Ron Hulscher is on the verge of retiring. Probably.
“I was always on the five-year plan. When anyone asks you if you’re going to retire, you say, ‘five years.’ When I went to Mark Reed, it went to three years,” he said with a laugh.
“It’s probably still three years away,” quipped his wife, Sherry.
The former chief financial officer of the Mark Reed Health Care District oversaw a dramatic turnaround from a district where employees worried on Friday whether the doors would be open on Monday, to one that built a brand new hospital that opened last month.
On March 7, he was honored with the Puget Sound Business Journal’s first “CFO Leadership Award,” recognizing his exceptional career exemplifying the best of leadership and stewardship beyond day-to-day CFO job duties.
He retired as CFO in December of last year, but still works a few days a week in the finance office, now housed in Summit Pacific Medical Center.
Back to work
Hulscher was “happily retired” until a friend asked him to help out with the finances at Curry General Hospital in Gold Beach, Ore. Just for three months, Hulscher recalls with a laugh.
The work actually took five, a challenge when Gold Beach is more than 440 miles from Aberdeen.
“You don’t just come home for the weekend,” he said.
But it seems Hulscher hasn’t been able to say no to helping hospitals. The Tacoma native has spent more than 38 years in hospital finance, starting with the old St. Joseph Hospital in Aberdeen, now Grays Harbor Community Hospital’s East Campus.
After graduating from Saint Martin’s College (now University), Hulscher took some time to find his niche. He spent nearly a year and a half in finance for the Washington State Patrol, then spent a year in the Army, ending up in Aberdeen, Md.
Then a job as an accountant opened up at the Weyerhaeuser Co. mill in Cosmopolis.
“So we moved from Aberdeen, Md. to Aberdeen, Wash.,” Hulscher said.
It wasn’t immediately clear it would be a home to him and his family.
“At that time, Aberdeen seemed like the end of the world. It was dark and dingy and the wind blew all the time,” he said with a laugh.
“I really benefitted from my work at Weyerhaeuser. I spent four years in the accounting office working with experienced accountants. That’s what I needed … I was a greenhorn,” Hulscher said. “To me the amusing part of that job was at the end of the month, I was supposed to tell them how many board feet was in the log yard, before computers or anything.”
After six years there, Hulscher was laid off. He spent a few years at Rayonier before taking a job in 1969 at St. Joseph, then run by the Dominican Sisters. Despite the ups and downs, he hasn’t worked outside the health care industry since.
“I liked the work. In that work, you have the work and you’re serving the mission. If you’re doing a good job, you’re enabling the hospital to continue providing better services to the public,” Hulscher said. “There are pressures, but the people are very nice (and) health care finance is probably the most complex finance field you can get. That’s what kept me in it.”
Hulscher moved up to the CFO position about a year after starting at St. Joseph.
“You have to be in the right place in the right time,” he said, modestly noting he started as an interim for someone with health problems.
He remained at the financial helm through the buyout by Providence, through the eventual closure in 1989. He stayed on for another five months closing up the office and settling accounts.
“That was difficult, but you have to move on. You can’t dwell on the past,” he said with a shrug.
And move on he did, serving as CFO of Providence Centralia for 14 years before his job was eliminated in restructuring. Again, he dusted himself off and helped out as interim CFO for Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, where he would retire. The first time.
After getting recruited to help out in Gold Beach, he was asked to help with a financial assessment for the Mark Reed Health Care District.
“Mark Reed was in such dire straits financially, and really lacking an experienced, knowledgeable person in finance. I said, ‘Well, I volunteer places, I’ll volunteer a few days a week,’ ” he recalled, chuckling.
It quickly became obvious the district needed more than a volunteer, and he stepped in as CFO in 2008. The new CEO, Renee Jensen, had big ideas but needed some backup.
“I told Renee I’d work until we broke ground on this new hospital,” Hulscher said.
Mark Reed to Summit Pacific
Things started to turn around when the district began to shift its focus. It had already tried and failed to run a property tax levy to fund a new hospital to replace the McCleary facility built in 1956.
“Instead of putting out another levy request, the hospital started addressing … what can the hospital do to do a better job providing what the community wants?” Hulscher said.
“The service rendered was good in McCleary, but it was a 55-year-old building that was not built for current health services and standards,” he added.
It took three years, but eventually the district’s financial situation solidified enough to work toward a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan. It took a full year to get all the paperwork, plans and applications in order, but the district earned the $21.1 million loan and began work on Summit Pacific Medical Center in Elma.
The district broke ground in September 2011, but Hulscher stayed on more than a year after that. He’s still helping at the hospital in various capacities, on the board and in the finance department, and stood beside Jensen as she cut the ribbon on Summit Pacific Jan. 25.
Hulscher credited Jensen for the transformation, while Jensen praised Hulscher’s contribution.
“Renee Jensen is a big part of why the hospital turned around,” Hulscher said.
Jensen called Hulscher an “unsung hero” both in his work and community contributions. She said he was an invaluable partner she could trust to keep the finances in order.
“I couldn’t have done it without him,” she said. “He was a pleasure to work with. ... Just an incredibly kind and generous human being. I’m incredible honored we’re able to celebrate his career and just say thank you.”
Asked about the transformation from a district with next to no cash on hand to one that carries nearly two months worth of funds, allowing the employees to finally feel secure, Hulscher only has a proud smile.
“It’s very nice,” he said, but adds that the hospital can’t feel totally secure while it still has many obligations like training and new equipment to pay for.
“We do have to operate prudently because we’ve got to make payments on the loan,” Hulscher said.
“I used the word miracle,” Sherry, Ron’s wife, said of the new hospital. “I saw the plans on paper, but from being in the old building to the ribbon-cutting — it was like a miracle.”
Between the two of them, Ron and Sherry Hulscher have eight children — they don’t care to distinguish.
Their families have been combined for nearly fifteen years. Ron’s first wife, Mary Jo, died June 4, 1997, from an aggressive lung cancer. She never smoked.
“It was awful,” Sherry said. The two had been good friends for many years. Sherry described her as “a very beloved lady.”
Months after Mary Jo’s funeral, Ron discovered she had wanted to have balloons released. So they arranged a small gathering around her grave to celebrate her once more.
“We went to the gravesite and everyone had a balloon, and this was to be a letting go event,” Ron explained.
They day was only partly cloudy — unusual enough for October on the Harbor — but then someone noticed an odd rainbow around the sun. It looked like a halo, they said.
“That was pretty amazing to be there letting someone go and moving on in our lives and here’s this halo,” Ron said.
About a year after Mary Jo’s death, Ron was ready to settle down again. Sherry said she got a call Ron claims not to remember.
“He said, “I plan to marry again, would you like to go to dinner?’ ” she recalled, laughing.
“The first time around I was so shy,” he said with a smile, as if by way of explanation.
Though they come from different professional backgrounds — Sherry was a teacher and musician — the two share a passion for theater.
“I’ve been in a few plays,” he said with a sly smile.
His first was in 1976, in a production of “1776.” He’s also participated in the now-defunct variety show Raindrop Revue and several plays with Sherry. In “A Bad Year for Tomatoes,” he played an unwashed woodsman who fell in love with her character. He grew out his hair for the part.
“When I started at Mark Reed, I had a pony tail,” he recalled.
“He’s great. He’s great in character parts,” Sherry said.
In “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” he played a cold, haughty character, apparently quite convincingly.
“I heard one person say, ‘Ron Hulscher is really a snob,’ ” Sherry said with a laugh.
Ron said he still enjoys plays, but isn’t sure how many will come along with parts he’s right for.
“Most likely my future plays will be a small part in the background where I don’t outshine the stars,” he joked.
More than 350 people gathered at Seattle’s Grand Hyatt Hotel for the Puget Sound Business Journal’s “CFO of the Year” awards March 7. Fourteen business leaders in various categories were honored, and Hulscher took home the first-ever leadership award.
“It affected me more than I thought,” Hulscher said.
“It was so moving. I was really proud,” Sherry said of the black-tie event. “‘I’ve been to hospital things with Ron before but not general business.”
Many of the honorees were asked to share their wisdom on running a successful organization. To Hulscher, success has always come from the talented, hardworking people around him.
“You need to know your business, you have to find the right people,” he said.
At Summit Pacific, he said, it hasn’t always been easy to hold out for the perfect fit, but the payoff is well worth the struggle.
“You might have to wait six months and do without someone. But then you work with them and you have a shared vision. In essence, you hire good people and you let them do their job,” Hulscher said.