On average, hospital chief executive officers (CEOs) spend fewer than four years at a single organization. But Shepherd Center is not your average hospital. And Gary Ulicny is not your average CEO.
When Gary R. Ulicny, Ph.D., retired earlier this year, he did so as the longest-tenured chief executive officer of a hospital in the metropolitan Atlanta area. Dr. Ulicny began his tenure as president and CEO at Shepherd Center in 1994.
“Gary has been forward-looking throughout his entire career at Shepherd Center,” says James Shepherd, co-founder and chairman of the board of Shepherd Center. “He’s always been very clear that he wanted to leave Shepherd Center in a better place than he found it. He’s been very successful at that.”
Indeed he has. During his tenure, Dr. Ulicny has overseen major expansions of the hospital and its services, including the addition of an acquired brain injury rehabilitation program and comprehensive pain institute, increasing overall inpatient capacity from 100 to 152 beds and developing the Beyond Therapy® program to help patients improve their lifelong health, minimize secondary complications and get the most out of any new neural links to their muscles.
Dr. Ulicny also has led Shepherd Center in expanding its research program and launching the SHARE Military Initiative, a comprehensive rehabilitation program that focuses on assessment and treatment for service men and women who have sustained a mild to moderate traumatic brain injury, along with co-occurring PTSD or other mental health concerns (such as depression or anxiety), from service in post-9/11 conflicts. For these accomplishments and many others, in 2014, Dr. Ulicny was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Healthcare from the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
Dr. Ulicny’s tenure also has seen local and national recognition for Shepherd Center, such as rankings by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best rehabilitation hospitals in the nation for the past 15 years, being named one of Atlanta’s best employers by the Atlanta Business Chronicle and Atlanta magazine and receiving Spinal Cord Injury Model Systems (SCIMS) designation for 30 years consecutively by the National Institute on Disability, Rehabilitation and Research for the treatment of spinal cord injuries.
Beyond the awards and recognition, Dr. Ulicny takes pride in Shepherd Center’s high employee retention rate and in avoiding major layoffs of staff in his 22 years at Shepherd Center. These things point to the strength of the well-known culture at Shepherd Center – one Dr. Ulicny has been deeply committed to developing and maintaining.
“Building a culture of excellence beats strategy every time,” Dr. Ulicny says. “You do that by clearly stating expectations and creating an environment that provides immediate positive recognition so employees feel valued. A positive culture spills over into patient care and helps patients shift their focus from where they have been to hope for what lies ahead.”
Another point of pride? In 2015 and 2016, 85 percent of Shepherd Center employees participated in Shepherd Cares, the hospital’s annual fundraising campaign.
“To me, that shows the commitment of the employees and their willingness to give back, so Shepherd Center can meet its mission for its customers,” he says. “It’s an incredible thing to watch.”
Dr. Ulicny is looking forward to retiring to North Carolina, but as he reflects on his career, he’s clear on what he’ll miss about Shepherd Center.
“Meeting patients and watching them strive to overcome challenges has always affected me very personally, even after 22 years,” Dr. Ulicny says. “What we do at Shepherd Center makes a real difference in peoples’ lives, and that’s what made my job so satisfying. It is work worth doing.”
By Sara Baxter and Kerry Ludlam
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Ga., is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury or brain injury. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation and is a 152-bed facility. Last year Shepherd Center had 965 admissions to its inpatient programs and 571 to its day patient programs. In addition, Shepherd Center sees more than 6,600 people annually on an outpatient basis. For more information, visit Shepherd Center online at www.shepherd.org