William Jews faces toughest challenge

MR. FLEXIBILITY TAKES ON THE BLUES

February 21, 1993|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Staff Writer

As a psychiatrist at University of Maryland Medical School in 1977, Ellen McDaniel met an impressive young planner who had just taken a job at the school.

"Keep an eye on him," she recalls telling her husband, John P. McDaniel. "He was bright, competent, and a nice person on top of it all. Any one of three would be typical, but the combination was unusual."

Two years later, Mr. McDaniel hired the young man to help run Lutheran Hospital in Baltimore. It was a good move, says Mr. McDaniel, who now heads the company that owns Washington Hospital Center.

"[He] could quickly assess a problem, be hard-nosed if the situation called for it, or, if it took a little more diplomacy, he was capable of that as well. That flexibility is one of the reasons he became such a success in such a short time."

William L. Jews will need that flexibility -- and more -- to continue his success. The 41-year-old former planner was tapped last week to revive wounded Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland.

Mr. Jews got to the top of the $1.5 billion company by perfecting his analytical and managerial skills, and by building networks with political and business leaders. As he climbed, taking over and rebuilding several troubled hospitals, he never forgot the workers who made them run.

"At the very time he was having face-to-face meetings with the governor, he was also having face-to-face meetings with the people who clean the bathrooms. It was that kind of

management style that endeared him," says friend and former colleague Reed Winston, an internist and vice president for medical affairs at Liberty Medical Center.

Mr. Jews is said to possess a warmth and persuasiveness that may distinguish him from former Blue Cross President Carl J. Sardegna, who was ousted in December after a congressional probe uncovered extravagant executive spending and questionable management. Directors hope his political savvy and business connections will restore the insurer's credibility, and boost its finances -- the company is profitable, but its reserves have been declining.

Still, Mr. Jews confronts a troubled insurer five times bigger than Dimensions Health Corp., the Landover company he now heads. He must juggle two jobs -- chief executive as well as chief operating officer -- though he lacks the financial background common to peers at other insurers. And he is likely to face new state regulations designed to increase oversight of the company.

Mr. Jews was noncommittal about his new job last week, saying he refused to "speculate about the future after 10 minutes on the job." And he has told his new bosses that he won't start until April 1 -- a decision that means no media interviews, no directors meetings and no shuttling between two companies.

A workaholic

A commanding 6-foot-7, Mr. Jews grew up on the Eastern Shore, the son of a teacher and barber-carpenter, and studied his way into the Johns Hopkins University. A workaholic whose office staff guards his time, Mr. Jews is in some ways an enigma: well-known and highly regarded in the business and political community, but reticent or vague in situations he hasn't mastered.

But don't be fooled. Colleagues say one of his strengths is the ability to size up a situation, establish a plan and stay focused. "I tend to have a plan for everything I do," he said in an interview last March.

He is "very assured, inspires confidence, thinks things out -- he is very, very thorough, which is exactly the kind of thing you need if you are looking at the long-term shape of an institution and, in his case, dramatically changing an institution," says Goldseker Foundation President Timothy Armbruster.

Mr. Jews already is credited with overseeing two difficult situations -- the merger of two Baltimore hospitals and the turnaround of the Prince George's County medical system.

He was criticized by many in Baltimore's black community when, as president of Lutheran, he took over the former Provident Hospital, a community cornerstone that was under court order to merge or close. The receiver was George Russell, a lawyer now (( on the Blue Cross board.

"His idea was not a bad idea," recalls Moises Fraiman, the former Lutheran chief of surgery who is now in private practice, "but I couldn't see it because there were problems related to [merging the] personalities of the hospitals."

Many doctors and patients left, but Dr. Fraiman credits Mr. Jews with working well with doctors, and says, "He was tight with the money."

Under Mr. Jews, the successor Liberty Medical Center earned $2.8 million two years after the merger, its best year. But profits have been flat, at about $500,000, for the past three years, and Liberty continues to be troubled by high costs. "The final chapter on this is not written," says John Colmers, executive director of the Maryland Health Services Cost Review Commission.

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