Passion for caring
Robert Lord Jr., president and CEO of Martin Health System. ED DRONDOSKI PHOTO
New Martin Health System CEO makes patient treatment No. 1 priority
BY DONNA CRARY
Walk past the obstetrics nurse cradling a newborn at Tradition Medical Center, the EMT monitoring an incoming patient’s vital signs at Martin South, or the oncologist giving hopeful news to a cancer survivor at Martin Medical Center — and you can sense the heavy responsibility of running a major health care organization.
On July 11, Robert Lord Jr. took over the helm as president and CEO of Martin Health System, which includes three hospitals, a MediCenter, a freestanding emergency center and numerous clinics. With more than 4,000 employees, the nonprofit health-care corporation is one of the Treasure Coast’s largest employers.
“This is an incredible organization,” Lord said. “It has remarkable diversity — people from all walks of life and from all over the globe — very intelligent people who have so much to offer and share. If you just take a little time to get to know them and a little about their lives. It’s so enriching.”
Lord’s passion for Martin Health System centers around a mission-driven professional life. It’s this mission that inspired him to begin working at the company as the first chief legal officer 18 years ago and continuing to serve as the heart in his new role.
“Our mission is to give great, exceptional care to our community, with compassion, and to do it for every patient, every time,” he said. “And the business part of it is secondary. That’s what makes this an incredible privilege to work here.”
Becoming the CEO of MHS has been a serendipitous journey for Lord. He planned for a career as a trial lawyer, then his focus shifted as he began to work full time for the hospital. Taking a closer look at his life, he revealed that he’s a family man, and devoted to his alma mater — Florida State University. He bleeds garnet and gold. Lord is also an avid angler and outdoorsman, so he is outspoken about saving the local waterways. And he’s passionate about leading Martin Health System, where he wants to make a positive impact on his community.
MOVING TO MARTIN COUNTY
Lord is no stranger to the Treasure Coast. He moved with his family to Martin County from Nashville in 1969, when he was 11 years old. During the 1960s, his father, Bobby Lord, was offered a spot at the Grand Ole Opry as a country music entertainer. He performed with many country music legends including Johnny Cash, June Taylor, Mel Tillis, Patsy Cline, and Bobby Bare. He later hosted TV shows Country Sportsman and Celebrity Outdoors on the TNN Network until 1989.
“My dad was a performer’s performer,” Lord recalled. “If you talked to his peers at that time, he was someone that they respected and admired greatly.”
Lord’s father walked away from show business by choice, so he could spend more time with his family. He developed Nettles Island on Hutchinson Island and started his own insurance business, which he later partnered with his younger son, Cabot.
Lord’s parents, Bobby and Mozelle, instilled in their children a strong work ethic and a belief that they could accomplish anything they set their minds to do. Their family was close-knit, one that was deeply rooted in their faith. “We came from a Christian home and family,” recalled Cabot, Lord’s brother. “It was all about unconditional love, and we had an unlimited supply of it.”
RALLYING FOR RIVERS
Bobby Lord loved the outdoors and the thrill of feeling a fish tug on the line and he imparted that passion to his children — Rob grew up chasing snook, trout, redfish, and tarpon, while becoming intensely familiar with the Indian and St. Lucie rivers. He is concerned about the recent algae crisis that plagues the local waters and is united with the community to help solve the St. Lucie River’s problems.
“I am very passionate about our waterways, and that’s what makes this area one of the most beautiful places on the planet to live,” he said. “It’s pretty remarkable — the Indian River is one of the most diverse estuaries in the world. It’s sad what we’re dealing with right now. We need to do something to protect this.”
He was invited to speak at the Save Our River Clean Water Rally at the Locks in August 2014 and he recently attended the Buy the Land Rally in July at Stuart Beach. In his leadership role at MHS, Lord is committed to addressing the health issues of the algae crisis.
“This is a public health issue and our organization has an obligation to speak out,” he said. “The community looks to this organization to protect and speak for it, if it has to do with community health. So, we’ll take an active role to those kinds of issues.”
When Lord was a rising senior at Martin County High School in 1975, he attended the American Legion Boys State in Tallahassee. Communities from around the state selected one boy and girl to participate in a mock state government, a hands-on program that teaches high school seniors how the state legislature works. This event helped influence which university Lord would later choose.
“So we go to Tallahassee, and they parade us every day from a dorm on FSU’s campus, past the student union and the university swimming pool to a bus — and they take us to the Capitol building — and then we come back and they parade us back, and we walk by the university swimming pool, again,” he said with a smile. “And so I’m up in Tallahassee and I fall in love with FSU.”
Lord returned home, applied to and was later accepted by Florida State and Vanderbilt universities. His father, who had connections in Nashville, wanted him to attend Vanderbilt and was incredulous when Lord made his decision.
“I proudly announced that I wanted to go to Florida State and my dad said, ‘Why would you want to go to the girls school?’ ” Lord recalled. “And I just gave him this look like, ‘Dad, can’t you answer your own question?’ But I think I got a great education there. The postscript of the story is I wound up coming back and getting married to a Gator!”
Lord attended FSU during the years when coach Bobby Bowden transformed a struggling football program into a national powerhouse. He became a devoted fan, has met Bowden multiple times since he graduated and still has fun attending home games with his daughters.
A FULFULLING LEGAL CAREER
Since junior high school, Lord’s career ambition was to be a trial lawyer. His storytelling abilities that he inherited from his father along with his natural presence for the stage helped prepare him for the courtroom. He graduated from Stetson Law School in 1983 and the following year joined a law firm in Coral Gables, fulfilling his dream. But it wasn’t long before the Treasure Coast pulled him back home.
“I grew to appreciate how wonderful this community is,” Lord said. “I enjoyed my time in Miami, but it wasn’t the place for me. My father gave me some great advice — he said, ‘Don’t stay so long that you can’t afford to leave.’ So I looked for an opportunity to come back home.”
He seized that opportunity in 1985 when he saw a job posting in the Florida Bar News where a Stuart law firm was looking for a young associate litigator. “I immediately called my father and asked him to contact Larry Buchanan and tell him that his son was a lawyer in Miami, and not to hire anybody until they talked to me,” Lord recalled. “So they hired me.”
While in private practice, Lord primarily worked as a trial attorney in civil litigation, specializing in media/communications and First Amendment law. He represented newspapers, television interests and corporate clients. Martin Memorial Hospital was one of his clients and in the late 1980s he was asked to oversee peer review proceedings involving hospital staff physicians. He became more involved in that line of work, received a board certification in health law and in 1998 became the hospital’s first chief legal officer, overseeing all of its legal operations.
LOVE, MARRIAGE & FAMILY
While Lord was building a local law practice, he met his wife, Beth, whom he calls his life partner, in March 1988. They were set up by Lord’s Uncle Steve and Aunt Patsy and he quickly discovered on their first date that she was the one.
“I was smitten immediately,” Lord recalled. “I’d never been engaged. I was engaged in about three months. I proposed marriage and I was very lucky that she said yes.”
The couple married on Feb. 25, 1989, and just nine months and three weeks later — on an icy, cold December day — their first daughter, Olivia, was born. Then 2 1/2 years later, Beth gave birth to their second child, Alexandra, who goes by Allie. Both daughters were born at Martin Memorial Hospital.
“When our children were born, they celebrated the joy of that with us,” Lord said. “I did not work here when the kids were born — I was practicing law in private practice. It’s just what they did at the time. That’s a special thing.”
THE RISING EXECUTIVE
It was in the board room at MHS where Lord learned how to be a health-care executive. In 1998, he started as chief legal officer for the executive team, watching and learning how to run a hospital.
“I’ve had the privilege to work with some extraordinary people here,” Lord said. “Executives in this organization who I have a lot of respect for.”
In addition to managing legal services, his duties included overseeing risk management, insurance, corporate compliance, internal audit, contracting, licensing and governmental relations.
While working with the executive team, other executives took notice of Lord, too. Karen Ripper, former senior vice president and chief nursing officer, remembered Lord’s focus on patients.
“He was always a patient safety advocate — whatever it would take to improve patient safety,” Ripper said. “He was fully vested in what the patient and families experienced.”
Over time, Lord was given additional responsibilities as an administrator. He was called upon to oversee the environmental and nutritional services within the organization. His abilities to listen and communicate with employees helped improve the outcomes and performances of those departments.
“He’s a great communicator, he’s a good listener, and he’s known for giving candid and honest feedback in a very civil kind of way,” said Dwight Denny, immediate past chairman of MHS board of directors.
Lord is also a people person, and his outgoing personality combined with his ability to empathize makes him approachable to hospital personnel. “He’s extremely accessible,” said Chuck Cleaver, senior vice president and chief financial officer. “Anybody in the organization can and does stop Rob in the hallway and engages in conversation with him.”
As time went on, Lord looked for other opportunities to advance within the hospital. He studied and became board certified as a health-care administrator. He was also asked to supervise the hospital’s construction and real estate operations and soon afterward MHS received approval from the state to build Tradition Medical Center.
BUILT FOR SUCCESS
Tradition Medical Center was designed to provide the ideal healing environment for the patient. Just three weeks after it opened in December 2013, it was completely filled with patients. And it has continued to be fully occupied since. There are plans to double its 90-bed acute center with an expected opening in 2018. From the spacious aqua-toned birthing suites to the advanced use of telemedicine in the emergency room, every detail of the award-winning hospital was carefully thought out. And its success is no accident.
It was former CEO Mark Robitaille’s vision to build the hospital in western Port St. Lucie and he called upon Lord to head up the project, to make that dream become a reality. Lord put together a team that included doctors, nurses, patients, construction/property managers, finance experts and architects. He empowered them to plan and design the facility.
“Rob empowers the front line — that’s a keystone approach to him managing the organization,” Cleaver said. “He wants the front line to be making the decisions, the people that are on the ground working directly with the patients.”
The team brainstormed, visited top innovative hospitals across the country, adopted their best ideas and implemented them as part of its blueprint. It took the design process a step further and experimented with mockups, so it could lay out an effective patient-care floor — making the design flexible over time to accommodate for expansion. What it ultimately created was a beautiful, state-of-the-art hospital that centers on the needs of the patient.
The patient-focused vision of Tradition not only impacted the building’s design, but the level of care that is given at the hospital. During the early stages of its planning, Lord and the executive leadership directed the team to build a hospital as if it were their own — one where their loved ones would stay and receive care. That mindset of taking ownership and making it their best was carried throughout the design and laid the foundation to provide excellent care at the hospital. Under Lord’s direction, the team and employees who work there understand that even with the best designed building, it all comes down to providing an optimum healing environment for the patient.
“The care at Tradition is what makes me the most proud,” hospital site administrator Gina All said. “One of the directors who I work with said, ‘I want my patients to remember the care that they received in the building.’ We have to create an experience for people that keeps them coming back and allowing us to be their caregivers. That’s where we want to be.”
As Lord looked ahead to leading Martin Health System, he reflected on its mission that has motivated him since he began working as chief legal officer. He said he is passionate about heading the hospital because it has provided medical care for him, his family and friends and the community that he cares deeply about.
“Every day we’re trying to improve our processes and how we do things — in using data and evidence, to improve health-care outcomes and treatment methods,” Lord said. “If every day when you go to work, and you can honestly believe you have a chance to improve the quality of life where you live, that’s a privilege. I’m very lucky.”