Rick Cooper, HBJ Executive of the Year

  • By Amy Watkins HBJ Freelance Writer
  • Tuesday, April 30, 2013 10:28am

EVERETT — Bottles of hot sauce sit on shelves inside Rick Cooper’s office at The Everett Clinic.

The glass bottles with his likeness on the label don’t hold a condiment for this chief executive officer’s lunch hour. Instead they’re a reminder of how staff at The Everett Clinic works together to make the patient experience the best it can be.

“The thing I really appreciate is our drive to always improve as part of our culture,” said Cooper, 62. “The secret sauce is we’re never really satisfied in this whole business of providing great care for patients… It’s not a destination; it’s a journey because we can always improve.”

It’s Cooper’s immense drive and passion for improving health care as well as his work in his community that has led him to be named The Herald Business Journal’s 2013 Executive of the Year. He will receive the honor at Economic Alliance Snohomish County’s annual meeting May 23 at the Lynnwood Convention Center.

“I certainly appreciate the recognition but the work we do here is a function of teams of people and I get an awful lot of satisfaction through the success of others I work with,” Cooper said. “I’m kind of like a coach in a certain way.”

Cooper thought he’d be at The Everett Clinic for about three years when in 1977 he accepted a position as an assistant administrator. The native of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., had been introduced years earlier to Washington by his wife, Robin Hilton, who grew up in north Everett. The couple met while in graduate school at the University of Michigan and married in November 1976.

The Everett Clinic had a wonderful reputation even then, Cooper said. With his master’s degree in hospital administration, he saw the position and the chance to be mentored by the clinic’s first administrative manager, Stan Hager, as wonderful opportunities.

“(Stan Hager) was instrumental in not only giving me an opportunity to work here but he was one of the most creative, innovative people I’ve ever met,” Cooper said. “He believed in giving me a lot of rope and guidance and so I benefitted from that.”

Cooper can recall taking 40 hours to interview and meeting all of the physicians at the clinic before he was offered the position. His first day on the job, The Everett Clinic had around 30 physicians and 75 employees, he said.

One of Cooper’s first projects was opening up a branch clinic in Marysville. That work was completed and in 1981 the doors to the clinic’s first satellite facility opened. The Everett Clinic continued to expand in Snohomish County, opening the Lake Serene (now Harbour Pointe) facility in Mukilteo and other branches in Lake Stevens, Mill Creek, Silver Lake, Smokey Point, Snohomish and Stanwood.

The Everett Clinic now offers 450 medical providers and cares for 300,000 patients. Growth in Snohomish County has fueled the clinic’s expansion while patients have offered feedback on what they needed from their health-care providers. Patient surveys over the years have led to more convenient provider locations for those who used to travel into Everett for health-care services, choices between male or female health-care providers and the establishment of walk-in clinics.

“We have made significant investment over the years to bring our services to different parts of the county,” Cooper said.

Cooper was 35 when in 1985 he accepted the CEO position at The Everett Clinic.

“I was fortunate to be selected,” he said. “It was a smaller organization (then) but with all kinds of potential for growth and I was really keen about being part of a physician-led health care system.”

He said his CEO role at The Everett Clinic changes every three or four years in part because of the growth and in part because of changes in health care. The Everett Clinic has been impacted by the economy, health-care reform at the federal and state levels, the cost of health care and consolidation in the industry.

“When you define an independent group of a minimum of 350 physicians there’s only 20 of us (in the country),” Cooper said. “I’m very proud of that and what I’m really proud of is our sustained performance over an extended period of time.”

The clinic is playing its part in making health care more affordable by reducing the overall cost of health-care spending 25 percent by 2016 while improving patient health outcomes. That means reducing the cost for patients and making the business of The Everett Clinic less expensive.

“That’s our North Star,” Cooper said. “So part of it is to understand what our current costs are and part of it is to understand what the costs are in our market and what our competitors’ costs are.”

The Everett Clinic participated in a project with the Boeing Co. to help improve the health and reduce the cost of care for a population that generates the most increase in cost over time. During the 2-1/2-year pilot program, 740 non-Medicare Boeing patients were enrolled. The patients were part of creating care plans that included ongoing outreach by a nurse, education in self-management of chronic conditions and care coordination by a multidisciplinary care team with a nurse-care manager and a supervising physician.

The program resulted in a 20 percent reduction in the cost of care for the patients by the time the pilot ended in 2009.

“We were really proud because we demonstrated how health improved for this targeted five to 10 percent of the population,” Cooper said.

The pilot program is just one example of how The Everett Clinic has worked to reduce the cost of health care, Cooper added. The goal to reduce overall cost by 25 percent is supported by the clinic’s guiding principles. These include doing what’s right for the patient, providing an enriching and supportive work place and adding value for patients and customers.

“When you think about those guiding principles, it kind of leads you to understand why we would want to reduce cost by 25 percent and why want to be a best workplace and why we want to improve patient experience,” Cooper said.

Under Cooper’s leadership, The Everett Clinic for three consecutive years has been named a Top 100 Company to Work For by Fortune Magazine. It has also been named a Best Place to Work in Healthcare by Becker’s Hospital Review, the No. 1 Large Company to Work For by Seattle Business Magazine and Employer of the Year by the Everett Area Chamber of Commerce.

Al Fisk, chief medical officer at The Everett Clinic, has worked with Cooper for the past 27 years. During that time, Cooper has been a mentor and friend, he said.

“Rick is a very effective CEO and an inspirational leader,” Fisk said. “I think he is smart, asks good questions and is very good at building relationships, which has served him and The Everett Clinic very well. We’re lucky to have him for so long.”

Cooper has earned his reputation as an effective CEO. He received the 2012 Outstanding Health Care Executive of the Year award by Seattle Business Magazine, was named Executive of the Year by the Everett Area Chamber of Commerce and was a finalist for Ernst &Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year.

By virtue of his CEO position, Cooper said he also spends a significant amount of time in the community and gets involved in different professional organizations. He serves as chairman of the Economic Alliance of Snohomish County and as a member of the Tocqueville Society that focuses on philanthropic leadership and giving. He is a past chairman of the American Medical Group Association and former president of the Washington State Medical Group Management Association.

When Cooper has any time to spare, he spends it with Robin, his wife of 36 years, and their two adult sons, Patrick and Benjamin.

“I’m very proud of my children and I have a wonderful family,” he said.

Cooper is also proud that The Everett Clinic has a national brand and reputation as well as demonstrated accomplishments. The fact the clinic consistently gives back to its community has also received recognition, he added. The Everett Clinic Foundation in April was named a Top Corporate Philanthropist in Washington state for the third year in a row by the Puget Sound Business Journal.

All the success is a function of the clinic’s staff and board members, Cooper said.

“The Everett Clinic is a really a nice place to be,” he said. “I’ve just had a role in helping create it because we have great people here. I have passion obviously and I still have a lot of fun. I’m going to stick around for a while.”