Robert P. Kowal, president and chief executive officer of Greater Baltimore Medical Center, announced yesterday that he will retire this year after 15 years as head of the Towson hospital.
Kowal is credited with helping make GBMC a leader in a trend among suburban hospitals to develop the type of complex and ambitious programs that had been largely reserved for academic medical centers. Among the programs started or greatly expanded under his tenure were the cancer center, neurosurgery, genetic research and laparoscopic surgery.
"He turned an institution which was stumbling at the time into the premier community hospital in the state," said Benjamin R. Civiletti, GBMC's board chairman. Civiletti joined GBMC as its general counsel about the time Kowal arrived, and has served since in a variety of board positions.
Ronald R. Peterson, president of the Johns Hopkins Health System, also called GBMC "probably the premier community hospital in the region."
"There's no question that they've gained the capability to do a number of complex things," Peterson said. "They've created, under his leadership, a very formidable institution."
Over the 15 years, GBMC grew from the eighth-largest hospital in the state, as measured by revenue, to third, trailing only the two large academic centers, Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland, according to Kowal. GBMC says it does more surgeries each year than any other hospital -- about 30,000.
Its annual budget has jumped from $60 million to about $250 million, employment has grown from 1,600 to 3,600, and the amount of space on campus has more than doubled, to about a million square feet.
Kowal said yesterday that when he arrived, GBMC already had strong physicians and a favorable location, but was "a diamond in the rough -- it needed to be shined up." The institution, then about 20 years old, "looked a little tired" physically.
Strategically, he said, "it needed to have a more aggressive style." Kowal came from the Chicago area, which he said was more competitive than the Baltimore market, and he found that at GBMC "the obvious moves hadn't been made." For example, he built physicians' offices on campus, something that had been done at many other hospitals already.
The progress was not always smooth. "Early on, he had a rough time. There was some conflict with the medical staff, a lot of tension" over the direction the hospital should take, said Dr. Robert Brookland, chief of radiation oncology at GBMC, who, like Kowal, arrived at the campus in 1984. "A majority of the physicians felt some of the negative aspects of managed care could be avoided if we just stayed the way we were."
Over time, Brookland continued, Kowal became better at communicating with and involving the medical staff, and "the physicians who had some anxieties saw that what GBMC was doing under Kowal's leadership was moving us in a positive direction."
Over the past year, GBMC had serious merger talks with Hopkins and with its Towson neighbor, St. Joseph Medical Center, but ended up with what Kowal called "a declaration of independence." The hospital may seek joint ventures and programs, he said, but "we do not intend to merge with any other institution."
Instead, he said, the hospital has adopted a five-year strategic plan that calls for more development of the campus and an extension of branded "GBMC Woman" services off campus.
Civiletti said a board committee, aided by a search firm, would seek a successor, considering candidates from the inside and nationally. Kowal, who turned 57 on Tuesday, said he decided that was a good age to retire, and informed the board Thursday.
"I wanted to retire when I was young enough to start something else," he said. He plans to stay until June, or until the board finds a replacement for him. Then, he said, he will move to Newport, R.I., where he will start a real estate development business and enjoy sailing.
Pub Date: 1/16/99