New at the top: The ‘next Lee Iacocca’ shifted gears to find a home in hospitals

November 18, 2012

As a child, cars fascinated me. I read all the auto magazines I could get my hands on. There was a time when I could identify any car on the street just by the headlights.

After college, I went to Detroit to work for Chrysler and start what I thought would be a lifelong career in the auto business, designing cars and engines. My goal was to become the next Lee Iacocca [known for engineering the Ford Mustang and later running Chrysler].

Unfortunately, I entered the auto industry at a time when it was contracting.

Here I was, coming out of this prestigious university having put all this time and energy into getting a fancy degree, and four months after leaving school, I’m standing in the unemployment line.

It was a rude awakening.


Herb Buchanan is the new CE of Howard Unviersity Hospital. (Howard Unviersity Hospital)

I ended up going back to Chrysler and working there for eight years, but it wasn’t the most exciting time to be designing cars.

At that point, Chrysler was in survival mode, designing minivans and Omnis. For a young engineer, that was far from my dream.

Although I got to do some cool things, like drive cars on the test course and develop engines, it wasn’t as groundbreaking as I thought it would be. I thought I was going to develop the Herb Buchanan engine that Ferrari would beg for.

I was fortunate that between my parents’ guidance and having excellent mentors, I started thinking beyond Herb Buchanan and making money. I realized that if I was going to put 30 years’ worth of work into something, I wanted to truly have an impact on society.

So I began to explore options and made it a research project.

The hospital industry struck me. There, it was very easy to draw a line between your work and what you’re contributing to the community.

Also, hospitals were closing, reimbursement was changing and the traditional administrative senior executives at that point were doctors and nurses who didn’t know a whole lot about running a business.

The more research I did, the more I realized the industry needed some creative thinking and problem-solving.

I dipped my toe in the water.

While all my business-school colleagues were going to Wall Street, I took the lowest-paying job in my class at a hospital, because I needed to see what this was about.

Then I worked with a boutique consulting firm that gave me a chance to combine the planning background I learned from engineering with this new discovery of health care.

After five years, I knew I could make a career out of it.

The next hurdle was whether I could work at a hospital day-to-day.

I took my first hospital job in a large community hospital in Huntsville, Ala. My wife had family there.

I spent six years learning more about working in hospitals.

I eventually went from a small town in northern Alabama to working in a place much more my speed: Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

It is one of the better-run hospitals in the business, with a board made up of Fortune 500 chief executives. They have the resources to do things that others can’t do.

Then I spent almost seven years as chief operating officer of University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, where we were successful in doing a cultural transformation.

Now I’m excited to come to the hospital at Howard University, where there are world-renowned clinicians.

It’s a chance to use all the skills I developed over the years from the different places and to assure the staff that someone believes in them and will hold the institution to its high standard.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

Herb Buchanan

Position: Chief executive of Howard University Hospital, an academic medical center in the District.

Career highlights: Chief operating officer, University of Maryland Medical Center; vice president of operations, Northwestern Memorial Hospital; vice president of operations, Huntsville Hospital.

Age: 53

Education: BS, mechanical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; MS, mechanical engineering, University of Michigan; MBA, Northwestern University.

Personal: Lives in Columbia with his wife, Zanita, and four children, Jasmine, Amber, Herb III, Jalen.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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