Photo above: Laura and Alan Levine
Where there is no vision, the people perish. -Proverbs 29:18
Those who know and have done business with Alan Levine are not surprised to see Proverbs 29:18 on a plaque just outside his office. Levine is known throughout the region as the man whose vision took Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System – two business rivals with a long history of sometimes unproductive competition – and created Ballad Health, the region’s largest employer and one of the largest employers in Tennessee. That vision, Levine says, is guided by faith – a faith that has allowed him to build success born from loss.
“I remember one night we were at my middle sister’s band concert and my mother stood up to stretch and, my father looked up and asked her where she was going, and she said she felt a little dizzy,” Levine says. “The next thing I knew my mother had fallen down the bleachers. There was a big commotion and a lot of chaos and I just remember the last thing I saw when I walked out, I looked over and saw my mother’s arm hanging down.”
Losing his mother to a brain aneurism at such a young age shaped Alan’s life from that point on. As a boy, he says he blamed the doctors and hospital who could not save her. As a man, he chose to help those in a similar situation.
“The career that I chose was largely because of what had happened to me at that young age,” Levine says. “In fact, I am proud that here in the Tri-Cities that Johnson City Medical Center is now a comprehensive stroke center, the only one between Knoxville and Richmond…If those had existed when my mother became ill, her life would have been saved. That really informed a lot of who I was.”
As a young student, Levine was gifted, but undisciplined. That lack of discipline was remedied when he entered military school. In his first term in the highly structured environment, Alan made straight A’s for the first time in his life, discovering how different his world could be if success were not merely a goal, but an expectation. “I was expected to exercise discipline in my studies and in my personal habits and I became a cadet officer in my first year there. I was only there for two years and graduated as a lieutenant, was a company commander. You learn a lot about leadership, giving out commands, and using discretion in exercising leadership.”
Levine attended the University of Florida, beginning a mutually beneficial relationship that continues to this day. He serves on the Board of Governors for the State University System of Florida, having just been reappointed for a new seven-year term by Florida’s Governor. He chairs Florida’s Higher Education Coordinating Council and also served on the Board of Trustees of his alma mater, the University of Florida. It was there Levine learned about public service. He was elected treasurer of the student body and later ran for president. He might have won that office, had it not been for a cat.
“This other guy ran his cat for president, Gibby the cat, and this was a big joke. The base of my support was the fraternity sorority system. Of course, fraternity and sorority people thought it was really cool that a cat was running for student body president so they showed up and started voting for him. So, I won the first round of voting, but the cat got just enough votes to throw it into a runoff between me and another guy and I lost in the run off.”
Levine has been a devoted friend of dogs ever since. But the loss of that student body president race proved to be a blessing in disguise for him.
“A lot of folks took notice of my campaign including some leaders at a company called Hospital Corporation of America and they knew that I was pursuing a career in hospital administration,” Levine remembers. “They reached out and asked if I would be interested in doing my internship with them and I ended up doing a residency at HCA in Tampa.”
Levine says his mentor at HCA taught him the importance of balancing being an effective administrator with giving back to the community. He encouraged Levine to run for the Florida House of Representatives. In 1996, Levine won the Republican primary. While he lost to the Democrat incumbent, he also met another up-and-coming leader named Jeb Bush, who instantly became one of Alan’s strongest supporters.
“Thankfully he didn’t win that race because it allowed him to get back in business and build an incredible career, part of which I had a chance to work with him on,” Bush remembers.
In addition to being the starting point for a life-long friendship between Levine and Bush, that election loss created one other blessing. Had Levine won that race, he would never have met his wife, Laura.
“I remember when I saw her I knew she was the one that I was going to marry,” Levine says. “I was meeting with her in my office at the hospital and I got distracted and she said, ‘you know Mr. Levine, they do make medication for that.’ She was probably thinking ‘oh my goodness, I just told the chief operating officer of the hospital that he needs medication.’ I was thinking, ‘wow, what a great lady.’”
Laura was a widow when she met Levine, having lost her first husband, a heroic firefighter and paramedic when her two children, Terry and Katy were nine and six years old. Levine fell in love with the entire family. “I remember telling them I wanted to marry their mom,” Levine says. “They both looked at me and said ‘can we call you dad now?’”
When Bush became governor of Florida, he hired Levine. “(Alan) was my deputy chief of staff as well as being the secretary of ACA, which is the agency that handles nursing homes, a lot of regulation in the healthcare space as well as the Medicaid program,” Bush says. “I got to serve as governor of the state at a time when policy implementation was rewarded politically. I wanted people that were smarter than me and people that were focused on reform. I was truly blessed to have him by my side and we did a lot of big things because of the initiatives that Alan took.”
Before Levine left the Bush administration to take a position as CEO of the fifth largest public hospital system in the United States, the North Broward Hospital District, he and the governor had led the passage of not only medical malpractice reform, but also the most sweeping reforms of Medicaid in the history of the Federal Medicaid Program. After two years at North Broward, Levine was recruited by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to serve as his health secretary and senior health advisor. The first week Levine was there, a New Orleans police officer was shot, and Levine got a call from the mayor.
“He said, ‘Mr. Secretary, last night one of our police officers in New Orleans was murdered and the guy who murdered her – his name was Bobby Bernal. Bobby Bernal was released last week from one of your state mental health institutions that you are responsible for. This is your problem. Welcome to Louisiana.’”
Levine proposed major sweeping reforms in the state’s mental health system. After the reforms were passed, Levine was named an honorary Cajun.
If the Bobby Bernal crisis and post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding of the state health system were the frying pan, Levine’s next career move, joining a hospital chain called HMA, was the fire. Levine had been at HMA about two months when he was notified the U.S. Justice Department had issued two subpoenas to look into HMA’s business practices and that 60 Minutes was planning to do an in-depth story about the company related to allegations that predated Levine’s time with the company. The chairman of the board and CEO asked Levine if he would be the company’s on-air spokesman in the 60 Minutes piece and lead the company’s response effort. Once Levine had been convinced the company had not systematically done anything wrong, he agreed.
“I remember going on 60 Minutes,” Levine says, “and that was a very trying time. In the middle of all that, a hedge fund decided to take out our board and entered into a consent campaign to take our board out. On the way out the door, the board decided to sell the company. The CEO of the company left in the middle of all that to go run a mission for his church.”
With the mass departures, Alan and a few other colleagues were left to run a publicly traded Fortune 500 company that had essentially been left for dead. “That was probably the hardest time in my whole career,” Levine says. “Through it all, I will say that there are a few people you thank along the way or a few people that you take for granted along the way, the most important of which is your spouse. As I was dealing with all this growth in my career and all these things that I was facing, there was this woman at home who really kept me grounded and she got the worst of all of it. She is just an amazing lady. I don’t deserve her, but I am thankful for her.”
As had happened before in Levine’s life, from a dark time, opportunity emerged. As HMA’s situation was becoming more difficult, Mountain States Health Alliance began looking to replace the only CEO it had ever had.
A recruiter remembered Levine’s love of the Appalachian Mountains (Levine to this day funds the fireworks display at the Western North Carolina camp he attended as a child) and convinced him to meet with the Mountain States board.
“When he walked through the door,” remembers Barbara Allen a member of the board at the time, “there was a presence, an energy and a youthfulness, a sense of ‘I am ready to tackle this.’”
Bob Feathers, another board member, says, “We truly saw someone that could transform our health delivery system here.”
It didn’t take long to see just how true that statement would be. Levine’s first official day on the job as CEO at Mountain States was January 6, 2014. On January 9, Wellmont Health System announced it would seek a merger partner. It was apparent to most observers that if Wellmont sold to a large, out-of-market system, Mountain States would soon be forced to do the same.
At that point, says Dr. Linda Latimer, a board-certified anatomic and clinical pathologist and member of the ETSU Board of Trustees, “It would have been really easy for Alan to have bundled the Mountain States system up and given it away. He would have been successful in merger and acquisition and he could have moved on as a hero and hired at another great hospital system but instead he risked his career and reputation.”
Levine began sharing his vision of a merged system incorporating both local systems. One of the first businessmen to whom he spoke was Bank of Tennessee Chairman Bill Greene. The initial conversation between the two happened on a North Carolina golf course when Levine told Greene the merged entity would need approval from Tennessee and Virginia through a legal instrument called a COPA.
“I had no idea what that was,” Greene remembers.” He explained it to me and said ‘why don’t we talk about it and get some people together and share some financials and share where both hospitals are and where they are both going?’ I said that was a capital idea. I begin to think that this makes sense.
“He looked at me straight in the eye on that mountain in that golf cart and said, ‘let’s make it happen,’” Greene says. “I knew he was our man.”
Initially, the Wellmont board resisted considering a Mountain States merger. But Levine stayed focused on the benefits to the region while the business community became increasingly engaged. An August 2014 public forum in Kingsport was a turning point. More than 3,000 people showed up to learn more about the logic behind keeping local control of the hospital systems. At the same time, Levine visited the offices of area business leaders, pitching them on the benefits of taking savings from eliminating unnecessary duplication and reinvesting those dollars in the regional economy.
“He had the ability to sit with the business leaders to help them understand that if we were able to eliminate some of this irrational competition and pull that money out and focus it in research and academics, partner and be able to draw down some of those dollars, the difference that it would make for the region,” Allen says.
On Feb. 1, 2018, more than four years after Wellmont started the ball rolling, the Ballad merger was finalized. Today, Levine has very clear ideas about how the merged company’s success should be measured.
“I think, number one, being able to demonstrate that we have got a sustainable financial model is really important. Two, I want to see us make progress with those population health measures. If we can improve third grade reading, if we can improve or reduce the rate of teenagers that are smoking and first time trying drugs, if we can reduce the run rate for obesity among children, if we do those three things alone, think about the impact that is going to have on the next generation.
“So, I really think if in five years we can look back and say all right, we put the infrastructure in place and we got evidence-based initiatives in place, I will see that as a success. And then in ten years when we look back, we should see where we have improved against our peer counties. If we can see that trajectory change over time, I will say that we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”
Entwined with his leadership of Ballad, Levine’s focus for the near future is supporting a burgeoning movement to revitalize regional economic development efforts. Along with a handful of other leaders, including most of the largest employers, Levine is working to create a better way of attracting jobs and investment to the region.
Greene, a longtime proponent of regional economic development, says, “The beautiful part of the heavy lifting that has started now is that the merger has become the hub. It has become the catalyst for the region to come together.”
Bringing together a regional economic development effort will not be an easy task. But then again, neither was creating Ballad. Possessing what Governor Bush’s father once referred to as, “the vision thing” can be as difficult as it is rewarding.
“Sometimes,” Levine says, “when you can see what is coming when others can’t and you have to make decisions to prepare for that, other people may not understand why you are making those decisions, and it is hard.”
But despite the difficulty, Levine’s message of inspiration to JA students could just as well be a message to the region. “Three words: make it happen. You have the capacity to learn. It’s a God-given gift, so make it happen. Learn as much as you can, take that knowledge, and don’t look to make excuses for why you can’t get ahead. Make it happen… when you make it happen, when you work hard to make things happen, you are not alone, part of what I mean by that is the Lord helps people that do help themselves. God doesn’t do for us. God gives us the capacity to go do, and that is the point I make.”
Now more than ever
By Mitch Walters, Chairman, Master of Ceremonies
It has been my pleasure to be involved with Junior Achievement the past few years and it has certainly been an honor and a privilege to serve as master of ceremonies for the 2018 JA Hall of Fame Gala.
Our region is blessed with wonderful examples of America’s Free Enterprise System. Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee have both produced some great examples of people with high hopes and strong visions that truly changed the landscape of our area. The hard work of so many has helped transform our region of abundant natural resources in to an area that combines high tech and hard work and have allowed the Mountain Empire to compete in the global arena.
Alan Levine’s bold leadership and innovation is no exception to the great leadership our region has to offer. He is charting a new course for healthcare in our community and has been recognized nationally and also globally for his efforts.
During the evening of May 2, 2018, Junior Achievement paid tribute to Alan as we learned about his life, his education, his work ethic, his friends, his family and his business associates that helped mold him into the fantastic leader he is today.
The life that Alan has lived and the role model he has become make us all proud to be part of the honor he has received as the 2018 Laureate for the JA Business Hall of Fame.
Now more than ever, it is important to Junior Achievement of the Tri-Cities to allow students to see great examples of individuals like Alan Levine. His ethics, integrity and leadership skills are the traits that will help mold the youth of today into leaders in America’s Free Enterprise System.
The youth of today are our leaders of tomorrow and Junior Achievement certainly helps prepare them for success in the future. Thank you for doing your part Alan and Congratulations!
Where will the vision take us?
By Cathy Salley
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame honoring business leaders who have played a prominent role in our region and present themselves as positive role models for our youth. In everything Junior Achievement does, from raising funds to recruiting volunteers and implementing programs, we remain focused on our goal of impacting and empowering more young people in our region, teaching them real world lessons about financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and work readiness. Every step of the way, we must stress the relevance of education to their daily lives – emphasizing not just business, economics, and entrepreneurship but also citizenship, ethics, character, and life skills.
We are honored to have such an outstanding businessman as Alan Levine as our 2018 Laureate. Mr. Levine epitomizes the spirit of entrepreneurship and free enterprise that Junior Achievement strives to exemplify. Congratulations Alan!
Many thanks to our Hall of Fame sponsors, contributors, volunteers, educators, board members and staff. To the Hall of Fame committee, a special thank you for your time and energy in helping make this year another success. Thank you, Mitch Walters, for the amazing job you did as chair of the event. Thank you to The Business Journal and to Spectrum Reach for their expertise and support in helping share Alan’s life story.
With Alan’s God-given talents, his strong faith, vision, creativity and leadership, plus other outstanding leaders and our remarkable people, we eagerly await what is in store for us and our beautiful region!
Hall of Fame Gala