By RENEE STOVSKY
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy."
—Martin Luther King Jr.
On Monday, May 23, 2011, Lynn Britton, president and chief executive of Mercy, stood looking at the nine stories of concrete, twisted steel and splintered windows that were the ruins of St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo., a part of the Mercy system since 2009.
The hospital had taken a direct hit from an EF-5 rated, multiple-vortex tornado with winds greater than 200 mph the night before — a cataclysmic event that killed 161 people, including six at St. John's, and caused $2.8 billion in damage.
Two days later, Britton held a press conference in Joplin. In crisis mode, and without time to consult the full board, he announced that not only would Mercy rebuild a state-of-the-art hospital there, but that it would keep Mercy's 2,200 employees on the payroll, even if jobs for all were not available, during the process.
A grateful but worried Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon crossed paths with Britton the next day. "You've not made the best business decisions over the past few days, and you have a board to answer to," Nixon told Britton, whom he feared would soon be an ex-chief executive.
"If I had suggested instead that we take the insurance check and run, I would have been fired," Britton replied. "The Sisters of Mercy have been serving Joplin for 125 years; there is a tremendous sense of responsibility here."
Within a week, Mercy had partnered with Missouri's National Guard and Disaster Medical Assistance Team to erect a military tent and open an 8,000-square-foot, "MASH unit" field hospital. That was replaced by a "portable" hospital made of modular buildings of Styrofoam compressed between sheets of metal. Next came a pre-fabricated component hospital of steel, concrete and drywall.
And on March 22, 2015, an 890,000-square-foot Mercy Hospital Joplin opened on a new campus, offering medical, surgical and critical care, intensive care and neonatal intensive care, cancer care, a birthing center and more. And a majority of its original staff had stayed intact.
Mercy estimates the cost of rebuilding in the southwest Missouri town of 50,000 at $1 billion (it received about $700 million in insurance payments).
The weight of leadership
Looking back at that time, Britton, a 2017 recipient of the Sister Concilia Moran Award, admits he "never felt the weight of leadership quite as heavy. … There were so many people with so many needs," he says.
"Lynn made a courageous, spontaneous commitment, and because of it, Joplin is alive today," says Sr. Mary Roch Rocklage, RSM, president and chief executive of Mercy from 1986-1999 and now a member of the system's board and its public juridic person, Mercy Health Ministry, and the health system liaison to the Sisters of Mercy. She is a past recipient of the Concilia Moran award and CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award. Before the tornado, Joplin was a regional economic hub in an area extending beyond Missouri into Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, "but half of that hub was health care, and half of that was knocked out of commission," she says.
"Lynn's decision to keep the staff intact while demolishing the old hospital and constructing the new one speaks to his intuitive, compassionate leadership style. He was literally figuring out how to build a plane while flying it at the same time," adds Brian O'Toole, the system's senior vice president, mission and ethics. "He embraces both margin and mission, heading up a strong, well-run business offering excellent medical care as well as spiritual, holistic care."
Past is prologue
Perhaps Britton's commitment to Joplin comes from his own life's experience growing up in a small town. Perhaps it's the fact that he lived in Oklahoma City in 1995 when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed, and witnessed rebirth after devastation there. Or perhaps he was called to action because, as he says, "it was just the right thing to do."
Britton, 57, grew up in Colorado City, Texas, and was already working in his family's Western Auto store at the age of 9. He graduated from Abilene Christian University with an accounting degree in 1981 and, at his father's insistence, returned to run the family business. After doubling its size in five years, he urged his dad to sell it as the town's population dwindled. Then he went to work in Lubbock, Texas, for the Dillard's department store company.
Eventually he moved to Oklahoma City, where he also earned an MBA from Oklahoma City University. It was there, in 1992, that he says he became intrigued with Catholic not-for-profit health care, after meeting a Mercy executive at a chamber of commerce event.
"Its appeal to me was that it was an industry that had a greater purpose than maximizing shareholders' money," says Britton.
Soon after, he joined Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City as director of materials management.
Britton moved to St. Louis in 1999 to become executive director of materials and resource management at St. John's Mercy Medical Center (now Mercy Hospital St. Louis); in 2000 he joined Mercy's corporate office as vice president of resource optimization. In 2004, Britton became a senior vice president, focusing heavily on information technology, marketing and supply chain. He was named president and chief executive of the Mercy system in 2009.
In 2011, the Sisters of Mercy Health System reorganized as Mercy, and Britton oversaw the unifying of what is now 44 acute care and specialty hospitals, more than 700 physician practices and outpatient facilities and 40,000 employees located across four states under one brand.
That's one of the accomplishments he is most proud of. That unification has enabled Mercy to transform health care with its Virtual Care Center, the hub of Mercy's telemedicine programs. Mercy's telehealth initiatives include TeleICU, TeleHospitalist, Virtual Sepsis, TeleStroke and Engagement@Home programs.
By integrating medical management with telehealth services, online and telephone support, Mercy says that, among other things, it has decreased heart failure readmission rates by 25 percent, improved diabetic control by 109 percent, reduced hospital length of stay by 10 percent, increased colorectal screening by 27 percent and decreased imaging of all types by 23 percent.
'Alive, nourished and motivated'
Sr. Rocklage says Britton is a big picture thinker. "Lynn is a visionary who sees the delivery of health care as a permeating, rather than institutional, presence in our communities. He is a real collaborator who has molded a strong leadership team while setting direction. And he has created an environment where people who serve here feel alive, nourished and motivated to use their talents for the good of all," she says.
David Pratt, chairman of the Mercy Health Ministry board, says Britton is "an extremely bright, strategic thinker with a unique ability not to micromanage."
"He's a big believer in hiring the best people he can find, giving them support and guidance and then letting them do their thing," says Pratt. "The system has become phenomenally successful under his leadership."
Adds O'Toole: "I don't think Lynn ever thinks of himself as 'the boss'; his ability to lead with strong confidence but without ego is a rare commodity."
As to what makes Britton tick, all three agree it's his family: wife Thriess, daughter Mary Margaret, son-in-law Drew and his two grandchildren.
As for his future aspirations?
"Mercy provides care for three million people now; I'd like the privilege of serving one million more," says Britton. "Every community deserves the highest quality sustainable healthcare that is available."
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