Ellerin Award goes to Kent Thiry

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In 1999, I founded the HBS Health Industry Alumni Association, now called HBS Healthcare Alumni Association. It has grown into a formidable organization with over 700 members globally representing healthcare executives, leaders and entrepreneurs from every healthcare sector. The Association strives to play an active role in positioning HBS and its alumni to achieve a leadership position in the management of healthcare and life sciences organizations.

One of the highlights is the annual conference in November which routinely brings together 300 alumni and friends for networking, professional development and continuing education. The Ellerin Alumni Achievement Award was created to commemorate my role in forming and leading the organization and is given to an outstanding leader annually.

Over the years I've had the honor of presenting the award to healthcare luminaries like Ginger Graham, Ray Gilmartin, Bob Higgins and John Crowley.  In 2013, the recipient was Kent Thiry, MBA '83, CEO of DaVita. Here's why it was so meaningful for me.

This is always a special award for me to present, but this year it is especially significant. Never before have I bestowed it upon someone for whom I actually worked. Tonight’s honoree is someone who has had a profound impact on our industry and on many careers, including mine. Little did he know, but he was also a major influence on the formation of this organization.

Today healthcare is in vogue at HBS, but it wasn’t always that way. When I graduated in 1995, healthcare was not on the HBS agenda. Companies and alumni were not coming to campus to talk about the opportunities. So I had to mine the alumni database to find my first job. That is where I began to see the vast number of HBS alumni scattered throughout the industry – life sciences, healthcare services, medtech, hospitals, managed care. So many of our graduates were playing an influential role in shaping the industry yet no one really knew it.

In 1997, my sectionmate Frank Williams reached out to me because there was an opening at Vivra where he was working. The CEO of Vivra was Kent Thiry. It was also during this time that I began thinking about the idea of this alumni association. I distinctly recall asking Kent for his input. We were at a Vivra retreat, and like any good recent MBA I was looking for air time with the boss. After chatting for a few minutes,  I told him about this idea.

“Kent, what would you think of an alumni association dedicated to healthcare alumni? It would be like a geographic group, only everyone would be in healthcare. He looked at me in that way that only Kent can and exclaimed, "Why? What’s the point? Who would join?" It’s taken me 14 years to answer that question, but I think you can see the value now. [Lots of audience laughter filled the room at that  point.]

Kent has been CEO of dialysis giant DaVita for 14 years - he is regularly named to Modern Healthcare’s Top 100 most influential people and DaVita regularly appears on Fortune’s list of most admired companies. Prior to DaVita, Kent  was CEO of Vivra Holdings – where we worked together - and before that he served as CEO of Vivra Inc, a provider of renal dialysis services that was sold to Gambro. Kent started his post-HBS career at Bain. He served on the board of Varian Medical Systems, and was the (non-executive) Chairman of Oxford Health Plans. Kent currently serves on the Harvard Business School Advisory Board and is a member of The Colorado Forum.  He is an alumnus of Stanford University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

One last thing I want to mention. When we worked together, Kent was an equal opportunity employer. It did not matter whether you were a woman or man. If you were good, you were good – if you were bad, you were out. There were many talented executive women at Vivra, including our CFO. Kent is married to a powerhouse - Denise O’Leary, his HBS classmate, and one of the earliest female partners at Benchmark and a board member of companies like Del Monte Foods, Medtronic, USAir and ALZA.

One more reason why I started this group, Kent, was to honor people in the industry who have made a significant difference like you. Please join me in saluting the 2013 Alumni Achievement Award honoree, Mr. Kent Thiry.