After 50 years in healthcare, Baptist Health South Florida CEO ready to hand over the reins

Brian Keeley, CEO of Coral Gables-based Baptist Health South Florida, is retiring at the end of September after more than 50 years of service. While the announcement came in June 2021, his plans for his retirement have been years in the making.

Mr. Keeley told Becker's he initially thought about retiring a few years ago but decided not to do so amid transactions such as Baptist Health's October 2017 merger with Boynton Beach, Fla.-based Bethesda Health and its July 2019 merger with Boca Raton (Fla.) Regional Hospital. Those transactions since have been completed. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, and he decided to stay at the organization through the crisis.

"The transition's been about three years," Mr. Keeley said. "I've been working with a transition committee that includes board members, and we met at the chairman's office. [The health system] interviewed internal and external candidates, [and the selection process for a successor] was done very systematically." 

Ultimately, Mr. Keeley decided to retire Sept. 30, 2022. Bo Boulenger, current president and COO, will succeed Mr. Keeley as president and CEO. 

"I think Bo Boulenger is going to be an exceptional CEO, and I think he and I share the same DNA," Mr. Keeley said. We think the culture is so critically important.

"I know we're well prepared. I feel like it will happen, and no one will even blink an eye. It will be absolutely seamless."  

Mr. Keeley served as an administrative resident with Baptist Hospital in 1969 and was named assistant administrator of the hospital in 1973 after serving four years in the U.S. Navy Medical Service Corp. He was named COO of Baptist Hospital in 1979 and CEO in 1986. He has helmed Baptist Health South Florida since it formed after Baptist Hospital's mergers with South Miami Hospital and Homestead Hospital in 1995. Today, the organization is a 12-hospital system with approximately 25,000 employees.

Mr. Keeley discussed the transition out of the CEO role, reflected on his career and passed along advice to his peers. 

Question: The industry has gone through many changes during your 50-year career. How have you seen healthcare and healthcare leadership evolve? 

Brian Keeley: It feels like about 20 years. When I first got here, I did an internship, a fellowship for a year and then I left. I was in the Medical Service Corp. and I came back again, and my anticipation was staying three to five years. I didn't think there was any way I'd be staying at [the organization]. We were a little hospital. I had never had any aspirations it was going to be as big as it is right now, nor did I have any aspirations I was going to stay this long. It just sort of happened like that. It was a combination of hard work but more importantly good luck and the ability to attract some great people, and that's what Baptist Health is all about. 

The tech really came around in the 1980s and really accelerated for us in the 1990s. That was one big change. Another was we didn't have health maintenance organizations and managed care back then. I remember in the 1980s playing tennis in a Baptist Health tennis tournament, and I was called off the court, and the vice president of an insurance company was calling me, and they wanted to negotiate a discount. My reaction was, "We don't give discounts. We're on a fee-for-service basis." Everybody mostly paid cash. Back then was just a lot simpler. 

Q: What would you say to someone who aspires to become a health system CEO?

BK: It's a tough job. I think you're going to spend a lot of time learning about healthcare. I look at digital technology, I look at data analytics. None of that stuff existed years ago. I remember somebody told me we need to hire someone with a master's degree in data analytics, and I talked to Florida International University, and I talked to University of Miami. They didn't have a degree in data analytics then. It's all new. So you have to be a good listener and a good learner. You have to be humble. Unfortunately, there are a lot of CEOs out there who think the world rotates around them. That's not true on my side of the equation. People say, "Brian Keeley was responsible for Baptist Health." I said, "That grand evolution wasn't Brian Keeley. It was the people we have hired right now. They're passionate and compassionate." 

The most important thing in terms of our operations is our culture. It's all about people. People spend too much time on the numbers, and they don't spend enough time on the culture, and the quality of the enterprise and the quality of the people. Culture is the glue that ties everybody together. It all goes back to our nonprofit mission and our core values. That starts at the top with the CEO.  

Q: At Baptist Health South Florida, you headed up digital transformation efforts and aimed to make the system the "Amazon Prime of healthcare." Where do these efforts stand today?

BK: Back when the internet came out, we spent a lot of resources, time, energy and effort on IT. Now we call it digital transformation. We didn't have a lot of technological advantage at that time. We did a lot of IT development and managing that process. 

We recognize that the digital transformation will change the world. We can either lead, follow or get out of the way. So, we decided we were going to lead. I remember going to the board and I said, "This is going to be a big thing. This is going to transform society. It's going to transform healthcare. It's going to transform Baptist Health." I told the board, "Be prepared to spend probably at least $100 million. This is a heavy lift. It's going to be probably the most challenging thing we've ever tried to do because the digital world is going to take over with machine learning and artificial intelligence. And I can't even begin to conceptualize what's going to be happening in the future, but it's going to be profound and it's going to profoundly affect the way healthcare is delivered." We weren't on that track yet. We wanted to take a leadership role in that. One of the board members looked right at me, and she looked right at our executive team, and she said, "Be prepared to fail." That provided me the right incentive to make sure we spent the right amount of resources on this. 

We have an amazing team we've brought in. They're far above my pay grade when it comes to digital technology. So we've given them a substantial amount of resources and the leadership to propel us into the digital age. We're pretty sophisticated right now, but we’re still behind in terms of where we should be. This is just the beginning.   

Q: What is your advice for the incoming CEO, Mr. Boulenger?

BK: I told Bo how important the culture is. He's going from one boss to 25 or 30 bosses. Your chairman of the board is your key contact person, but you have to be responsible for every board member and really understand how you work with the board. I don't worry about Bo in terms of culture because he's got the same DNA I have. If it was a new CEO, I'd be concerned about that piece. That takes a long time to learn. Bo is articulate. He's smarter than I am. He's good at what he does. So I have full confidence we're going to continue our success in the years ahead. I also told him, "Don't try to make a decision that Brian Keeley would make. You're a very smart and intelligent and articulate individual. You make the decision make sense for you."  

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