Gary Fennessy has seen many triumphs and challenges during his tenure at Northwestern Medicine since joining the academic medical center in 1982. Over the last forty years, from his front row seat, he watched Northwestern’s expansion from a single hospital to 11 hospitals, two large physician groups, and more than 200 hundred locations across the greater Chicagoland area.
“When I started, we had approximately 2,000 employees; we have now grown to over 35,000 employees. It has been a privilege to witness and actively participate in that growth.” Having led all supply chain activities for the growing organization since 2013, in challenging times, the vice president and chief supply chain executive has learned to “look for the lemonade.”
Anyone having spent a fraction of the time Fennessy accrued in the healthcare world knows the sector presents its share of challenges. It’s bound to give any professional a proverbial bowl—or even bushel—full of lemons. This in mind, the VP manages to find the opportunity, lesson, or positive aspect of each sour situation he encounters.
“I try to find the lemonade in every challenge that makes it way to the supply chain team. We can’t always control what happens, but there’s always something to learn or some way to grow as an individual, a team, or an organization,” he explains.
Gary Fennessy spent most of his life and entire career in and around Chicago. He studied at DePaul and joined Northwestern as an accountant in the office of research. That introduction as an accountant eventually led to his role as director of financial planning, which included oversight for budget planning and long-range financial planning.
In 1987, Best Hospitals in America named Northwestern Memorial one of the top hospitals in the nation. Before long, Fennessy found himself progressing through the organization and interacting with key leaders. As director of financial planning, he worked alongside a new CEO, COO, and management team that began developing and reimaging Northwestern’s future.
Fennessy oversaw the creation and development of the first long-range financial plan supporting the financing of a new, $580 million medical center located in the heart of Chicago. That facility opened its doors on May 1, 1999.
For the Chicago native, the next 15 years brought increased change and opportunity as the health system rapidly expanded. In that era, he held many roles, including acting CFO, that led to expanded roles in hospital operations. In 2013, he was asked to take a system role and lead supply chain activities full time for what would become an 11-hospital health system.
Northwestern historically has had a top-performing supply chain division. A key operating principal for Northwestern’s supply chain team is that clinicians should lead sourcing and value analysis efforts. Fennessy noted, “The dynamic of having clinical supply chain leadership results in different discussions when someone who has twenty years of bedside experience as an ICU nurse has a conversation with a physician about opportunities for standardization or new product introductions. It creates a platform of trust and engagement.”
The COVID-19 pandemic provided Fennessy and his leadership team with plenty of situations to look for the lemonade when drugs, supplies, and equipment were scarce. Having the clinical team in supply chain that was developed years before the pandemic proved key to addressing the forthcoming challenges.
Several months before the pandemic, the supply chain management team advised him to pay attention to a novel virus originating in China. Gary Fennessy stated, “We got an early start on acquisition of respiratory supplies.”
The clinical leaders on Fennessy’s team had a premonition based on prior experiences of what was headed their way. “However, even with that preplanning, the level of need far outpaced any early demand signals on supply utilization. We were challenged daily.”
Although the move gave Northwestern a critical head start when COVID emerged, its hospitals still burned through supplies at an unsustainable rate when the early months of 2020 saw packed ERs and ICUs. To handle the situation, Northwestern developed a supply chain command center. They reprioritized all activity centered around providing the supplies and equipment needed to care for the patients and staff that were being asked to treat and care for levels of activity that no one anticipated.
The VP and other leaders set the tone early. “We took a wartime mentality, and failure was not an option,” he says. “We did everything possible to ensure the caregivers at our 11 hospitals had the supplies needed to care for patients in a crisis. We reminded ourselves daily, that the challenges we faced were minimal compared to what our caregivers were facing and that provided all the motivation we needed to support them.”
While COVID-19 presented an unprecedented challenge, Fennessy didn’t have to look too far to find his lemonade. “I work alongside the best management team I’ve had the privilege to work with in my forty-year career. Clinician-led teams leveraged every relationship to source beds, ventilators, and supplies. The Northwestern system quickly set new standards on the use of n95 masks and other supplies, and the system was never without PPE at any point. We stayed two steps ahead of the bear and utilized every resource we had to ensure supply and equipment availability.”
Now, as the pandemic recedes, Northwestern’s leaders meet lingering challenges associated with the Great Resignation, inflation, and product shortages head-on. “Supply chain disruption driven by inflationary pressures, backorders, and the competition to retain and attract talent is an ongoing challenge. We have a strong leadership team that works in a supply chain culture that is focused on continuous improvement. That culture is what allows us to meet the daily challenges we face,” the VP says.
Although nearing the end of his career, Gary Fennessy isn’t ready to retire with a cool glass of lemonade just yet. He wants to help Northwestern address some of these issues first. “My role is to execute the strategy as defined by Northwestern Medicine, and we are still in growth mode,” he explains. “A core part of our job is to get the products and resources that our caregivers and patients rely on. After all, the last link in the supply chain is the one to the patient.”