The conductor and the orchestra

The conductor and the orchestra

Warren Geller of Demarest talks about his role at Englewood Hospital

Warren Geller Photos by Jerry Szubin

Hard-copy dictionaries – the big ones, with thin paper and tiny print and millions of words – used to have little line drawings to illustrate some of the concepts next to some abstract definitions.

If a dictionary-maker had wanted to illustrate the concept “energy,” he could have used a line drawing of Warren Geller.

Mr. Geller is the president and chief operating officer of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. That makes him responsible for more than 2,500 employees, about 1,000 of them medical staff; 520 beds; and approximately 2,000 births, 31,500 inpatients, and 605,000 outpatients every year. He also oversees an operating budget of $400 million.

It is impossible to overstate the responsibility of running a hospital. To go back to that old-fashioned dictionary’s definition of “literally,” Mr. Geller literally oversees issues of life and death.

So how did this taut, hyper-alert, angular, athletic, warm, personable, quick-talking, and unsurprisingly very busy man get to this level?

He worked very hard for it.

Warren Geller was born in the Bronx in 1968, the youngest of five, to parents who trace their ancestry back to Russia and Austria-Hungary. His father “was a Navy man, in the years between Korea and Vietnam,” Mr. Geller said; he served on the USS Kearsarge. “He came home every year and had a kid.”

His father’s naval background “is why I am always on time, neat, and organized,” Mr. Geller said. “Good habits die hard.”

His father was in retail once he returned to civilian life – “children’s toys, health and beauty aids, knick-knacks,” his son recalled, and his mother, who has not yet retired, is an office manager for financial planners. The family moved first to Port Chester, in Westchester County, and then farther north, to Putnam County; Mr. Geller grew up in the town of Brewster, where housing was more affordable. Even then, Putnam was prime country house territory, so families looking for year-round residences could do well.

The trade-off, though, was that there were not many Jews in Brewster. There was one small Reform synagogue in town, Temple Beth El. “The rabbi, Solomon Aikrish, was a Moroccan Jew – and also the French and Spanish teacher at school,” Mr. Geller said. But he did not go to Hebrew school, and he did not become bar mitzvah. (Not then, at any rate.)

The family was close-knit; Mr. Geller’s oldest brother, Scott, still is his best friend. The Gellers also were generous; they hosted a Fresh Air Fund child every summer. In those pre-social-media days it was hard to keep in touch with people, but Derek was a regular part of their summers for years. “We learned about the melting pot,” Mr. Geller said.

The family also adored sports. Mr. Geller’s favorites were football, lacrosse, any available pickup game in anything, and martial arts, which he began when he was young. “When we weren’t playing on the school teams or the rec teams, we were playing at home,” Mr. Geller said. He and his siblings also joined the Catholic Youth Organization at the school at the local church, St. Lawrence O’Toole. “I was a leader in CYO,” Mr. Geller said. “That’s because that way I got a key to the gym, and if you had that, you could play 24/7.”

He also did some community service work in a local hospital, perhaps foreshadowing his career. “I always was drawn to fields where I could help people,” he said. And he learned something about himself early on: “I never was squeamish.”

Mr. Geller got an undergraduate degree from the university then called SUNY Albany in 1990, majoring in psychology and minoring in business administration. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and when I was in school, there was a big downturn in the market” – that was in 1987 – “so many of the job opportunities had dried up,” he said. He had worked in construction and finance as an intern; in 1992, while he worked as a financial consultant for an industrial construction company, “an opportunity opened through a friend of a friend to work on a financial project at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. I took the project, and I ended up presenting some of my work to the board of trustees there.”

That presentation – about “developing a cost-sharing formula for flex benefits, which were a new thing at the time” – went so well that “after the meeting, someone approached me and asked me if I’d like to stick around and learn health care administration.

“I said ‘I don’t know what that is.'”

Obviously, Mr. Geller learned quickly. “I started at Mount Sinai in 1992,” he said, and he took a pay cut to do so. He stayed there for 10 years. “That’s where I grew up in health care,” he said.

He fell in love with the work immediately. “I had no idea what to expect, but I learned right away that it’s a microcosm of jobs that exist outside in society,” he said. “Almost every field of study exists right there, from legal work to business to public relations to social work to accounting to clinical care. It’s all there. All the sciences. It was fascinating to be surrounded by all of these world experts, who really were pioneers in their field.”

At Mount Sinai, “I started at the bottom, as a coordinator on the finance side of human resources,” Mr. Geller said. “I worked my way up through the academic clinical departments. In my final years, I worked out of the president’s office, as a director of the hospital. My responsibilities ran the gamut from overseeing clinical practices to building new business opportunities to selling assets and buying new assets to developing construction projects to helping in philanthropy.

“If I had to sum up my job, it was being a great ambassador for the medical center.”

From Mount Sinai, Mr. Geller was recruited to become senior vice president of administration at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco.

It was when he was at Northern Westchester that other aspects of Mr. Geller’s personality – his determination, his connection to the community, and yes, his Jewishness – became clear.

At 36, far beyond the conventional age for publicly taking on the obligations of a bar mitzvah, Mr. Geller celebrated his coming of age. He studied for five years to prepare for the bar mitzvah, and “I did the full service – the Torah – it was Hukkat – and the haftarah -and I gave a speech,” he said. He lived in Pleasantville, in Westchester, and the service was at the shul to which he and his family belonged, the Pleasantville Community Synagogue. “I didn’t have a party,” he said. “My family was disappointed, but I did not want to take anything away from the meaning of the day.”

He also went back to school, earning two masters degrees, one in public administration in health care, the other in teaching, both from Pace University.

Mr. Geller worked at Northern Westchester for seven years. “I had the autonomy to do a little bit of everything there,” he said. “I learned the institution from the ground up, surrounded by an incredibly talented medical staff.

“That really hammered home the message that a hospital or medical center is only going to be as great as its medical staff. The more talented your clinical staff, the more patients will seek their care there.”

He was very happy, but “my obvious goal was someday to be the steward of the ship,” he said.

That goal came closer in April 2008, when “a national recruiter asked me if I was interested in an opportunity in Englewood as executive vice president and chief executive officer,” Mr. Geller said. “I was familiar with Englewood – it has a clinical affiliation with Mount Sinai – and I always was impressed by it. But initially I said no. I had a young family and a good life.”

But the recruiter was persistent, Mr. Geller let himself be talked into a first meeting, over breakfast, with the chair of the foundation, Jay Nadel – and the rest, of course, followed logically. In January 2009, he took the job that first was offered; four years later, exactly one year ago, he took on the title and responsibilities he has today.

Five years ago, the Geller family – Warren, his wife, Kristin, and their twin daughters, Hannah and Sarah, moved to Demarest. They joined Temple Emanu-El of Closter, and this year Kristin Geller was elected to the shul’s board of trustees. Ms. Geller also sits on the town’s school board. His daughters became bnot mitzvah at the synagogue last spring.

Mr. Geller is deadly serious about his work at Englewood. “We are a wonderful melting pot here,” he said. “We take care of everything, from nicks and cuts and bumps and bruises to the sickest of the sick. We have an award-winning, nationally recognized staff, and it is so talented, and supports our mission so thoroughly every day, that it makes my job easy.”

He and his staff believe that the hospital’s job is more than helping cure the symptoms of illness. “We look at the whole patient,” he said. “We look at patients’ experiences, their family, their lives – it’s all part of their path to wellness.

“It’s about having the expertise, the technology, the humanity.

“For the last seven years in a row, we’ve had a surplus, so we have been able to invest in the community. We can buy the latest and greatest technology; the key is to deliver it in a humanistic environment.

“We are here for you not only when you are sick; we are here for your psychosocial needs, for your family’s needs, and for the community. We are not-for-profit – a 501c3 – and that makes us a charity.

“We have a foundation that supports us, and we are extremely fortunate in the culture of philanthropy here,” he continued.

That local culture of philanthropy “is unusual, and so touching,” Mr. Geller said. “It’s an outpouring of support, of people giving their time and energy as well as their money, and is particularly strong in the Jewish community.

“Russ and Angelica Berrie, the Taubs, Maggie and Bill Kaplen – it started with the Berrie Center, and then Maggie and Bill as leaders in the building of the Kaplen Pavilion. That was completed in September 2009, for a little over $30 million. That was paid for 100 percent by the generosity of our community, and it allowed us to free up the rest of our resources for programs we wanted to start or to grow.

“We are thankful to our donors every day,” he said.

Where does that philanthropic impulse come from? “I think that it starts at home, in the way people are raised, as being part of a culture that takes a lot of pride in what it does and wants to be part of the greater good.”

As the politics of health care change, it will be important “to stay ahead of that curve and be proactive,” Mr. Geller said. The hospital’s board and administration is committed to “meeting the needs of a diverse population.

“We take all comers,” he said. “We have a charity care policy, based on your ability to pay, that steps the level of payment down to zero. Last year, we provided in excess of $20 million in charity care.

“We are proud to do that. The healthier we can keep the community, the better off we all are.”

When asked to tell a story about himself, Mr. Geller demurred. “I do not want to put myself on a pedestal,” he said. “It is not about me. It is about the experts, and the people who give their time and money.

“I am the conductor. They are the orchestra.”

He told one final story about the orchestra, and his place in it.

In October, Master Sergeant Nicolas Oresko underwent surgery at Englewood. He was 96 years old, the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor – he was given his by President Harry S Truman. “Representatives of all the branches of the military were lined up to keep watch on him,” Mr. Geller said. Mr. Oresko was a widower, and his only son also had died, so he had no close relatives left. “They asked me to come over there and meet with Mr. Oresko,” Mr. Geller said. “I went to his room, after saluting everyone outside” – remember, his father had been in the Navy – “and it was very emotional.

“He was lying in bed, and his aide said, ‘Nick, you need to wake up. Mr. Geller is here to see you, and he’s the president.’

“Mr. Oresko opened his eyes, looked at me, and yelled out, in his loudest voice, ‘President of what?’

“That immediately brought me back down to earth.”

The Marines who were standing guard outside Mr. Oresko’s room asked Mr. Geller if there was anything else they could do to help, so “we asked them to transport our patients who were being discharged,” Mr. Geller said.

“So they were wheeled out by Marines. It was very touching.”

The president of Englewood Hospital was visibly moved by the story, and that in itself is a story about how health care should work.

Philanthropists and volunteers at Englewood sing Mr. Geller’s praises in virtual harmony.

Maggie Kaplen of Tenafly, who with her late husband, Bill, was the lead donor of the state-of-the-art emergency room that takes up the first floor of the pavilion bearing their name, is struck by Mr. Geller’s listening skills. “He appreciates all comments, negative as well as positive, without being offended,” she said. “He is a positive person, rather than a negative one. With him, the glass is always half full.

“His enthusiasm is infectious,” she added.

Jay Nadel of Demarest, a business consultant, is immediate past chair of the board of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center and chair of the board of the Englewood Hospital and Medical Center Foundation. It was Mr. Nadel who had breakfast with Mr. Geller at the very beginning of the process that ended with Mr. Geller working in Englewood.

“Within five minutes, at breakfast, I knew that he would be the right person,” Mr. Nadel said. “He is a very special, high-energy, passionate type of an individual.

“My goal, and the board’s goal, was to change the culture of the hospital. We were able to do that by bringing in a leader named Warren Geller.”

Thomas Senter of Tenafly, a lawyer, chairs the hospital’s board, succeeding Mr. Nadel. “We felt that Warren really understands health care, and also recognizes that the business of health care is different from other businesses,” he said.

“We’re dealing with human lives.

“He’s a really special guy,” Mr. Senter continued. “It’s important to him to be part of the fabric of the community. We’re here to provide for the health care needs of the community. It’s important to have senior people who really care.”

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