When you were around Mark McKenna, you wanted to be better

Mark McKenna raised the bar. He was the type of guy who, when you were around him, made you want to be better – a better professional and a better person, according to those who knew him. He was a gentle man; a giving person; and someone with a dry sense of humor who never, ever used it against anyone. He was described as honest as the day is long, authentic and self-effacing. And he always saw the best in people.

A native of Massachusetts, McKenna loved his family and golf. In fact, he brought the two together in a “business venture” with his young daughter Katherine, and the family dog, Bailey. The venture, called MKB Inc., specialized in retrieval and resale of lost golf balls. “Make their loss your birdie,” was the motto.
McKenna, supplier executive and president of Novation from 1999 to 2006, died in October at the age of 62. He is survived by his daughter and his wife of 38 years, Mary Sue.

Sales rep
Born on Halloween in 1948, McKenna was raised in Concord, Mass., and graduated from Boston College with a degree in business administration. After a short stint in the National Guard, he got a job as an insurance claims adjuster, then became a textbook salesman for Prentice-Hall. Two years later, he took his first medical sales job, calling on Boston-area hospitals for Johnson & Johnson Patient Care Division (later, Johnson & Johnson Medical Inc.).

Three years later, McKenna became a sales rep for American Hospital Supply Corp.’s McGaw IV division, ultimately becoming involved in product management. After four years with American, he left, to join IMED Corp., San Diego (later, ALARIS Medical Systems), a manufacturer of electronic flow control devices whose products were distributed by American. He was senior product manager, then marketing director, with responsibility for all product lines and clinical support services.

After the company was purchased by Warner-Lambert, McKenna decided to leave. He had two options: join a startup medical device company in Boston, or make a jump to the provider side and join VHA in the Dallas area. For personal reasons, he chose the latter.

Group purchasing career
In 1978, VHA Supply Company was in its infancy. Most of the people who worked there were from the provider side. McKenna was an exception. His mission was to manage the med/surg contracting business and to advance VHA’s private-label program, VHAPLUS® (now NOVAPLUS®).

In a 2006 conversation with the Journal of Healthcare Contracting, he recalled his early work with member advisory councils at VHA. “We started looking at products that up to that point in time had not been contracted for by group purchasing. It was the very, very beginning of clinician preference.” One of his first assignments was to pursue an agreement for transducers, something no other group had done.

In 1997, McKenna was named part of a team working on a joint venture purchasing program with University HealthSystem Consortium. He was tailor-made for the assignment.

“He was the guy who spearheaded it, and it was difficult,” says Jody Hatcher, president of Novation, who first reported to McKenna as marketing director in 1996. “We had two different organizations with different cultures and approaches to running their businesses, and Mark brought them together.” Novation, the contracting company for VHA and UHC, was launched January 1998.

McKenna was not selected as Novation’s first president; the board felt that someone from outside VHA and UHC would be best suited for the position. But when the position became open the next year, McKenna was the hands-down choice.

“A real strength of Mark’s was the ability to deal with ambiguity,” says Hatcher, recalling McKenna’s work during the creation of Novation. “He didn’t know what, if any, role he would have [in the new company]. Despite the uncertainty, he was a shining light for all those who had to contribute to put the company together. And it was very complicated, both culturally and materially – systems, processes, people. He led by example. He was truly selfless.

“Mark worked very hard to make sure [the new contracting company] was as collaborative as possible, and that the people at Novation respected both UHC and VHA,” adds Larry Dooley, who joined VHA Supply Company in 1990, and who directly or indirectly worked for McKenna for 14 years. “Whatever change the owners wanted, once agreed to, Mark made sure everybody in the organization was supportive and for the right reasons. He made sure everyone understood the value of doing it.”

His collaborative skills served Novation and the group purchasing industry well throughout his career, he adds. “Being a GPO calls for a collaborative responsibility. Mark worked very hard to make sure everyone understood the value proposition. He always took time to talk to vendors and members. He generated a lot of respect.”

McKenna was funny, serious and passionate, says Dooley. “But most important, he cared about people. He knew everybody at Novation – by their name, their family.” Ask anyone at Novation and they can probably share a story of how McKenna reached out to them either when they joined the company, or when they experienced personal or family tragedies, or just in the day-to-day work environment, Dooley says. And when he retired in 2006, he opted for a quiet reception rather than a blow-out affair, so he would have time to talk to colleagues and say his good-byes.

“Mark was very authentic and very selfless,” adds Hatcher. “If you look at his leadership style and the way he carried himself, you always knew where he stood – very high integrity and authentic leadership.”

Pushed himself to the limit
“One of my first impressions of Mark was really comical,” says Bill Elliott, executive vice president, business development, SpecialtyCare, a clinical outsourcing firm in Nashville, Tenn. Elliott was senior vice president of operations for VHA when McKenna joined VHA. (Elliott later became president of VHA Supply.). Following a morning running event at the organization’s Leadership Conference, Elliott found McKenna losing his breakfast in some bushes. “I barely knew him,” says Elliott. “But I went over and asked him if he was praying. That showed his competitive nature. He pushed himself to the limit. That was one of his characteristics – he put a lot into everything he did.

“Mark took what he did seriously, but he didn’t take himself seriously at all,” adds Elliott. “He found humor in everything. He had a clever, dry sense of humor, but it was always inward-pointed. I never, ever remember Mark making fun of anyone else. He was very funny, and he always did it in such a way that made you feel good about it.”

It was Elliott who promoted McKenna to vice president of marketing for VHA Supply. “Mark had an extraordinarily strong business mind,” says Elliott, who recalls among McKenna’s accomplishments at VHA the creation of its Opportunity committed-purchasing program and the growth of its private label program. “He was great at finding value for all parties in a deal – the healthcare organization, the supplier and, for that matter, the company he worked for – VHA at the time, then Novation.

“Some people are win/lose; they don’t look at all sides of the equation. Mark was great at being balanced. I think it came from his heart being so good.”

Congressional scrutiny
The fact that McKenna came from the supplier side probably helped him maintain that balance, according to those with whom JHC spoke.
“Mark was always the real professional, who would take the time to explain to you why you didn’t get everything you wanted,” says Christopher Fashek, a veteran in medical products manufacturing. Fashek first met McKenna when the former was president of KCI USA. “He empathized with manufacturer reps and what they went through and what they were trying to accomplish, because he was a manufacturer himself for many years.

“He’d always answer the phone. He was the real deal, the ‘real deal’ being someone who’s honest, humble, fun and someone you wanted to be around.”

But McKenna wasn’t just a leader at VHA and Novation, says Fashek. “He was also a statesman in the industry. He always had a kind word for competitors and innovators. And he understood that getting it right for the patient was doing the right thing for the hospital, the clinician, the GPO and the manufacturer.

He never lost sight of the fact that it took all the players to make the supply chain work. Frankly, he was a very unique guy who could do that.”

McKenna’s statesmanship was tested during the early 2000s, when the group purchasing industry came under intense heat from Congress for alleged anticompetitive behavior. “It really bothered him deep down,” says Hatcher, referring to the scrutiny as well as the testimony that McKenna himself had to give. “Politics can be a bit of a façade,” and that violated McKenna’s penchant for authenticity. “But he soldiered through it.”

In fact, McKenna was philosophical about the whole thing. Speaking to JHC in 2006, he said that the hearings “made us take a hard look at who we are and how we could do better.

“And it was probably overdue,” he said. “Most industries are very competitive in the way they operate. We were pretty insular. We perhaps didn’t realize how big this industry had become. Once you reach this size, though, you’ll get somebody’s attention.”

Adds Dooley, “He realized change had to come, and I think he saw that the GPO industry wasn’t well prepared to deal with it.”

Under McKenna’s direction, Novation in August 2002 implemented new operating principles designed to ensure that medical suppliers had broad access to VHA and UHC member hospitals. The principles followed by two months the creation of an industry Code of Conduct by the Health Industry Group Purchasing Association (now the Healthcare Supply Chain Association). “Our new operating principles preserve the many benefits of group purchasing to hospitals while ensuring an open, fair marketplace for vendors and addressing the concerns of the senators,” McKenna was quoted as saying at the time.
He went on to become a board member and then the 2003-2004 chairman of HIGPA. In 2004, he was a founding member of the Health Sector Supply Chain Resource Consortium at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Today, the Annual Mark McKenna Lecture in Health Sector Supply Chain brings individuals who have improved health sector supply chain management to speak at Arizona State University.

Following his retirement from Novation in 2006, McKenna stayed active in the industry, serving on the boards of several companies, including the Beryl Companies, Suture Express, Sterilmed and Life Nexus.

‘Reached out to everyone’
He also stayed active in many community-based projects. He was, for example, on the board of trustees of the University of Dallas. He was actively involved in the Christ the King Council for St. Vincent de Paul and supported Ursuline Academy of Dallas, a four-year college prep school for girls, through the Dad’s Club and work on the Development Committee. He was very involved in the Gladney Center for Adoption in Fort Worth, on whose board his wife, Mary Sue, sits.

“If you could model yourself to be a good guy – and successful too, it would be around a guy like Mark McKenna,” says Fashek.

“One of the great things about Mark was that he reached out to everyone at every level,” says Elliott. “Everyone he touched was better for his example and his caring. Just being with him, Mark made me want to be a better man – a better husband, better father and a better businessman.

“He was the ultimate gentleman. His priorities were clearly his family, his faith, and the people he interfaced with every day. He lived his life the way a man should live.”