Ken Shull, CEO and president of St. Luke’s Hospital, retires

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, June 30, 2016


By Michael O’Hearn 

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Shull is ending a 43-year career in healthcare with this retirement. He calls St. Luke’s Hospital a “good end-of-career job” and looks forward to retirement.


“I’m excited about that,” Shull said. “We’re going to stay in the area and in Tryon. We’ll go see grandkids, some live in Charlotte and some in Alexandria, Va., and we’ll keep playing golf at Tryon Country Club and I’ll be a judge for the barbecue contests. Eventually, I’ll start doing volunteering but it’s time to just relax.”


Shull also participates in the Rotary Club of Tryon and as a judge at the Blue Ridge Barbecue Festival along with 20 other festivals across the nation. Shull has even been certified as a Kansas City-approved barbecue judge.


Hospital Board Chairman Clark Benson, who had a hand in hiring Shull back in 2009 with the St. Luke’s Hospital Board of Trustees, said he will miss Shull and the jokes he makes, but also feels fortunate to have worked with him.


“We were sad to hear of Ken’s decision, but we consider ourselves fortunate to have experienced his leadership,” Benson said. “Ken has had a transformative influence on our community hospital. He’s guided us through some difficult times for the healthcare industry and led the change for some very exciting growth for St. Luke’s Hospital. We will all miss Ken’s leadership, his insight and enthusiasm, even his jokes.”


Colleagues and the staff at St. Luke’s refer to Shull as the “gentle giant,” a phrase Shull does not dispute given his stature and size. Kathy Woodham, director of public relations and marketing at St. Luke’s Hospital, said Shull is always interacting with the staff and patients during the day.



“It’s not unusual to see Ken walking around the hospital visiting patients and asking them how their day is going and asking them if they need anything,” Woodham said. “Each morning, the first thing he does is walk around the hospital to speak to everybody and people appreciate that interest. It’s that personal touch. Even with his office, the only times his door is closed is if he is on the phone or if he isn’t in there.”


According to Woodham, the not-for-profit community hospital has improved its operating margin after spending 14 years in the red. St. Luke’s Hospital is Polk County’s largest private employer and manages an annual payroll of approximately $15 million for more than 300 staff members who provide round the clock care.


Jean Eckert, retired CEO of Hospice of the Carolina Foothills, commented on Shull’s temperament and work ethic as the CEO of the hospital. Shull served on the hospice board with Eckert.


“He’s a good, solid thinker and he’s always humble when he approaches people,” Eckert said. “I would tell him just to enjoy himself and his grandchildren as he enters retirement.”


Shull said the influence of the small, rural area of Polk County and the close-knit atmosphere of St. Luke’s initially drew him to the hospital.


“I like small, rural areas and I like small hospitals,” Shull explained. “Most of my career, not my entire career, has been at small hospitals. I like the fact that they are personal. You have to have a professional commitment but you also have to have a personal commitment.”


Jim Holleman is the general surgeon and chief of staff for St. Luke’s Hospital. He said Shull has always been a nice guy and a pleasure to work with.


“The main thing about Ken is that he’s a very talented individual,” Holleman said. “I’ve worked with many CEOs during my time and he stands out as being the most pleasant. There have been a lot of improvements here with Ken. He’s just a stand up guy and we’ll be sorry to see him go, that’s for sure.”


As he and the Board of Trustees look for a new CEO to fill Shull’s big shoes, Holleman joked that he wished he could “just make a clone of Ken” to continue serving the hospital.


“Hiring Ken was one of the best decisions we have ever made,” Holleman said about bringing Shull on as CEO and administrator in 2009. “From a personal standpoint, he’s been able to come in, sit down and listen to the concerns of the medical staff and then act upon it appropriately. He’s been a father figure to me in many ways in helping me lead as chief of staff as well.”


One of Shull’s proudest achievements is being lucky enough to work in some places that were ready to do things, like St. Luke’s, which has improved its operating margin recently.


“One of my personal goals, and everyone has to have personal goals, has been to leave some place better than where I found it,” Shull said. “Working with people, because it’s a very personal thing, has been great because I am a people person. We also have the orthopedic addition here that is two years old that was the first step in modernizing this building.”


The orthopedic wing and rehab center was the first major expansion project done by St. Luke’s since 1972 and was opened in 2014.


The hospital’s patients are, according to Shull, his first priority in the organizational chart he created for the system and his view on the work ethics of the hospital.


“On the top are the patients, then it goes to the direct caregivers who touch the patients everyday, then the people who provide support and managers, and the CEO is at the bottom,” Shull said. “That’s what we do as a hospital. That’s where the action is and so the patients are at the top. It’s fun to be part of it and, in my letter of resignation, I have surprisingly no mixed feelings because I feel good about it and where the hospital is.”