Heir apparent?

Meet UPMC executive Liz Concordia, who may someday lead the region's health care powerhouse.

When Liz Concordia welcomes this visitor to her cavernous office in UPMC Shadyside Hospital—one of three such offices strategically placed throughout the corridors of UPMC power in Shadyside, Oakland and downtown Pittsburgh—she bypasses an opportunity to show off the trappings of life in the executive suite. There are impressive full-color drawings of future UPMC buildings on display, wall-to-wall windows looking onto bustling Centre Avenue and accolades enough to fill the entire length of the room, but Concordia ignores these things. Instead, she leads me to a cork board hanging behind her desk, to which she has pinned at least 100 photos of her husband, Michael Concordia, and their three children: Erica, 11, Mike, 13, and Alexis, 15. Concordia calls this her "priority board." From the moment you meet her, it’s clear that she’s a corporate executive cut from a different mold.

Concordia arrived in Pittsburgh eight years ago as president of UPMC’s flagship Presbyterian and Shadyside hospitals. Now, as president of the hospital and community-services division, she’s in charge of all 20 UPMC hospitals, including the Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh, which UPMC took over last year. Concordia is one of the health care enterprise’s four executive vice presidents reporting directly to president and CEO Jeffrey Romoff. (The others are Diane Holder, president of UPMC health plan; Charles Bogosta, president of UPMC’s international and commercial services; and Dr. Marshall Webster, president of UPMC’s physician services division.)

Ever since Concordia arrived, people have speculated at cocktail parties and in newspaper articles about whether she will be tapped as Romoff’s successor. UPMC declined to comment on the speculation. At 63, Romoff, a Hampton resident who has built UPMC into one of the most respected health enterprises in the country as well as the region’s largest employer, has announced no plans to retire and doesn’t appear to be slowing down. UPMC recently expanded into Europe and the Middle East, where it now operates ventures such as hospitals, cancer clinics and organ-transplant centers in Ireland, Italy and Qatar as well as other services in the United Kingdom.

However, according to a one-time UPMC insider, Congressman Jason Altmire (D-PA), the health conglomerate’s former government-relations officer, "I think it was the plan when she was hired that she was the eventual successor. When she first got there, certainly there was a feeling that there were bigger things planned for her." Altmire went on to say, "I don’t want to say that there were hard feelings when she arrived, but people had questions. She was young, and people asked what all the hoopla was for and whether she was up to the task. She has proven that she is."

In many ways, Concordia, 45, is exactly what you’d expect in a high-ranking business executive. She is energetic, confident and highly organized. You’d have to possess those qualities in order to oversee 20 hospitals and manage 24,000 employees and billions of dollars in operating revenue.

Yet, in other ways, she doesn’t fit the mold—especially these days, with some corporate chieftains making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Concordia is one of Pittsburgh’s highest paid executives (receiving $1.2 million in salary for fiscal year 2007, according to IRS filings), but still, she knows the names and life stories of the janitors who clean the hospitals she runs and introduces herself simply as "Liz Concordia" sans either of her impressive titles.

Much has been written about her record over the past eight years, specifically about the acquisitions that she has overseen. Under her watch, UPMC merged with the historic Mercy Hospital. In 2002, only one year after she arrived, UPMC opened the $104 million, 335,000-square-foot Hillman Cancer Center, which the health system plans to further expand along the Baum-Centre corridor in the city’s East End.

Although there’s been much ink about Concordia the health care executive, there’s been less about her as a person. Some of those closest to her express disappointment with some of the news coverage Concordia has received over the years, how some profiles of her tend to abandon their subject in favor of broader criticism of UPMC, or what one colleague describes as "evil empire" stories.

Of course, UPMC, like any large, influential organization, has its critics, but articles about Concordia that focus on UPMC’s balance sheet miss the point, say friends, revealing little about what makes Concordia interesting in her own right—including the level of success she has achieved as a woman in a region still bemoaned by some as an old-boys’ club and the balance she has perfected between work and family.

"She can do in one day what most people can do in one week," observes Connecticut antiques dealer Lisa Swotes, a close friend of Concordia’s since their undergraduate days at Duke University in North Carolina in the early-1980s. What’s the secret to her success?

Concordia explains that in one word: "Efficiency." She is of German ancestry after all, she quips (and she speaks the language fluently).

But behind that simple, one-word answer is a more complicated formula: Part discipline, part sacrifice and part good old-fashioned luck. Concordia starts her day early. After getting the kids ready for school, she is in her car by 7 a.m. and en route to one of her offices for meetings with hospital administrators or faculty physicians. Forget power lunches at The Carlton or The Capital Grille; Concordia doesn’t slow down enough for lunch. "She doesn’t watch TV or read magazines," says Swotes. "She has no idea what’s going on in pop culture. After work, she gets home for her family. She gives them 100 percent."

Of her children, Concordia says this: "There are only a certain number of years that I can influence them. I want to be at home. If you want to know what’s going on with them, you have to be there to help with quizzes and homework."

That means skipping the evening functions—the awards dinners, fundraisers and galas—that are a routine part of life for many executives at her level, as well as forgoing many opportunities to sit on other organizations’ boards of directors. She recently made an exception, becoming a trustee of Shady Side Academy, but she did so because, she says, she has a vital stake in the success of the Pittsburgh private school—all three of her children attend there.

Swotes says she and Concordia’s other friends are "basically in awe" of how "easy and simple she makes her job look," but Rob DeMichiei, UPMC’s chief financial officer and one of its senior vice presidents, says he can’t stress enough how "difficult her position is." While clearly focused on quantifiable results, on managing the assets of the billion-dollar enterprise under her, "Liz is equally immersed in the patient-relations side and the physician-relations side, which are equally as intense, demanding and time-consuming," he explains.

It’s Concordia’s ability to navigate between those two worlds—patient advocacy and financial stewardship—that makes her such a strong leader, says her boss, Jeffrey Romoff. "Her energy, enthusiasm and passion for excellence in high-quality patient care are among the many attributes that we appreciate most about Liz."

Another key to her success has been her skill in assembling a team of researchers, physicians and executives around her, and in looking outside the area for talent.

One of those recruits is Will Cook, the new president of UPMC Mercy, who took over for Concordia in July after she served a stint as the hospital’s president following its absorption by UPMC. He came to UPMC in January 2002, just a few months after Concordia arrived, but their history goes back at least 10 years, to when she was a vice president at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, and he was a fellow in the hospital’s administrative-training program. "It was immediately evident to me when I met Liz that she was the kind of person I wanted as a mentor," he says. "She’s a very direct, hands-on person." He offers an example: "If there’s a problem with the emergency room, she says, ‘Let’s walk to the ER,’ rather than sit in her office and talk about it. She asks questions of the doctors, nurses, even the patients."

While Cook acknowledges that not every employee can handle working for someone as frank and no-nonsense as Concordia, "that’s the kind of boss I want to be," he says, "I respect it. She has clear expectations and, like any coach, she provides direct and timely feedback, both positive and negative, which is one of the reasons she is such a great mentor."

Concordia’s former boss, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center president Gregory F. Schaffer, recalls that her personality helped her to win friends and influence people among the thousands of employees there. "It’s not that they were afraid of her. She was so well-liked and respected that no one wanted to disappoint her. They would make an extra effort because it was Liz." Schaffer adds: "People still talk about her here."

Concordia did consider becoming a physician, but she changed college majors from pre-med to economics and German when it become clear that she wouldn’t also have time for sports and friends—a balanced life. Although she’s not directly tending to patients now as a health care executive, Concordia says she believes she still has an opportunity to help people from inside the system. One example she cites is software she’s had installed at UPMC that allows her to check on emergency-room waiting times at all area UPMC hospitals from her desk. If she finds problems, she e-mails "love notes" to the hospital presidents involved, asking them to imagine how they would feel if they were one of those waiting patients. "I’m a mom, and I think to myself that our patient could be my child."

Concordia concedes that "when things don’t go as well as planned, I lose sleep." After all, as she points out, "Hospitals are different from banks. You need to create an environment where people feel cared for."

In her position, she concedes, "Everyone is not going to love you." Example? "Every physician wants the latest piece of equipment." Even with UPMC’s profits, that means saying no sometimes. "I have the utmost respect for physicians, and that means if there’s something I cannot do, I am blunt about it," she explains. "The worst thing you can do is lead someone along because you’re afraid to tell them no."

Contributing to Concordia’s success is a happy marriage to Michael Concordia, a former Procter & Gamble and Godiva executive who left his own corporate career to move to Pittsburgh when UPMC hired his wife. Now, as a local entrepreneur and director of Pittsburgh Youth Lacrosse League, he has more time to help her with the daily duties of parenthood. "I am lucky to have a husband who is confident and smart in his own right," she says.

"Life is a book with different chapters," he says while brewing coffee in the sunny kitchen of their O’Hara Township home. "This is a great chapter for her and for me. It’s exciting, although a handful at times."

They do escape from the grind every summer to take family vacations to exotic destinations around the globe that can serve as learning experiences for the children. They’ve gone to England, the Mediterranean and even New Zealand on recent trips. Every winter, Concordia also makes time for a traditional girls’ bonding trip with her two best friends from Duke. Concordia doesn’t talk business on these trips—"always to somewhere warm," she notes—but, according to Swotes, she does discuss her kids’ lives and the "old days at Duke when [we] were wild and crazy."

Swotes also commends Liz and Michael on the remarkable job they’re doing of raising their family with the right values. That includes living modestly relative to salary and lifestyle in a suburban Pittsburgh home. As Swotes explains, "Liz honestly doesn’t need more, and she doesn’t want to spoil her kids."

That’s evident when one of those kids, Liz and Michael’s youngest, Erica, takes me on a tour of their house. She ignores what to most children would be the star attractions—the outdoor pool, trampoline and ping-pong table. Instead, she leads me straight to an ordinary cork board on the game-room wall, to which she and her siblings have pinned dozens of photos of them with friends—at school dances, on trips or just hanging out. The things that really matter.

Formed in 1990 as the result of a merger between Montefiore Hospital and Presbyterian University Hospital, UPMC comprises 20 hospitals; 400 outpatient sites and doctors’ offices, and retirement and long-term-care facilities.

Stats (Fiscal Year 2008)

    •    Emergency visits: 457,047
    •    Total admissions: 182,278
    •    Approximate number of physicians: 2,500
    •    Total employees: 49,574
    •    Beds in service: 3,965
    •    Operating revenue: $7.067 billion

Geoffrey W. Melada, a trial lawyer and regular contributor to Pittsburgh magazine, last wrote a profile of "Pittsburgher of the Year" Randy Pausch in the January issue. He is the son of the late Dr. Gary A. Melada, a former Shadyside Hospital physician, professor of medicine and contributor to WQEX’s "Health Talk."

Categories: Medicine and Health Features