’t do it.

“There’s a momentum that we have not seen in more than 50 years in this community,” she said Thursday, less than three months before her scheduled retirement to a busy schedule of corporate directorships and teaching at the University of Michigan.

“I don’t think you could stop it if you tried. It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, what’s happening in Detroit.” She likens the steady transformation, emanating from downtown and Midtown, to 1970s-era New York City when she worked at Sloan-Kettering Medical Center.

After arriving 13 years ago from Akron, Schlichting took pride in knowing all the new restaurants in Detroit; now she can’t keep up. She used to ply the stalls of Eastern Market when many others wouldn’t dare; now she’s just part of the madding crowd in one of the hottest places in town.

She used to notice the dysfunctional disconnect between business and government and what that meant for the inability to get things done. Now she sees the fruits of collaboration powered by corporate commitment, a common vision and a City Hall that understands it cannot be all things to all people.

That’s huge. Detroit’s emerging model of public-private partnership is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a recognition that the business, government, philanthropic and non-profit sectors all share an interdependent economic ecosystem — a simple concept learned only after decades of dysfunction and failure capped by a humbling bankruptcy.

“I was struck when I moved here with the lack of collaboration,” says Schlichting, 61. “It was striking. We didn’t have the business leadership that was really committed until Dan Gilbert. That was a real game changer.”

She should know. This unlikely power broker wields influence with a smile — CEO of one of metro Detroit’s two locally owned health systems, trustee of the Kresge Foundation, an active member of business groups and a director of Walgreen’s Inc., among other boards.

She was in the middle of the proposed blockbuster merger of Henry Ford and Beaumont Health, and she was in the middle when both sides aborted the transaction. The reasons, she now says, boiled down to disagreements over control, leadership and a vision for delivering health care in Detroit.

She was in the room when Kresge CEO Rip Rapson asked his trustees to approve a $100 million commitment to the “grand bargain.” The deal proposed to raise more than $800 million to rescue the Detroit Institute of Arts from creditors and to bolster pensions for city retirees.

“We knew we would never have a moment like this,” she says, “to come together and do something profound.” And they may have been right.

She was running Henry Ford when the system began acquiring roughly 250 properties around its campus on West Grand Boulevard. Eighty of those parcels were sold to develop the Cardinal Health distribution center now employing 150 in Detroit.

She pledged support to the Live Midtown program begun six years ago, an incentive campaign by Henry Ford, Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State University, among others, to lure their employees to housing in Detroit. From a pool of $3.4 million in contributions, 237 Henry Ford employees received incentives to move and Midtown gained nearly 700 residents.

She was in the top job when Henry Ford conceived plans to turn dilapidated property south of West Grand into a 144,000-square-foot cancer center. It will be connected to Henry Ford Hospital by a skywalk and be part of a green space redevelopment expected to include commercial, retail and housing.

Realizing that vision, however, is not Schlichting’s job. That falls to Henry Ford President Wright Lassiter III, who will succeed her as CEO on Jan. 1. He’ll be the guy charged with writing the next chapter of ol’ Henry’s hospital — and deciding whether it will remain independent.

“I think we’re pretty happy where we are,” says Schlichting, adding that just this year the system acquired Allegiance Health in Jackson and the HealthPLUS insurance system in Flint. “You just don’t rule anything out. This year we’ll hit $5.5 billion in revenue. In health care, you never say never.”

Same thing in Detroit, which she can see from her office window off Third Street. The city’s changing, and Schlichting played a small part in making it happen.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.