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Father, Son Climb Ladder To Top At Different Hospitals

They grip their clubs in the same unorthodox clutch that puzzles golfing buddies.

Their desks appear chaotic to outsiders, but have an internal order that only they can see.

At least one colleague suspects they buy their glasses from the same optometrist.

But the resemblance between Joe and Tom Legel only starts there. The father and son are chief financial officers for major hospitals in the region.

Joe, 67, has been the CFO for Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane for 38 years. Tom, 39, has held the same position at Coeur d’Alene’s Kootenai Medical Center for eight years.

Since Tom took over the financial helm at KMC, he’s found himself consulting and sparring with his father as joint ventures were launched and nurtured between Sacred Heart and KMC.

“I feel a little like Gordie Howe, who played professional hockey long enough to play with his sons,” Joe said.

The two will work together for only a few more months, however. Last month, Joe announced his plans to retire this spring.

During his tenure at Sacred Heart, he ushered in the advent of Medicare and Medicaid, managed the financing of the medical center’s $34 million building in 1968, and learned to negotiate an increasingly complex mosaic of insurance company policies and federal regulations.

But day-to-day operations are just as challenging, he said.

“We have 3,800 employees who expect a check each week, but if you don’t have enough cash to meet the payroll, that’s the most stressful.”

The number-crunching is all in the family. Tom’s sister, Susan Legel, is chief financial officer for the Spokane Mental Health Association. “It’s one of those unfortunate genetic traits,” she quipped.

Joe’s mother started the trend toward health care. She worked for many years as a nurse at Anchor Hospital in St. Paul, Minn.

Joe grew up attending Catholic schools in St. Paul.

He spent high school working part time in the Anchor Hospital laundry, housekeeping and dietary departments.

While studying accounting at St. Thomas University, a Catholic men’s college in St. Paul, he worked in the business office at St. Joseph Hospital.

After graduating, he worked for a certified public accounting firm that conducted hospital audits in 15 states. During a business trip, he discovered Spokane.

The city’s climate, terrain and amenities appealed to him.

When the job at Sacred Heart opened up, Sister Mary Bede hired Legel on the spot. The same day, he bought a house and announced to his wife that they were moving to Spokane.

Tom’s path to hospital finance didn’t stray too far from his father’s.

He attended St. Charles Catholic School until his family moved to a neighborhood too far from the school.

While in high school, he worked on Sacred Heart’s tray line, serving up hospital food.

“The supervisors back then were reluctant,” Tom said. “They feared I’d be this terrible administrator’s son. That’s the last thing you want.”

But he continued working in the tray line for years. He made long-lasting friends there, including his wife, Robin.

He studied accounting at Gonzaga University, and spent summers working in the hospital’s medical records department.

Although he didn’t see much of his workaholic father while growing up, that didn’t stop him from gravitating to the same field.

“What I saw was his love and dedication, whether it be to the organization of Sacred Heart or to the patients,” said Tom, who has three children. “But, at the same time, I’m a little more aware of how I felt as a child, so I try to be conscientious about seeing my family.”

After a stint with a CPA firm, he worked in Gonzaga’s accounting department for a couple of years until he learned of an opening at KMC.

KMC’s chief executive officer, Joe Morris, said he discussed confidentiality issues with Legel before hiring him.

But it’s never been a problem, Morris said.

The Legels have an unspoken policy of not discussing work outside the boardroom.

Their discussions stick to general health lcare issues and policy.

“We don’t disclose things we shouldn’t,” Joe said.

The Legels place a high priority on the moral aspects of their work.

“Once you have your values, the rest falls into place,” Tom said. “Johnny Cox (Sacred Heart’s staff ethicist) has said that the most ethical decision a hospital makes every year is its annual budget. That’s always stuck with me.”

Since Tom became KMC’s chief financial officer, the two hospitals have developed three joint ventures: North Idaho Radiation Therapy; North Idaho Dialysis; and Pathology Associates.

That meant father and son sometimes found themselves across a boardroom table representing different interests.

“Joe (Morris) would say, ‘Don’t get too intimidated by your father. The worst he can do is send you to your room,”’ Tom said.

Morris said it’s been entertaining watching the Legels at work. Tom’s had the responsibility of preparing financial statements for the joint ventures that Joe would critique.

“Joe Legel is the reason we have a color printer,” Morris said. “Joe kept chiding Tom that the graphs weren’t in color.”

Joe doesn’t cut Tom any slack in the meetings, asking tough questions. But while the square-jawed Joe looks like he could take Tom over his knee and spank him, Tom can hold his own.

Tom, perhaps thinking like his father, “was always way out in front of his dad,” recalled Gerald Leahy, a former Sacred Heart chief executive. “There weren’t too many questions his dad would ask that Tom hadn’t already anticipated.”

But even when their work is competitive, they don’t take it home.

“We fight hard during the time we’re negotiating, but when it’s over we shake hands,” Joe said.

With Joe preparing to retire, the two will spend more time now competing on the golf course than in the boardroom.

But they’ll still have to keep mum about work: Joe will continue as a part-time consultant for Sacred Heart for at least a few more years.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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