The Red River Flood of 2009 forced Dr. Roger Gilbertson ’59 into uncharted waters. Kelby Krabbenhoft ’80 came to his aid. Unexpectedly united in crisis, the leaders of two health care giants have joined forces permanently.
When Gilbertson decided to evacuate his Fargo MeritCare Hospital patients as a precautionary measure, Krabbenhoft offered care at his Sanford Health facility in Sioux Falls, S.D.
In November 2009, just six months after the flood, Gilbertson and Krabbenhoft announced the merger of their organizations to create the largest nonprofit rural health care provider in the U.S.
“It’s been a thrill to work with somebody who has seen it all as a practicing physician and now as an architect of health care integration for this part of the country,” says Krabbenhoft, who now leads the merged organization – Sanford Health-MeritCare – as president and CEO. “Roger leaves a legacy of trust and dependability, and a path of dignity and ethics that will endure throughout the future of our organization.”
Gilbertson has devoted nearly 50 years to medicine as a physician and executive leader. He had served as founding president and CEO of MeritCare since 1993, when he oversaw the merger of St. Luke’s Hospital and Fargo Clinic. Gilbertson says Krabbenhoft is ideally suited to take the reins of Sanford Health-MeritCare.
“Kelby is head and shoulders the best person I could think of to lead this organization,” says Gilbertson, who retires as president emeritus. “He is a visionary and a driver who is reliable under fire and adversity.”
With 26 years of executive leadership experience, including 13 years as president and CEO of Sanford Health, Krabbehnoft is more than familiar with the pressure facing health care executives across the country. The merger he leads comes in the midst of renewed conversation and debate about national health care reform. Ever-growing concerns about the cost, delivery and accessibility of quality health care, especially in the current economic environment, create complexities for leaders to navigate.
“This isn’t going to be a cakewalk,” says Gilbertson. “Creating and sustaining a seamless system of care delivery is going to have many challenges to it.”
Krabbenhoft sees strength in growing numbers to address those challenges. According to the Health Care Advisory Board, Sanford Health-MeritCare is now the “largest, not-for-profit rural health care provider in the nation” with 17,400 employees serving 43 communities in six states – North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
“Our ability to coordinate and communicate on a broader and larger platform because of our size will be helpful in ensuring that people get the best care possible for the lowest possible price,” says Krabbenhoft.
The ability to lead on such a grand scale is largely attributed to the educational experience Krabbenhoft and Gilbertson enjoyed at Concordia during their respective eras. It helps to explain why they have so much in common.
“Our experience with athletic teams at Concordia taught us a lot about leadership development and teamwork,” says Krabbenhoft, a former star basketball player for the Cobbers. “The academic challenge was also there for us, as well as the commitment of Concordia faculty to its students’ best interests. And I think Roger and I share the ethical and spiritual values for which Concordia College is known.”
Gilbertson, who has been honored with an Alumni Achievement Award and named to the Athletic Hall of Fame in football, echoes Krabbenhoft’s assertions and adds that Concordia was a “confidence builder” that taught him how to compete and collaborate.
Even as Gilbertson enters retirement, he meets regularly with Krabbenhoft to ensure a smooth organizational transition. Having orchestrated his share of transformational change throughout a storied career, Gilbertson admits he envies the “phenomenal opportunity” Krabbenhoft now enjoys.
His parting advice is consistent with what Shakespeare’s counsel would likely be.
“Be true to yourself,” Gilbertson says. “It’s important to listen to people and gather as much information and advice as you can, but you have to rely on your experience and own intuitive sense.”
Story: Roger E. Degerman / Photos: Submitted