Jim Brexler, CEO of Doylestown Health spoke with MONTCO Today about growing up in St. Louis County, Missouri; taking Chevy Chase–style vacations to Southern California to visit his mother’s family when he was a kid; learning basic leadership skills at the age of six by playing catcher on a little league baseball team coached by his father;and attending Westminster College, thinking the school would give him the preparation needed to be a Presbyterian minister one day.
Jim described how a part-time job in a hospital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina — which he took to help pay for graduate school — shaped his view of institutional healthcare. He began to see it as a “city under one roof,” with sufficient resources to innovate and create new solutions and efficiencies. Finally, with the pandemic drawing to a close, Jim talks about how Doylestown Hospital is shifting its focus back to “population health and being proactive in keeping folks out of the hospital” as well as the hospital’s 100th-anniversary celebration planned for next year.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born the oldest of three children in St. Louis, Missouri, and raised in St. Louis County.
What did your parents do?
My mother was a homemaker. My father was a fire chief before becoming a fire and police chief. He created a Department of Public Safety in one of the local communities. He had the red phone beside his bed to answer at all hours.
My dad was always in service; that’s what he did, exactly like his dad. Later in his career, he worked with the local hospital to do disaster training. When they needed a Director of Safety and Security, they hired him, and that’s when I was introduced to the hospital community.
What memories stay with you from growing up in St. Louis County?
It was a great time to grow up. If you’re from St. Louis, you identify yourself by what high school you want to. I went to Kirkwood High, one of the larger schools in the area.
I had an old-school, traditional upbringing where the schools and neighborhoods were localized, so I walked or biked to school. I loved every minute of school and activities. I was very involved in a variety of things. With my dad being so active in police and fire, it was inevitable that I became part of the Safety Patrol at school.
I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends and a lot of time with our close-knit family. My dad’s family lived in St. Louis, and my mom’s family lived in San Diego. We would do the Chevy Chase-type vacation and drive to Southern California and visit them.
You were experiencing San Diego before it became a happening town.
Yes. My grandparents ran a grocery store in San Diego and then Coronado Island. I remember going to the beaches and watching the Blue Angels flyover. My family went on some very long trips, and I remember the mountains along the way.
My wife and I recently took our children on a cross-country road trip similar to those we took way back. We did the northern route through Michigan, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Wyoming, and San Diego. It was a two-week excursion, and everyone was allowed one bag with them!
Our boys just turned 16 and 13, and my twin girls just turned 11, so we figured this was really one of the last years we could capture them all for a family vacation like that. It was a throwback to an experience I recall very fondly with my family. When you fly places, you don’t get to experience the geography like you do when you’re on the ground. The kids got to really see what life working on a farm was like and where their food was coming from. It was a cool experience for everyone.
Did you play any sports growing up, Jim?
My primary sport growing up was baseball. My grandfather and father were both baseball players, as well. I was a catcher. I played other sports, as well, but that was my thing.
When I was six years old, my dad coached my team. I was playing second base, and a ground ball went between my legs. He stopped the game, brought me aside, and told me to face the infield and quit throwing rocks at the right fielder! He decided then that he would play me at catcher so I was forced to pay attention, and if I didn’t, I would be hit by the ball. I took right to the catcher’s position. It was natural for me.
Early on, I enjoyed leadership roles. The catcher sees the whole game, calls the pitches and is in a strongly defensive position. The catcher is the backstop of the team, and I think that plays well to executives of organizations, especially when it comes to coaching and making mid-game corrections.
I also played soccer and basketball, but at 5’ 7”, I knew basketball wasn’t in my future.
When was the first time you noticed that you had leadership skills?
My initial reaction is that it was the fact that my dad would tell me to go out to the pitcher’s mound to calm the pitcher down and talk to the infield rather than going out himself. He also had me leading by positioning the outfield.
I’m not sure where my leadership skills come from. It always felt natural to me. More than anything, I was influenced by my father, who was a leader and innovator in so many ways. He didn’t just take jobs; he took jobs and set up programs. He was a leader and the first to do many things.
Combining the police and fire departments was a novel one in our small, suburban town. They couldn’t afford both, so my father suggested merging them as one public safety department where he would cross-train officers much more cost-efficiently.
Did you have any jobs growing up?
I always worked. I remember setting up roadside stands to make enough money to buy the candy we sold in the summertime. We didn’t make much profit, but baseball cards were the currency of the day, and we made enough money to buy a new pack and some bubble gum.
I was a camp counselor and lifeguard. I worked in a men’s clothing store. I had a variety of roles, but I always had a job, just like I always played a sport.
What kind of music were you listening to back then?
I come from a musical family. My grandfather and father were both musically inclined, which was part of the German culture in the inner cities.
My music tastes changed from time to time. I always loved beautiful music and was never a heavy rocker. Growing up, it was the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel. Later, I became a big country music guy, which came from living in Louisiana and Tennessee.
Where did you end up going to college, and why there?
I went to Westminster College, a small liberal arts school in Fulton, Missouri. I came out of a huge high school with 900 kids in my graduating class. I was always involved in student council, and I was class president my senior year. When I started looking at schools, I wasn’t interested in the big university environment because I liked getting to know people and relationships with my peers.
I did a bus tour of a bunch of different schools with my church, and Westminster just felt right to me. It was an hour away from home, so that was just far enough. It was an all-men’s school, and there was a women’s college in the same community. It was a pre-professional school, and I thought about doing graduate school after. I’m a big history buff, and it was the site where Winston Churchill gave his Iron Curtain Speech.
I was on scholarship and worked as a dorm counselor while playing baseball there.
Looking back, was Westminster the right choice for you?
I think it was an ideal choice for me. I’m a big believer in a liberal arts education. You don’t become too specialized too soon. Growing up, I thought I’d go into the Presbyterian ministry. I knew I wanted to be in service and support of people and that I could carry my faith with me. Once I was given a platform to broaden my base education, I knew I could take my studies in any direction.
When you look back on your career, who were the people who saw promise in you?
The guy, my father worked for at the hospital took the time to sit down with me and talk about hospital management. I had no idea that would be the direction I would take, and I almost wrote it off at the time.
I thought of studying political science in college and pursuing international diplomacy or becoming a city manager, something in the service sector. Being a city under one roof, where you had all of these different things you had to operate with, was very appealing.
When I left undergraduate, I went to graduate school for a master’s in public administration at NC State University to go into the public sector. While studying, I started working at the hospital in Chapel Hill to pay for graduate school. I interviewed for a ward clerk supervisor job in the hospital with a gentleman named Jim Albright, who did not hire me at first. He reached back out and encouraged me to apply for another role, which was the start of my career. He was my mentor for the vast majority of my professional career.
What did Jim see in you?
Honestly, I think he saw a willingness to be out there, progress, and do more than just the job itself. I was never good at getting a job and staying in my lane. I always wondered how I could improve the job. Additionally, I was a hard worker and became very comfortable with people.
He opened the door and kept encouraging me. I was in graduate school and working at the hospital for a few years. Jim took a job at another nearby hospital as the Chief Operating Officer. He was interviewing for junior executives on his team. Another guy I worked with at Chapel Hill was hired for one of those positions. I was waiting for Jim to ask me to go work for him, and he said I needed to finish my master’s first. I was part-time in the program at the time, which was the kick I needed to finish. I called him the day I received my degree and went to work for him shortly after.
What are the current challenges and opportunities you’re focused on?
There are so many! Doylestown is such an incredible institution. We are coming up on our 100th anniversary, since our founding by the women of the Village Improvement Association and they still govern our independent healthcare system. In the last two years, because of the COVID pandemic, we’ve been in crisis management, and now it’s time to move out of that phase and move into the future. We don’t see it as moving to “normal,” but moving on to the progression and positivity that we were working on pre-pandemic. Most crises in healthcare last a day or a week. They are not a protractive crisis over months or years. We are just now putting our heads around it and asking what the future looks like.
What are the big initiatives at the top of your priority list as you look into the future?
For Doylestown, it has been to continue to build on the specialty services that we’ve put into place and expanded, such as our heart, vascular and orthopedic programs. We are also strategically committed to population health and being proactive in keeping folks out of the hospital. We have spent time creating a network of care with our primary care doctors to do that proactive work. What COVID did was take away that ability to be proactive. We need to reset that network and get back into that business and get people back in for screenings and dealing with chronic care patients, rather than seeing them as emergencies.
Today, we are developing competencies in the proactive health business. One of the most exciting things for me in my career is we are now really in the “healthcare business” and not only the “illness response” business. When our patients do need an illness response, we have the critical services to address those issues.
What impact is that having on Bucks County and the surrounding area?
Before the pandemic, we had established ourselves as the best Accountable Care Organization in Pennsylvania. We hit the highest quality marks for the Medicare population we serve with the lowest costs for managing their care. We focus our efforts on cost efficiency on the back end of surgery by rehabbing, changing their lifestyle, and managing their disease so that it does not become acute. When patients don’t have to go into the hospital as much or have as many procedures done, they can stay home with their families and be in the hospital less and less.
You mentioned the 100-anniversary coming up. Are you planning a celebration in 2023?
We are in the beginning stages of planning a year of activities for 2023. Committees are being formed and ideas are being implemented. You’ll see messaging throughout Doylestown.
We are also finishing our 5-year capital campaign “One Vision” this year, which is very exciting. That campaign is approaching $100 million. We hit our goal of $75 million in three years, and now we are approaching the $100 million mark! The beauty of that campaign is that we are not only raising money to do things programmatically and for our facilities, but we are also retooling our campuses to be ready for the next century. We are also building a sustainable endowment to be used over time.
What do you do with your free time, Jim?
I’ll go back to how I grew up; I spend it with my family. When you have four kids at these ages, my wife and I have to tag-team countless events at the same time. They all have different, very cool specialties. My 16-year-old son is an awesome singer, dancer, and actor in musical theatre. My 13-year-old son is a golfer who is playing in the junior PGA tournament. My twin girls are gymnasts, soccer players, and budding filmmakers.
My wife is my greatest support. Together we navigate our busy lives. We will make time for date nights and competitive ballroom dance together. I love being busy. My work-life balance isn’t a balance. Really, it’s more connected.
Do you read at all?
I do some reading, but I have a lot of professional reading. To escape, I read Tom Clancy. I’m a political science-history nerd, so I like historical fiction, political intrigue, and spy reads. I also want to read about historical leaders to see how people did the things that they did and what lessons were learned.
What gives you hope, Jim?
I look at my children. They are not hopeless; they are so hope-filled, engaged, and excited about life. I don’t have time to get depressed.
The second would be the associates, physicians, and Doylestown Health team. They are amazing. My job is to provide them with the support they need and then stay out of their way. I’m blessed to be a part of an organization that provides incredible services for its community.
The third would be the community itself. This community is so supportive of one another, in general. The divisiveness going on nationally and now locally makes no sense to me in an informed and enlightened community. We are blessed here. I have great hope for what’s going on today. Again, I’m a history nerd. We think we are in the worst time ever, but this is just a blip if you follow history back.
I think we need to return to some degree of spirituality, whatever your spirit is. There is a higher power, and we need to appreciate the limited time on this earth.
Finally, Jim, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I have to go back to my parents. Their advice to me was that no matter how bad something happened, be honest and acknowledge it. Then, figure out what you can do to make it better.
Never cover up your mistake, and don’t feel embarrassed about a mistake. Be candid and open about it and seek forgiveness, but don’t wallow in the error. I’ve lived my life as much as I can around that.