2009 Inductee Jon Soderholm, Leaves half-century health care career

Read Jon’s full biography on the South Dakota Hall of Fame Champions for Excellence Network.

Seventeen years later, Jon Soderholm can still picture himself in the modest office where the realization hit him: He needed to find a bank that would lend him $60 million to build what would become Avera Heart Hospital.

“So I opened up the phone book and started calling banks,” said Soderholm, who was 59 years old at the time and leaving a leadership role at Sanford Health to create the area’s first physician-owned hospital.

“People know Jon,” he continued, talking about himself in the third person, as he is prone to do at times.

He told the potential lenders what he intended to do.

“Be world class,” he said. “Some believed me and some didn’t, but there were a bunch of bankers who said, ‘We’ll take a chance on Jon and this crazy idea he has.’ ”

As he prepares to leave his role as CEO at Avera Heart Hospital at the end of the year, Soderholm isn’t keen on talking legacies. That’s something for people who no longer are around, he says.

But in a health care career that spans more than half a century, his accomplishments indelibly have shaped the medical landscape in the Sioux Falls region.

Born in Minneapolis in the World War II era, Soderholm’s military service as a medic drew him to health care. He began his career in 1966 as an assistant administrator at what was then Sioux Valley Hospital. He spent 31 years at “The Valley,” as he calls it, eventually becoming chief operating officer. He left in 1999 to help start Avera Heart Hospital.

“There was only me on Dec. 1, 1999, and I had to put together a team of people and get that team from McKennan and Sioux Valley and a lot of other places they were working,” he said. “They were third or fourth (in line) at maybe by 60 they would lead their organization. They were in their 30s. I said, ‘I’m going to give you a chance to do something you’ll never get to do, and that’s build a hospital.’ Very few people have that chance, because there are very few hospitals being built.”

A physician-owned hospital was a controversial concept in the community.

“A whole lot of people said they’ll never do it. It can’t be done. Jon’s too old,” Soderholm said. “And people came together and built a very, very special place. Is it profitable? Yes, it’s very profitable. Does it give good service? There’s only about 40 in the country … that have a better rating than we do.”

Avera Heart Hospital has 540 employees and treated 4,376 inpatients last year. More than 91 percent of patients surveyed said they would recommend it, ranking the hospital in the top 50 nationwide. It achieved a five-star rating in quality and patient satisfaction from the federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Since 2010, Avera McKennan has owned two-thirds of the operation and managed it under an agreement. The physicians of North Central Heart Institute own the rest.

“Jon has always been very physician-focused, very cost-effective and very process-oriented,” said Dr. Dave Kapaska, CEO of Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center. “And I think when the Heart Hospital was in its infancy that’s exactly what it needed. He was the perfect guy for it.”

Soderholm also focused on patient and employee satisfaction, Kapaska said.

“He’s very much in the wards, in the rooms and with the docs,” Kapasaka said. “He made the things happen that needed to happen to be successful as an organization.”

Soderholm makes daily rounds to see patients, including on weekends and holidays. He is known for passing out chocolate cookies to visiting families.

“We take really, really good care of people from the standpoint of clinically and from the technology we bring, but our customers judge three things,” Soderholm said.

“Is the place clean? Is the food good? And were people good to you? Hospitals are pretty simple to run if you use these three things and you get it done right every time. The problem is we’re 24-7, 365, and getting it done right all the time is very difficult.”

As the leader, Soderholm said he strove to be an example, from forming relationships with families to picking up trash in the hospital.

“I get to ask questions,” he said, adding that he has a tendency to challenge the status quo and ask how operations can be done better.

“The world is changing at warp speed, and if you don’t change you don’t have a job and you don’t have a company.”

Soderholm also co-founded Active Generations as a center for senior citizens and led an effort to place defibrillators first throughout Sioux Falls and then to communities with Avera operations around the region.

“What many don’t know is that he help broker the deal to purchase these lifesaving defibs at the lowest cost in the country,” Sioux Falls Fire Chief Jim Sideras said. “He then helped to store and ship them out to businesses. He did this without wanting any acknowledgement.”

Multiple lives are saved monthly because of the emergency equipment, he said.

“Without Jon’s support, the program would not be as robust, and more importantly, there would be a number of people who would not be alive today,” Sideras said. “We owe a lot of our success to Jon’s visionary thinking and support.”

Soderholm doesn’t plan to retire as he steps away from Avera Heart. When not indulging his love of hunting, he plans to work in some capacity.

“We’ll see if someone wants someone to ask questions or poke at their organization saying, ‘Why can’t we be better?’” he said.

Avera has started a national search for a new CEO of the Heart Hospital and hopes to have someone in place by mid-2017, Kapaska said.

“Sioux Falls has come to support the Heart Hospital,” Soderholm said. “And I want to not only say thank you to the tremendous teams who have allowed me to lead but to the community who believed and helped make this successful and make Sioux Falls a first-class medical community. People in town need to understand the health care community, everybody – Avera and Sanford folks – have something very, very special in this community.”

 

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