In the C-Suite: Brandon Harvath, St. Francis Healthcare President and CEO
WILMINGTON – It’s rare for insurance executives to make the transition to health care, but for Brandon Harvath, it’s a higher calling that led him to change course and eventually lead Saint Francis Healthcare.
The path to becoming the nearly century-old Wilmington hospital’s president and CEO has been circuitous, to say the least.
Raised in Delaware’s small town of Viola, Harvath joined the legions of financiers at MBNA and Bank of America and worked his way up the ladder. But his Christian faith guided him to use his experience to serve others, leading him to start in the insurance sector.
“I was literally seeking a higher purpose, and for years, I felt that banking just wasn’t quite what I was supposed to be doing,” Harvath said. “The two biggest impacts on my life my parents made were a strong work ethic and a Christian upbringing, and that drives me today.”
He served in leadership positions in Independence Blue Cross and then as an executive for Cigna Global Health Benefits. It was truly in his international travel, where he was exposed to health care practices around the world.
The turning point came when he made a stop in East Asia, where he saw people — broken, sick, bleeding — lined up outside a hospital, and three floors up there was a state-of-the-art medical suite ready for VIPs or those who could pay the right amount of cash.
“I remember I was getting on a plane and I thought, ‘There’s a higher purpose for me.’ I was just open to where the Lord would lead me next,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy, because I’ve made decisions to leave great organizations where I made friendships. But for people of faith, I think, you have to fulfill the calling God has for you.”
That calling led him to Saint Francis Healthcare, a hospital under the Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic group, which follows a mission of serving its communities in the spirit of the Gospel as a compassionate and transforming presence within our communities.
As the chief executive, Harvath believes his role is one of a steward for that culture, but also shepherding in changes to how world-class care is delivered. Specific to Saint Francis’ reach, about 60% of children in the census tract live below poverty, while 57% of people in Wilmington spend a third of their income on rent. Another 41% residents 65 and older live alone in Wilmington.
“It’s also about moving that history forward and seeing how that ministry can morph into the right need at the right time,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind about Saint Francis’ role here in Wilmington, and our commitment to the poor, underserved to bring state-of-the-art and innovative care to the entire community.”
For example, Harvath pointed that during the early weeks of the pandemic Saint Francis took advantage of the downtime and a half-empty building to continue to make investments that would pay off for the community. That included installing a $2.3 million interventional radiology suite, made sweeping investments in its stroke and sepsis programs, refined its gereatic services and renovated its entire emergency department.
“It’s not just symbolic, it’s tangible evidence of the investment that we will continue to make here in Wilmington,” he added.
While MBNA served as his “leadership bootcamp” in many ways, Harvath said that his 15 years of experience in the payer space helped give him a perspective not many have in his position as a CEO that oversees thousands of patient visits within a year. In health care, he noted that doctors and nurses can “look the patient right in the eye” and have personal responsibility for their welfare.
“[Insurance companies and health care systems] work on the same problem, just at different positions and angles,” he said. “You’re starting to see synergy, since this is where they both come together. Insurance companies are creating integrated financing and looking at delivery of care, and healthcare systems are making the investment to broaden access.
“That’s part of the value and the excitement I find in being on the hospital side now is bringing some of that value to the table,” Harvath continued. “It’s in finding some of those creative solutions that meet in the middle.”
The pandemic also brought the greatest challenge of his career, as Harvath ascended to CEO in July from his role as chief operating officer. Not only was he leading a team of medical professionals that likely did not have a day off since the pandemic started, but he had to keep them focused to bring their best to work, knowing each day could be worse than the day before.
“I’ve learned the technical skills in various leadership positions, so you do gain an instinct for it,” he said. “My reliance [to get through] has been on prayer. I keep my Bible on my desk and I carve out time in our chapel every week to stay grounded.”
The quote Harvath uses to guide his path: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”
“That’s the picture I strive to paint. How can you put your team first in the day-to-day, take responsibility for failures that may happen and celebrate their success?” he asked.