By Chuck Lauer
In November 1989, one of the greatest leaders of the healthcare industry died quite unexpectedly from a heart attack.
His name was Karl Bays and at the time of his death, he was considered to be not only a brilliant leader, but probably the greatest sales person the healthcare industry had ever witnessed.
Even today when his name is mentioned, many individuals currently in or retired from the industry can tell you stories about Karl which not only capture people's imagination, but are so uplifting and motivational that you cannot help but be moved by what he accomplished in such a short period of time.
For instance, when Bays was tapped as the chief executive officer of the American Hospital Supply Company at 37 years of age, that organization's sales were in the $500 million range. Within 15 years under his guidance and innovative style, sales reached the $3.5 billion range. American Hospital Supply dominated the supply industry and most of the reason it did was because of Bay's creative leadership and drive and seemingly boundless energy.
He was a one-man gang leading a talented bunch of people who followed his example and concentrated on giving the customers what they wanted and needed to take care of patients. It was a simple formula for success and Bays made sure everyone followed the rules which he knew would succeed.
Couple this with the fact that Bays understood that as the leader of AHS, he had to get to know on a first-name basis just about every CEO that would see him! He never stopped and he made it a point to always-but-always be at the point of sale. That was the difference between Bays and so many other vendor executives. He loved sales, he loved people, he loved healthcare and he loved his country!
Bays was born and raised in the coal-mining region of southeastern Kentucky. He earned a football scholarship to Eastern Kentucky University and then after graduating, joined the United States Marine Corp for two years before he got his MBA from Indiana University in 1958. He was the first one in his family to earn a college degree. He started his sales career in Kentucky with American Hospital Supply Company and then 13 years later, was named the CEO.
He was a big man with bright red hair and no matter where you went or what healthcare meeting you attended, there was Karl Bays, shaking hands, smiling and entertaining clients, and always-but-always selling his company's products. In the early '80s, I had the pleasure of meeting Karl Bays in his office in Evanston, IL.
His admin was kind enough to greet me and seat me in his office while he was attending a meeting elsewhere in the building. As I walked around his office looking at his momentos and pictures, I noticed plaque on the wall prominently displayed with these words in large letters,"Spectators will kindly remove themselves from the Playing Field!"
I have never forgotten those words and to this day I tell people about my visit to Bays' office and that plaque. What a great piece of philosophy that is! Who wants to be a spectator and miss so much in this wonderful world we live in? If you are in the business of healthcare today, it is essential you come down out of the bleachers and get on the field of play or your organization is doomed for failure!
In his career, Bays was accorded all sorts of honors and awards, but in a column I wrote shortly after his death I mentioned that the one honor he took such great pride in was the Horatio Alger Award he received. He had been preceeded by such great leaders as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, J.C. Penney and Chuck Yeager. And as you think about it, his receiving that award was the fulfillment of an American dream.
Then in 1985, American Hospital Supply, which had planned to merge with the Hospital Corp. of America, agreed to be acquired by Baxter Travenol Laboratories for $3.8 billion in cash and securities. Bays was named chairman of the new conglomerate and lasted in that position for two years, but in my considered opinion he was never happy in that role.
Later, he would become the chairman of the Whitman Corp., formerly known as IC Industries and, of course, brought his own brand of leadership to that company. When Karl died at 55 of a heart attack, he had accomplished just about everything any man could have wished for in his life. After only a few years, some leaders are often forgotten but Karl Bays' memory still lives in the hearts of so many former colleagues and friends to this day.
He was a man for all ages because his memory and his legacy to healthcare is something that is still so inspirational to so many of us. He was special as an individual who came from the rural hill country and through hard work and ingenuity, succeeded in becoming one of the great leaders in healthcare with his charisma, hard work and love of people!
What I find unfortunate in today's healthcare enviornment is the lack of leaders like Karl Bays. He was special and he could bridge the gap between academia and the real world of healthcare. He wasn't a pretender. He was a visionary who understood this industry as well as any individual I have ever met in healthcare.
His whole being was directed to taking care of the customer, whether it be a provider or a patient or any other entity directed to patient care. He was a man for all seasons and reasons because he understood in his own mind what a honor it was to have customers and to be able to satisfy their needs.
If he were alive today, I believe Karl Bays would take all that is happening in healthcare and turn it into a spectacular opportunity to do a better job of selling products that improve patient care and provide opportunities in the industry.
I guarantee you that the golden years of healthcare are ahead of us and Karl Bays would be right in the middle of it telling all those who would listen that spectators would do well to get off the field because the future needs leaders who will see opportunity where others fear to tread.
That, my friends, is what leadership is all about! Karl Bays definitely didn't sit on the sidelines, he loved to be in the action and we need more leaders who do.