Mark A. Wallace

With this year marking his 25th anniversary with Texas Children's Hospital, CEO and President Mark A. Wallace sat down with Texas Medical Center Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer William F. McKeon for a look back on a quarter-century of growth and the qualities he believes make an exceptional leader.

Mark A. Wallace

14 Minute Read

Q | Can you tell us about your formative years?

A | I was born in Oklahoma City on April 24, 1953, at St. Anthony Hospital. I went to public schools and then attended Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. I played basketball, as point guard. I had aspirations of going on to a Division I school, but I wasn’t quite good enough. OBU was a school I was very familiar with. They had a great NAIA basketball program—we were national champions in 1966 and runner-up in ‘65 and ‘67. So we had a great team with a lot of good players, a couple who went on to play in the NBA for a few years. I received a great education and enjoyed playing basketball.

I grew up playing all sports in a time when we played neighborhood sports. We would get the guys together, go out in a field or someone’s backyard and play ball—football, basketball, baseball, golf, tennis, etc. There were a lot of really talented athletes in my neighborhood. My two best sports were basketball and golf. I wanted to play D1 basketball and at about age 16, I went to a basketball camp in Edmond, Oklahoma. During a lunch break I wandered over to the library. I had nothing else to do, so there I was in the library, in my basketball shorts with tube socks up to my knees. I started reading some magazines, career manuals and so forth, and I read about this field called hospital administration. So remember, this is in 1968, and here I am at 16 reading about hospital administration in a career journal. The publications were talking about the prospects of health care and how it was going to change and grow because of Medicare and Medicaid being enacted in the Johnson administration in ’65 and ’66. There was going to be this expansion and proliferation of hospitals and hospital beds, and this additional source of capital coming into health care because of additional third-party reimbursements for the elderly through Medicare and the medically and financially indigent through the Medicaid program.

So I’m reading this, and I knew I was going to go into business, and I was always struck by leadership and management. I’m thinking, ‘This is it. I want to be a leader and I can focus on a particular industry.’ All my family works in oil and gas, even to this day. So I go home and I say, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad! I want to be a hospital administrator when I grow up.’ They look at me and go, ‘What’s that?’ And my mom says, ‘He wants to be a doctor.’ And I said, ‘No Mom, let me tell you what hospital CEOs do.’ And they just kind of shook their heads like, ‘Eh, he’ll grow out of it and forget about it.’

Q | And exactly 20 years later, you walked through the door at 36?
A | Yes. Oct. 4, 1989 was my first day. I had already been in the Texas Medical Center for 12 years. So from Oklahoma Baptist University, I went on to Washington University in St. Louis and got my MHA. Then I did my administrative fellowship at The Methodist Hospital beginning in ’77. I started under the tutelage of Ted Bowen, President and CEO at the time, and Larry Mathis. At the age of 24, they promoted me to assistant vice president, at 26 to vice president, and at 30 to senior vice president with responsibility for hospital operations. I look back on that now and I wonder what in the world they were thinking.

Methodist had Dr. Michael DeBakey, who was still in his prime, along with other phenomenal cardiovascular surgeons, like E. Stanley Crawford, Jimmy Howell, George Noon, George Morris, Charlie McCollum—the list went on and on. In 1977, Houston was the heart capital of the world. At Methodist, you had Dr. DeBakey, and at St. Luke’s and the Texas Heart Institute you had Dr. Denton Cooley. So truly we were the mecca of cardiovascular medicine for the entire world.

It was a tremendous growth period for Methodist at that time. They were the adult teaching hospital for Baylor College of Medicine. In addition to being the world-class renowned surgeon that he was, Dr. DeBakey was chairman of the department of surgery at Baylor, and he was also the President and CEO of Baylor. He truly was an individual who had a tremendous impact on my career—getting to know him at the age of 24, spending a lot of time with him, watching him, and observing him lead growth and manage growth, and being one of the most prominent surgeons of the century.

Q | Do you believe that the great leaders always have it in them to be natural-born leaders or do you see it as a skill learned over time?

A | I think it’s a little bit of both. I think the great leaders do have some inherent natural talents. You see that throughout medicine. You see it in sports and in business, as well. I think these great leaders, titans, captains of industry become so through leadership development. They work very hard at becoming a better leader. So they take their natural God-given ability and accentuate that by focusing on leadership development and thinking about their definition of leadership and how they can apply various characteristics towards becoming a better leader.

Q | Was that curiosity or enthusiasm?

A | I’m going to give my parents a lot of credit for that. My mom is 85, she is alive and well. She lives by herself and since it’s Friday, she is probably eating Mexican food right now. Mom is smart, talented, a good musician. My dad worked for Cameron Iron Works. He was the district manager for Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle for 35 years.

I grew up at the dinner table hearing all these stories about Jim Abercrombie, who founded Cameron Iron Works and who was also the founding father of Texas Children’s. Over the years, I learned of numerous other CEOs of Cameron who also had ties to Houston and the Texas Medical Center. There was Herbert Allen, who was also chairman of the Rice University board, and when I was 21 I heard about someone named Philip Burguieres who was the new president of Cameron. Philip is now a close personal friend of mine and a trustee at Baylor. And so the overlap between growing up in Oklahoma, Dad working for Cameron—the founder being Jim Abercrombie—and then my coming to work at Texas Children’s Hospital in 1989 is pretty amazing.

Growing up, we would frequently come to Houston, driving from Oklahoma City. We would stay out on the old Katy Road across from the Cameron Iron Works plant at that time—where Ikea is now. Dad would work and go to conferences, meetings and seminars, and we would stay at a Howard Johnson Motel. We thought we were really living it up. But little did I know, at that age, that I would be working here in the Texas Medical Center. So there is this incredible sense of irony—the overlap between Cameron and Texas Children’s, and Jim Abercrombie founding both institutions, knowing so much about Houston and who Abercrombie was. Josephine Abercrombie, his daughter, is still an emeritus trustee on our board. She is wonderful and often sends notes to me, ‘Mark I just heard this about Texas Children’s. Mom and Dad would be so proud.’ So this was a destination for me, a place where God wanted me to end up.

Another similar irony is that I came out of Washington University and started working at The Methodist Hospital in 1977. That same year, departing St. Louis and Washington University, was a person named Ralph Feigin. Dr. Ralph Feigin was leaving Washington University St. Louis Children’s Hospital as the chief of infectious disease, and was coming to serve as chairman of the department of pediatrics at Baylor and physician-in-chief at Texas Children’s. So we both came to Houston in 1977. I was 24, he was 39, and we didn’t know one another. But we got here, quickly met and got to know each other. We became friends, even though I was at Methodist and he was at Texas Children’s. He also served as chief of pediatrics at Methodist, so I used to see him at medical staff meetings. Even then, at a very young age, I was struck by Dr. Feigin and his capacity, work ethic and intellect. In 1989, I was 36 when Dr. Feigin and the board called me and said, ‘Mark, would you consider coming over and being the President and CEO of Texas Children’s Hospital?’ That’s also another really important aspect of my career that a lot of people don’t realize. Ralph and I led Texas Children’s together for 21 years until his unfortunate and untimely death. A lot of people don’t know we both came from Washington University in St. Louis in 1977. We connected in 1989. That’s very important to me because I loved Dr. Feigin. He and I became great partners in leading Texas Children’s.

Q | How has Texas Children’s grown over the last 25 years?

A | It was 331 beds then and 650 today. We had 1,100 employees then and 10,200 employees today, 300,000 square feet then and over eight million square feet today. And that doesn’t include what we will be adding in the next few years.

What I love is when people come to Texas Children’s today and they see the West Tower, Feigin Center, Pavilion for Women, Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital West Campus. Texas Children’s Pediatrics is the largest primary pediatric care network in the United States, with 49 locations, 1.2 million patient encounters, 200+ physicians. Texas Children’s Health Plan is the largest pediatric provider-based HMO in the nation. Everyone thinks this is the way it’s always been at Texas Children’s for the last 40 or 50 years. No. It has grown up, at a very accelerated pace, to become this in a very short period of time. It’s been two and half decades during which the board, our medical staff, employees, volunteers and the community have worked to accomplish this. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of—the pace, the acceleration and the consistency of the performance. The consistency of the quality of service, the safety, accessibility, financial performance, our capital campaigns. We’ve not had any major missteps. We’ve not squandered capital or funded a major product that didn’t work. The leadership of the organization has been phenomenal. It’s been a remarkable record of leading and managing growth. That’s very important. Some organizations can lead growth, but they can’t sustain it and manage it. That’s one of the things we talk a lot about—leading and managing. We like to say that leaders lead people and managers manage an asset, process or thing. We need both. In your daily responsibilities, sometimes you’re leading people and sometimes you’re managing an asset, process or thing. That’s one of my 10 leadership maxims.

Q | Can you tell us about your maxims?

A | For the medical staff, board, employees, the volunteers, there’s one word that best describes Texas Children’s and leads to the culture we have here: passion. The passion for the mission of excellence in pediatrics and now ob-gyn and women’s services. The passion for research, undergraduate medical education and graduate medical education. It is that passion for the mission and then for the patients and the families. Culture does begin at the top, there is no question about that. It has to be sustained as it cascades down vertically and then horizontally.

I think the leadership maxims have been a big part in helping us establish and maintain the culture. Today, there is a cultural dividend that is being paid out throughout Texas Children’s, because of our employees and medical staff and how passionate they are. All of that translates into other areas of the business model—a better balance sheet, a better profit and loss statement, a better bond rating and so on. The leadership maxims are a big part of Texas Children’s. It’s been a big part of my thinking about leadership, and hopefully in helping other people become better leaders. And not just people in formal leadership positions, because that’s one of the maxims: everyone’s a leader. We lead in our professional lives, but then we lead in our personal lives as well. There’s not a more important leadership responsibility than that of being a parent, and especially a mom. That’s the number one leadership job description on the planet. The second is being a great father. Then being a great wife and husband. We talk a lot about how everyone’s a leader at Texas Children’s. It’s not just executives or people in the C Suite. It’s front line employees, valet parkers, nurses—everyone has the opportunity to lead. Leadership can’t be compartmentalized. If you’re really a good leader, you want to lead every day, every moment.

These leadership maxims are real, and they work for everybody. They work at home and at work.

Q | What about the challenges? What were some tough times that people don’t know about?

A | Well, one of the scariest times I had was Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

It had been raining nonstop for five days, Houston was being consumed with water and flooding. We set up the command center Tuesday of that week. Unfortunately, other institutions in the Texas Medical Center did not get their flood logs up in time and the water got into the tunnels. Fortunately, 30 days before, we had installed our submarine vaulted doors, so we were able to seal off Texas Children’s from the tunnels. But there was so much water, surging with such force that we were concerned the water was still going to flood through the tunnels and reach our West Tower. So it’s Saturday morning and we’re all in the command center. We’re still afloat. Our emergency generators are on. Everyone else is evacuating. I can remember the water had begun to rise, flooding the tunnels from floor to ceiling. I was scared to death that we were that close to having to evacuate. The hospital was full, as we typically are.

It’s one thing to evacuate adult patients. You have adult hospitals out in the community where you can triage them. We had no place to go. We were taking some of the adult patients from St. Luke’s and Methodist. We even set up a surgical ICU for some of the transplant patients from St. Luke’s and Methodist. I was scared to death. How are we going to get the children down from the patient floors? There were no elevators. We would have to go through the stairwells. How were we going to keep every child and baby that was on a ventilator, using ambu bags, alive until we could get them to wherever we were going to get them to? Fortunately, it quit raining early Saturday morning and the waters started to recede. It could have been a horrible situation for Texas Children’s and our patients. We were the only major hospital that stayed open that entire time. We didn’t have to evacuate one patient. We never lost emergency power.

Another challenge relates to Baylor College of Medicine, our academic partner. Much of Texas Children’s success is due to our affiliation with a great medical school and how well that relationship has worked. Everyone in the medical center knows Baylor has had some real challenges in the last 10 years since they separated from Houston Methodist. I was worrying about our academic partner and how they were doing. I was concerned about whether or not they would be able to maintain their status as one of the preeminent medical schools, and if they weren’t, what was going to be the impact on Texas Children’s. So we spent years working on that as Baylor struggled not just financially but also culturally, including the turnover of leadership and retention of faculty. Today, under Dr. Paul Klotman’s leadership, Baylor is strong, stable and on a positive trajectory. And Baylor and Texas Children’s have an ideal partnership.

Q | Those relationships that you mentioned are symbiotic. The greatness of Baylor College of Medicine is because of the greatness of Texas Children’s and vice versa. How do you feel now that it has come full circle?

A | It is one of the things I’m most proud of. I’ve spent 37 years working with Baylor—12 at Methodist and 25 here at Texas Children’s. And that’s been one of my greatest joys, working in academic medicine and building Texas Children’s to what it is today. Working with full time faculty and becoming a research enterprise in pediatrics, surgery and ob-gyn has been immensely gratifying. Dr. Klotman informed me a month ago that at the next commencement, in May, Baylor is going to bestow upon me an honorary doctorate of humanities in medicine. Of all the honors I’ve received, that one is going to be at the top.

Q | Any closing thoughts?

A | The thing that wakes me up in the morning, keeps me going, makes me want to continue to work on the next aspirational goal, is that I look down the street and around the corners as well. A lot of leaders look down the street, but not around the corners and anticipate what you can’t see. We have always tried to figure out the right thing to do and then execute that to our greatest ability. Texas Children’s future has never been brighter.

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