Alumnus and veteran appointed CEO of Oakleaf Surgical Hospital

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Portrait of Henry Ford College alumnus Jim Nemeth.

In late July, 2-time HFC alumnus Jim Nemeth became the CEO of OakLeaf Surgical Hospital in Altoona, WI.

Nemeth, who recently moved to Eau Claire, WI but still has a home in Highland, has 40 years of experience in the healthcare field. He spent 15 years as a nurse clinician and 25 years in leadership roles.

“I serve at the pleasure of the Board of Directors and the managing partners,” said Nemeth. “I’m responsible for hospital operations.”

Plans to expand OakLeaf

OakLeaf was founded in 2001 by a group of independent physicians. It is a private hospital designed exclusively to meet patients’ surgical needs. Its mission is to deliver high-quality surgical and healthcare services in a patient-friendly and family-friendly environment.

“Jim is a tremendous addition to our leadership team. He has a visionary approach to strengthening staff, physician, and patient engagement, as well as a passion for operational excellence,” said Dr. Thomas Peller of OakLeaf’s Board of Directors.

Nemeth spoke about his plans for OakLeaf, including plans for expansion.

“I plan to work with our partners, medical staff, executive team, and governing board to grow OakLeaf. You’re not seeing a lot of that in healthcare right now – for good reasons,” he said. “In the post-COVID environment, some healthcare systems have the capacity to grow. OakLeaf is one of those systems. I’ve overseen many service lines and construction projects. Oakleaf is in a well-financed position to build and grow.”

A coin flip leads to joining the Army and becoming a combat medic

Born in Dearborn, Nemeth is the youngest of two sons. His brother Ernest is also a graduate of HFC. Nemeth has been married to Patricia for 30 years. They have three adult children.

Nemeth attended Robichaud High School in Dearborn Heights, but dropped out at 16 to enlist in the U.S. Army.

“We had to help our parents with finances. Our dad got sick and was out of work. We were struggling. My brother and I flipped a coin. Whoever gets heads goes to college; whoever gets tails goes to the military. I got tails,” recalled Nemeth, who eventually earned his GED.

Nemeth served in the Army for two years and became a combat medic. Afterward, he served in the reserves for 28 years. He was honorably discharged in 2011, rising to the rank of captain.

“About 10 years ago at Christmas, I was telling my kids about that coin toss. My brother leaned in and whispered, ‘It was heads! Always look at the coin after it’s tossed!’” recalled Nemeth, laughing.

Military experience helped him adapt to HFC’s Nursing program

After his honorable discharge from the Army, Nemeth became an ER technician at what is now DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital. He worked with veteran healthcare workers in an era before CTs and MRIs were commonplace.

“There was an art in seeing these senior clinicians in action. I fell in love with the idea of working with those physicians and nurses,” said Nemeth. “I didn’t have the resources to afford medical school. I decided to go to nursing school.”

Nemeth enrolled at HFC (then Henry Ford Community College) and was accepted into its renowned Nursing program.

“I went to HFC because it was affordable and always had a great reputation. It had great instructors and a great atmosphere,” said Nemeth, who added tongue-in-cheek: “Unless you spent all your time in the Pagoda Room playing euchre, you could do very well.”

When Nemeth was in the Nursing program, it was under the leadership of Genevieve Czarnecki, Director of Nursing rom 1965-98.

“I had been a clinician for quite some time at that point,” he said. “Czarnecki ran a tight ship. We achieved the best outcomes on the state board exams. For me, it was easy to acclimate to the program because I had been in the military and had that discipline.”

Nemeth earned an associate degree in nursing and an associate degree in fine arts from HFC. During his time at the College, he was also involved in the Theatre program.

“Jim hand-built the chainmail and leather and metal armor and weapons for my 1991 production of Macbeth at the College. It took him a year and a half! He must have built 100 pieces,” recalled retired HFC theatre instructor Dr. George Popovich. “He was an exquisite craftsperson and artist. He was also a student in the Theatre program and really excelled at improv. Jim is a kind and empathetic person and an excellent listener. I am elated at his success!”

Becoming a leader in the healthcare field

Nemeth eventually transferred to Eastern Michigan University where he earned his bachelor’s degree in nursing and his MBA. He holds Board Certification as a Nurse Executive through the American Nurses Credentialing Center and is a proud Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives. He even studied and performed improv at Second City in Chicago.

Nemeth worked for Beaumont Health (now Corewell Health) for 20 years as a nurse and as an administrator. He navigated through several clinical and leadership positions, demonstrating his adaptability. He held mulitple leadership positions during his time at Beaumont. His first leadership position was Associate Nurse Manager of Emergency Services at its Royal Oak location. His final leadership position was Director of Patient Care Services at its Grosse Pointe location.

He spoke about his first foray into healthcare administration. “At the end of a 12-hour shift, I was complaining to my supervisor about the lack of leadership and asked him when we would be getting more help. He told me he didn’t see my application on the pile! So, I applied for it. I was fortunate to get that promotion,” said Nemeth.

Other leadership positions Nemeth has held include Director of Patient Services at The Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit and eight years as Chief Nursing Officer at Ascension Borgess Hospital. Prior to becoming CEO at OakLeaf, Nemeth was the Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President for two years at Memorial Healthcare in Owosso.

His near-term goals at OakLeaf are understanding the best parts of the culture, what’s working well, and what opportunities exist to take OakLeaf to the next level.

“I also have to understand the competencies and capabilities of the leadership team. Understanding them helps me strategically plan for what the team could achieve in a specific period of time. It is always my goal to develop teams that achieve the highest levels of patient safety and quality, while delivering a strong financial margin. That margin allows for growth and expansion of services, especially for the poor and vulnerable,” he explained.

HFC taught him how to be a leader

Nemeth has also given a TED talk about using improvisational skills in the business world. He has written a book called Improvisational Skills for the Corporate Stage, which is scheduled for an October 2023 publication.

“Healthcare leadership is my true calling, but improvisational theater comes in at a close second,” he said.

HFC has a special place in Nemeth’s heart. He spoke about being challenged to spend extra time in the anatomy lab in retired HFC biology instructor Sharon McDonald’s biology lab, preparing a very difficult specimen. He put a lot of extra time into this endeavor, and it was used as a model for his peers.

“HFC prepared me for higher levels of education. The instructors were very encouraging and provided a pathway for associate and bachelor's degrees,” said Nemeth. “HFC helped me develop as a leader. There was a level of accountability in the Nursing program: You couldn’t be late, you couldn’t miss classes, you had to work as a team. My clinical skills may have been born in the Army, but my leadership skills were born at HFC.”

Related Content: Jim Nemeth's TED Talk