Daily Rounds

James Daily learned early that 'Mother knows best'

For 21 years, James Daily has been president of Porter Medical Center in Middlebury unusual for the industry, but perfect for him.

by Tom Gresham

When James Daily was 16 years old, his mother told him he was to volunteer at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Coatesville, Pa. Daily was reluctant, but his mother, who worked in human resources at the hospital, believed it was essential that her son understand the importance of giving something back to the community. Despite his protestations, Daily soon was assisting in the hospital's pharmacy.

"It was not my first choice for how I wanted to spend my time," Daily says, "but I'm glad she did that for me. That exposure ended up being critical to me."

Daily found the climate of health care and its overriding mission captivating. He chose to pursue it in his academic studies in college and, three and a half decades later, the interest has never dulled. Managing a hospital, Daily says, simply carries weight; it never feels tedious or insignificant. Each day, he says, feels consequential.

Neil Gruber is the administrator of Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, a long-term-care facility under the aegis of Porter Medical. Porter also has a for-profit subsidiary, Marble Works, which operates pharmacies and a lucrative mail-order pharmacy business.

"In a hospital, life is both beginning and ending every day," says Daily. "You cannot get more intriguing than that."

Daily is in his 21st year as president of the Porter Medical Center in Middlebury an unusually lengthy stint in one position for a hospital administrator. He arrived at Porter as a 29-year-old rushing up the professional ladder. He had already served as CEO of a small hospital in Maine, and he seemed poised for a future at larger medical facilities.

Eventually he realized that Middlebury and the surrounding area provided an ideal home for his family, and Porter offered all the demands and rewards he needed. There was no reason to look elsewhere.

"It has been a good fit, certainly," Daily says. "It has reached the point where I can't see myself working or living anywhere else. If they don't fire me, I can see myself working here right up until retirement."

Steve Terry, senior vice president of Green Mountain Power Co. and the chairman of Porter's board of directors, says Daily's tenure at Porter has been unquestionably successful. Daily's honest, transparent style, says Terry, has been at the center of his longevity at Porter, keeping board members, medical staff and community members honestly informed and involved over the years.

"He has a very keen understanding of two important constituencies: the medical staff and the community and its leaders," Terry says. "He makes a point of reaching out to them and listening to them. It's a simple thing, but also important."

Daily has been present, and partly responsible, for two decades of marked change at Porter. The hospital's medical staff has approximately tripled during his time and the medical center's services have grown exponentially, he says.

Porter Medical Center, the third-largest employer in Addison County, has set in motion a proposed $16 million renovation of the hospital dubbed the "North Project." Susan Lapworth is corporate assistant.

Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, a long-term-care facility, and Porter Health Systems, a for-profit subsidiary that operates the Marble Works Pharmacies in Vergennes and Middlebury and a lucrative mail-order pharmacy ($16 million to $17 million projected revenue this year), have also assumed prominent places in the medical center's operation.

"I feel really good about the developments we've had since I've been here," Daily says. "The goal for someone in my position is to get the hospital to a point where it will have a positive impact on people's lives long after you're still a part of it. There has been a lot going on here."

Now, he says, Porter has set in motion a proposed $16 million renovation of the hospital dubbed the "North Project." The ambitious proposal, which recently took its first step in the regulatory process, aims to modernize the hospital, replacing portions of the facility that were constructed 30 years ago and improving the surgical suite and birthing facilities.

The project would solidify Porter's identity as a critical economic engine in the area and prime it for possible future growth in services, according to Daily. Porter is currently the third-largest employer in Addison County behind Middlebury College and Goodrich Corp. in Vergennes.

Porter was founded in the 1920s to provide medical care for both local residents and the students and staff at Middlebury College. Ever since, it has retained a particular intimacy with both communities. Daily says there is a natural sense of ownership of Porter among the residents of Addison County and the school, which still owns the land where the hospital is located.

Terry says Daily has proved masterful at cultivating the hospital's strong ties to the larger community. He points to a re-cent state hearing on the North Project proposal as evidence.

"The meeting room was filled with community members, doctors and other people who see the importance of the hospital on their lives," says Terry. "They know its economic success, and its success as a hospital benefits everybody. They know its importance to their quality of life. That is a link Jim Daily has helped more people understand."

Hospital administration has been a fitting occupation for Daily, but there was a time he considered pursuing a career as a physician. He majored in biology and economics at Albright College in Reading, Pa., "playing both sides against the middle," he says, keeping his options open between becoming a doctor or a hospital administrator. He found the business side of health care more appealing and more suitable to his talents, so following graduation in 1976, he enrolled at Duke to study health administration, ultimately securing his master's in two years.

The hospital's medical staff has approximately tripled during Daily's time. Pat Janning (left) is vice president/patient care services. Roe Provetto, RN, is nurse manager.

After Duke, Daily served as an administrative resident at a hospital in Cheraw, S.C. It was an auspicious placement for Daily from a personal standpoint. At the hospital, he met a nurse named Pame Lisenby, whom he married in 1980.

Shortly after the couple's wedding, they moved, along with Pame's two young sons, to Pittsfield, Maine, where Daily, at the tender age of 26, had been hired as CEO of Sebasticook Valley Hospital.

"It was fairly overwhelming," Daily says. "I got married, became a stepfather to two young boys, moved 1,200 miles and started a CEO job all in a short time. I just tried to put one foot in front of the other for a little while there."

Daily and his new family enjoyed Maine, though the weather conditions were a dramatic change. "In a week, we went from worrying about the air conditioner to worrying about the wood stove," Daily says. The hospital was a prime opportunity for him, and he learned volumes about hospital management in a short period of time.

However, the Dailys decided they would prefer "a more postcard New England town." He soon found an opening at Porter, and says he and his wife fell in love with Middlebury at first sight. "It was exactly what we were looking for."

Porter also offered Daily the opportunity to head a growing, vibrant medical center. Managing a hospital appeals to him on many levels, he says, including the diversity of the job's responsibilities. He needs to keep the pulse of not only the medical services at Porter a complicated enough task but also the business management of the hospital and its subsidiaries.

"There are always new challenges that are inherent in our business, but I like a challenge and I like the fast pace," Daily says. "It means I'm never bored. I have a lot of very full days."

In light of his considerable duties, Daily has to guard against allowing his work to consume all his time. In particular, he says, he learned long ago to keep his heavy workload from obscuring his relationship with his family. Daily's stepsons have grown and moved away from home, although both have remained in Vermont; twin daughters, Hillary and Tatum, born in 1990, are now in high school.

His job often requires him to work on the weekends and in the evenings, but he makes a point of scheduling time at the behest of hospital board members over the years, he says with his family.

For instance, he has attended every game Hillary has played for the Middlebury High School JV basketball team this winter and most of the field hockey games played by both daughters. Each game is marked on his schedule and treated as an appointment that is as hard and unbreakable as any business meeting.

"Sometimes, you have to make the decision to not work and to be with your family instead," Daily says. "In order to have any longevity in this job, you have to be grounded and to keep your priorities straight."

Pame worked as a nurse at Porter when the Dailys moved to Middlebury and later worked at a medical equipment supply facility in Rutland, before her daughters were born. She is now a medical assistant at a doctor's office in Middlebury.

The Dailys live just outside of Middlebury in a serene neighborhood in the small town of Weybridge. It is a five-minute drive to work for Daily, yet offers the kind of rural tranquility he enjoyed growing up in Honey Brook, Pa., a small farming community of largely Amish families about 50 miles west of Philadelphia. He calls the Weybridge location "perfect."

"It's interesting work and I'm glad I'm doing it," Daily says. "It has been everything I hoped it would be and more." •

Originally published in March 2005 Business People-Vermont