The Boss: Marty Bonick’s early experiences keep him grounded

By Joel Stinnett – Senior Reporter, Nashville Business Journal

Ardent Health Services CEO Marty Bonick's early days in health care were spent as an EMT, caring for patients in emergency situations. The Chicago native changed course to pursue the business side of health care, but his days in an ambulance still influence his C-suite decisions. 

“It keeps me grounded. When you’ve actually worked and taken care of patients hands-on, it gives you a different perspective,” Bonick said. We recently sat down with Bonick to learn which Nashville CEO he would trade places with for a day and how the late entrepreneur Darrell Freeman pushed him to get his pilot’s license. 

What was it like growing up in Chicago? I was the son of a construction worker, and my mom was a nurse. … I would work side jobs with him on the weekend, mixing cement, carrying bricks and supplies. I would tell him, “I want to be just like you.” And my dad said, “No, I’ll break your legs. You’re going to get an education and do something with your life.” The only other thing I knew was what my mom did and she was a nurse, so I thought I would be a doctor. Things didn’t work out that way. I was fortunate to have some great people early in my career that encouraged me to look at the administration side of health care. … I was going to go to the medical school and just went from wearing scrubs to suits overnight. 

How do your early experiences caring for people influence you now as an executive? It keeps me grounded. When you’ve actually worked and taken care of patient hands-on, it gives you a different perspective than if you grew up through the business side of what we do. You’re firmly grounded in what it is that we do in our businesses — it’s people. It’s caring for people. 

What has surprised you the most about Nashville and its health care community since moving here 10 years ago? It’s pretty impressive to see how Nashville has grown and flourished beyond just the hospital provider side, which is necessary because care is being delivered outside the hospitals. It’s great to see that we’re not just a singular focus town.

What’s the best advice you’ve received in your health care career? Steve Landgarten, he was the chief medical officer for the system that I first worked in and he still works for [Ardent] as a physician in our Tulsa community. When making decisions, he had a really simple hierarchy of values: do what’s right for the patient, do what’s right for the organization and do what’s right for the individual, in that order. It really just helps to keep your priorities set. 

What do you do to relax? I don’t relax well. If I do relax, it’s usually at the beach. A good friend of mine got me into flying and triathlons. I’ve done Ironman and some half Ironmans and got my pilot’s license several years ago. Those are my two outside activities that I’m really passion about. Darrell Freeman, he pushed me to get my pilot’s license. I had done my first triathlon in 2015, and met Darrell that year. He encouraged me and sort of challenged me to do an Ironman. So the next year I did an Ironman and then we became good friends. We were flying to a race together, and he let me take the controls of [his] plane and he’s like, “Have [you] ever thought about flying?” I said, “Oh yeah, I used to have a flight simulator as a kid growing up.” …He’s like, “You’ve flown before. … What are you waiting for? Why don’t you get your license?” I said, “It takes some time and it’s expensive and my wife doesn’t really like it.” He said, “I’m guessing you can make the time if you’re interested, and I’m guessing you probably got the money. I’ll take care of Lisa.” He took us to a football game and by the end of the game he’s like, “So, can Marty do this?” And she’s like, “Whatever, Darrell.” That wasn’t a yes, but Darrell said that wasn’t a no, either. A couple of weeks later, I took my son … on our first training flight on a beautiful fall evening right around sunset. 

It’s amazing how many people Darrell influenced and inspired. We were training for an Ironman last year. We were 80 miles into a 100-mile bike ride. I got hit by a car, and Darrell was with me that day, along with James Crumlin and Audrey Stewart. They took pictures of everything. … I flew 75 feet in the air and landed in the woods. Darrell was with me in the ambulance and there is a picture of Darrell helping to carry me out to the side of the road. … I called him my good, bad influence. He pushed me to do things that I don’t know if I would have done myself. 

What’s your favorite question to ask a prospective employee in an interview? “What are you passionate about?” In the interview cycle, most people at that point have the experience, the resumé, the confidence. But I look for people that really have a passion for what we do and what drives them. 

If you could trade places with a CEO for a day, who would it be? I would probably go with Sean Henry of the [Nashville] Predators. It’s totally out of my element, but with the culture that they’ve built there and the experience that they built, their fans, their customers, I think would be a really fun, different dynamic.

About Bonick

Age: 49

Title: President and CEO

Company: Ardent Health Services


Address: OneBurton Hills Blvd., Nashville 37215

Hometown: Chicago, Illinois

Education: University of Illinois, B.S. in psychology; Washington University in St. Louis, MHA

Ardent Health Services

Ardent Health Services is a leading provider of healthcare in communities across the country. With a focus on consumer-friendly processes and investments in innovative services and technologies, Ardent is passionate about making healthcare better and easier to access.

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