Weatherheadlines caught up with J.B. Silvers, the Elizabeth M. and William C. Treuhaft Professor of Health Systems Management at Weatherhead, and asked him how a nice engineer ended up teaching at a business school for more than 20 years.
Q: What do you do at Weatherhead?
I hold the Elizabeth M. and William C. Treuhaft chair, which I was given when I first got here. It was endowed by a wonderful couple for the study of healthcare activities. I teach about health management and my first love, corporate finance.
I also have an appointment in the Medical School where I lecture to first-year medical students on financing of the health system. I do a lot of research in that general area. And I have a longstanding NIH grant in the general area of growth hormone business. My colleagues and I are in the third phase of that research.
Q: How did you end up working in health management when your background is in finance?
I’ve always done different things. It started with my dissertation about the bond market at Stanford. Then, during my second year teachng corporate finance at Harvard, I was asked to teach a summer class dealing with Health System Management. I didn’t know anything about this subject, but was told: “You have six months – go find out about it.” So, I did – which was fortuitous.
But I kept it as a sideline during my Indiana University years. However, when I came to Case in 1979, I realized how serious the subject (Health System Management) was and realized that I had to make health management my central focus. It was too big and interesting.
Q: So have you seen a lot of changes in the industry since you began teaching?
When I first started looking at financial decision-making in health care, it took me awhile to realize there wasn’t any. It didn’t exist. You basically added up the numbers and the finance guy went out and raised money.
It has been fun over the years to watch. Medicare payments changed the whole industry. Now consumer-driven healthcare, where quality perimeters are more important will be the driver.
Healthcare has been a huge bargain for our society. We know the cost is high, but the payback from the system is enormous in terms of longevity and productivity – we have just never measured them before.
Q: What about your life outside of Weatherhead?
Where do I start – I got married last May and that was the biggest landmark of my life. It is the second marriage for both of us; it’s great and we have lots of fun. I moved to her house in Rocky River.
Before that I lived in a condo that overlooked the lake. I still have it and I’m trying to sell it. Do you want to buy it?
Q: Anyone else living with you and your new wife in Rocky River?
Two dogs but more importantly between us we have five kids – grown kids. That’s what makes it fun; we get to go around visiting them. I have a son in Washington D.C. with a wife and a two-year-old baby. My daughter is a Ph.D. student living in Seattle with her husband. And all of them met in the Peace Corps in Africa. My wife has three kids. Two of them are in international relations (in Kabul and California) and the other one is a jazz musician in New York City.
Q: What has been your best job experience?
I took a leave to become the president and CEO of QualChoice Health Plan – and it was the best and the worst experience. All jobs have good and bad aspects, but this was a place in crisis. It was losing huge amounts of money when I arrived. There was a huge possibility of failure.
In addition, I was going through a divorce while still teaching and keeping some research going. But it was also the best of times because you feel like you are getting a lot done with wonderful people and making a difference. In the end, we were successful with a $10 million swing in the bottom line, 30 percent growth, and a J.D. Powers Award within two years.
Q: If you could do it all over again what would you do differently?
Not much. I wouldn’t change much. I couldn’t live it again a second time around, but I have a wonderful family and being a professor is a great privilege.
Q: Would you have gone into the Peace Corps?
My kids went because I didn’t. I wanted to, but I thought if I went away I wouldn’t have had a job – which is nonsense. I told them that they are doing it for me. It was natural for them. They want to change the world.
Q: What do you do to deal with stress?
My church is important to me. I sing in the choir at First Methodist Cleveland. When everything was crazy, I always had that. And then walking the dogs and going to New York. But the biggest thing is laughing -- never enough of that.
Q: What was the last good book you read or are reading now?
I have a bunch that I’m working on. I’m reading The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits by C.K. Prahalad who was my first research assistant at Harvard.
I’m reading 1421: The Year China Discovered America about how the Chinese circumvented the world before the Europeans, and I’ve enjoyed both of Jared Diamond’s books (Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse) And of course, there are professional books.
But I have to admit that I like to read throw-away novels. For instance, I’ve read every Sue Grafton novel written. They are like candy.
Q: Name a famous person you share your birthday with?
Paul Simon -- If I could only sing like that.
Q: What celebrity do people say you look like or who would you want to play you in the movie of your life?
I don’t get people telling me that I look like anyone. Someone to play me in the movie of my life – it would have to be someone tall and lanky. How about Sam Shepard? He sat in front of us in a play in New York last year watching his long time companion, Jessica Lange.