Sonny Kelly is never bored with work. That’s because the CEO of the Oktibbeha County Hospital in Starkville enjoys the demanding role of being an administrator of a growing hospital in a robust part of the state.
The Delta State University graduate began his work in health administration in personnel and as assistant administrator of Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center in his hometown of Clarksdale. He came to Oktibbeha County in 1974 when the county’s only hospital had 60 beds and a budget of $2 million.
“I took it all on at Oktibbeha County Hospital — purchasing, personnel, everything. It was small then,” he recalls. “We now have three administrators and some pretty darn good department heads. There’s been a substantial increase here.”
The 96-bed facility has an operational budget of $60 million that includes a wellness center, several off-site clinics and large out patient numbers. A recently completed $30-million expansion adds to the physical plant. Including the off-site clinics, there are 640 employees and 100 physicians use the hospital. Fortunately for this hospital, staffing is not a problem.
“I have very few routine days. There’s always something new happening,” Kelly said. “A hospital is one of the most worthwhile parts of a community — a vital part. That’s what makes the job worthwhile. Decisions we make have ramifications into the future.”
He sees the challenges of being a hospital administrator as issues of growth and the tremendous amount of red tape involved. “The rules change on a daily basis,” he said. “I’m concerned that with cutting reimbursements to hospitals, the safety-net hospitals will have overloads and have to struggle to keep the doors open. That’s the biggest challenge I see by far.”
At age 66, Kelly observes some of his contemporaries leaving hospital administration. He says young people considering entering this field must be able to make rapid decisions while also looking at situations long range.
“My advice is to be a consensus maker and be prepared for criticism,” he added. “You have to satisfy the public on the business side, and diplomacy is very important. You don’t drive any group of professionals. People will follow as long as you know where you’re going.”
As for his style of leadership, Kelly doesn’t tell people what to do. “I try to stay in a leadership role and stay focused and involved with decisions,” he said. “You can’t be ashamed to admit you’re wrong, either.”
His favorite things about his work are being involved with state and national organizations, entities that have impacts on the hospital, plus community involvement.
“We have a responsibility to be involved in the community,” he said. “I enjoy seeing the community progress and being a part of the economic development.”
A few of Kelly’s affiliations include: being a member of the board of directors of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi; board of commissioners of the Golden Triangle Regional Airport; board of directors of the Greater Starkville Area Development Partnership; and, board of directors of Voluntary Hospitals of America, Gulf States. He is a past-president and board chairman of the Mississippi Hospital Association. He completed additional study in hospital administration at the University of Alabama and is a fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives.
Surprisingly, Kelly has been a certified deputy sheriff for 16 years and still works the roads. “It’s totally different from what I do on a daily basis, but it’s worthwhile. It has to be,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for law enforcement officials, and I help when I can.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.