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As Keen leaves HRH, legacy will endure, friends say

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As he retires after 20 years as top executive at Hancock Regional Hospital, Bobby Keen worries about the survival of community hospitals that must compete with large hospital systems.

(Daily Reporter / Tom Russo)
As he retires after 20 years as top executive at Hancock Regional Hospital, Bobby Keen worries about the survival of community hospitals that must compete with large hospital systems. (Daily Reporter / Tom Russo)

GREENFIELD — It was a chance encounter in Kansas City between Bobby Keen, then a principal in an agri-business consulting firm, and Greenfield’s Roy Wilson, then chairman of the Hancock Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees, that led to a 20-year partnership that finally ends next week.

Keen, who became the hospital’s president and CEO in 1994, will retire Monday and step away from an institution he has shepherded for the better part of his career.

After hearing him in Kansas City, Wilson asked for Keen’s presentation materials on strategic planning, which ultimately led to a job interview.

“I interviewed them,” Keen said. “They asked me if I had any questions, and I said, ‘Yes, I do. Tell me your vision for the hospital in 10 years.’ ”

If the vision wasn’t uniform, Keen said, he wasn’t interested in the job.

Fortunately, everyone was on the same page. Keen signed on as executive vice president and chief operating officer and then assumed the CEO’s chair six months later.

A seventh-generation farm kid off the family farm in Billingsley, Alabama, 47 minutes northwest of Montgomery, Keen obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Auburn University and then went on to get his doctorate at Purdue, where he also taught and served in administrative roles.

He left Purdue to help form a consulting firm in Indianapolis, where he spent the vast majority of his time jetting across the country, helping businesses take a bead on success but losing out on precious family time and being unable to commit to a community.

Even though he had never worked at a hospital, he was willing to consider HMH’s offer.

“(Wife) Peggy and I did a lot of praying about it,” Keen said.

Wilson now says Keen was the “perfect man at the perfect time.”

“What was true 20 years ago is still true today,” Wilson said. “The hospital needs to find new revenue sources, think outside the box and change the paradigm.”

A new collaboration with Fisk Services for a high-tech medical waste disposal facility utilizing ozone; partnerships to expand home health services; a long-term acute care facility within the hospital; and re-establishment of a comprehensive cancer treatment center on the hospital’s campus are among the hospital’s entrepreneurial endeavors.

During the past 10 years, the hospital also has expanded into nearby communities, explaining in part the decision to change the hospital’s name to Hancock Regional Hospital in 2005.

Keen also faced medical challenges when he signed on; however, Dr. Michael Fletcher, hospital vice president of medical staff services, said Keen’s ability to lead gained the trust of the hospital’s medical staff.

“I think the essential element of Bobby’s leadership is the ability to build trust, elevate people to do the best they can do and empower people to do the right thing,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said Keen was an “influencer of people” whose style never included coercion or intimidation and which garnered the CEO a significant amount of respect from the medical professionals.

“He’s had to make difficult decisions, but he’s always been honest and did the right thing,” Fletcher said.

Keen’s commitment to do the right thing carried over into the community as well.

“I think it would be so easy in his position to stay inside the hospital and manage all the things that go on there – and he’s very good at that – but he understood the impact that he could have on the community,” said Greenfield Area Chamber of Commerce President Retta Livengood.

“His biggest contribution has been reaching so far outside the walls of his hospital into the community. His servant leadership. You can’t help but get caught up in that when he talks about it,” she said.

Keen’s impact was so significant the chamber created the “Spirit of Service Award,” this year for his efforts along with those of outgoing Greenfield-Central Schools Superintendent Linda Gellert.

For the near future, there’s the family farm in Billingsley, where his mother still lives, some land in Southern Indiana, some hunting and a whole lot of catching up to do with his family that will keep Keen busy after he retires.

“I discovered early on you need to have other things going on in your life,” Keen said. “I’m looking forward to being in that tree stand a little bit more.”

One of Keen’s biggest concerns as he steps down is that HRH continues to thrive as an independent, community hospital, despite the enormous financial challenges it faces in terms of decreasing reimbursements and revenues.

HRH writes off between $1 million and $1.5 million monthly in charity and bad debt incurred by those who can’t afford the service.

“Community hospitals are a great institution,” he said. “I would find it very hard to think about this community without Hancock Regional here.”

But as revenue streams continue to dry up amid an ever-increasing jungle of rules and regulations, many community hospitals, lacking the capital to keep pace and advance, are ultimately sold, and that has a devastating impact on both the institution and the community at large.

“Once you’re sold to one of those big systems, the hospital becomes a very small dot on the radar screen. It becomes essentially a shell of a hospital,” he said.

And a void in adequate health care can hurt the area’s economy.

Skip Kuker, executive director of the Hancock Economic Development Council, said a symbiotic relationship exists between a first-class hospital and economic development: Each needs the other.

That fact was no more evident than when Keen was on the committee that hired Kuker to be the county’s face for economic development, and he knows the importance of being able to tout high-quality health care. He makes a habit of doing that with companies and site selectors previewing the county.

“I took one by the hospital just two weeks ago during one of my windshield tours,” Kuker said.

In addition to the hospital’s expanding facilities, Kuker cites the quality of care available at HRH as a key point.

“It’s definitely a plus,” he said. “We like to show it off.”

Among the prime drivers in Keen’s decision to leave his consulting firm all those years ago was the ability to get off the treadmill, spend more time with his family and get involved with the community.

“You know, try and leave a community a little better than you found it,” he said.

By all accounts in Hancock County, Keen has done just that.

“We couldn’t have made a better hire,” Wilson said.

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