January 2005

Son Succeeds Father at RPI Consulting

by John Fries

Many, if not most, people develop mentor relationships during their formative years in business when a supervisor, administrator, or more experienced co-worker bonds with them. ItÕs a great way for someone just starting out to learn the ropes and adapt to the organization or industry. Mentoring also gently shapes employees, over time, as the experienced professionals they will become.

James R. (J.R.) Surman has known his mentor since day one Š literally. HeÕs his father, Jim Surman, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh, PA-based Resource Productivity Institute, Inc. (RPI), a company recently profiled in these pages for its work in improving operations and leading financial turnarounds at hospitals and other health care institutions across the country.

To-date, RPI has provided over three million dollars worth of services for clients, and has a well-documented success rate of over $17 million in client bottom line improvement. The company is also recommended by a number of hospital CEOs.

This year, J.R. will succeed Jim as the second generation of Surmans to run RPI.

The two share a strong bond. Before starting RPI, Jim spent several years working in the corporate world as a Senior Manager at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Blue Cross, and Proudfoot. He consulted with large hospital chains and small community hospitals, a career that kept him on the road for days at a time, often only affording him weekends with his growing family -- which also includes two daughters.

However, family has always been a priority in the Surman household, and Jim always looked forward to the quality time heÕd spend with his wife and children over the weekends. "I would have to be away on business during the week, but every Friday evening, my wife would pick me up at the airport, and weÕd go to dinner," Jim fondly recalls. "For twelve years, Saturdays were devoted to the children. WeÕd spend the day touring museums, visiting amusement parks, or take part in just about any activity in the city of Pittsburgh. Sunday was also a big day for us and the rest of the family. WeÕd go to church together, then have brunch."

WeÕve all seen the TV movies about fathers who are so wrapped up in their work that they miss important events like their childrenÕs swimming meets. That was anything but the case with Jim, who always made it a point to be there Š even though, at one point, he was averaging 250,000 air miles a year on business.

"If it was important to my family, it was important to me," he said. Once, he made a mid-week trip into town in time to watch as J.R. received his promotion to Eagle Scout. "I was in Sacramento, California that day, and it took some travel coordination, but I made it." Some of the other fathers, who were in town, didnÕt bother to attend for their sons.

Over lunch for this interview, the Surmans demonstrate a strong rapport, sometimes even finishing each otherÕs sentences. What is also very apparent is the high level of respect they have for each other. "IÕve learned so much from my father," said J.R., who started working for RPI when he was a student at Serra Catholic High School.

Initially, J.R. was drawn to the arts, and, for a while, was active as a videographer for "Pittsburgh, Places and Things," a PBS program, and also served as producer for many other projects. However, through his ongoing involvement with RPI, he developed a real affinity for the family business and the world of consulting.

He is also computer-savvy. He began using computers when he was very young, and that use continued thru his formal education (he holds a degree in communications from Robert Morris University). This is a very valuable skill, since RPI uses unique, copyrighted software thatÕs integral to the companyÕs work and the results it produces. J.R. wrote and published the RPI Management Control System, the backbone of the RPI Process.

"I started from the bottom up," he said. "Once I began to develop a good understanding of my fatherÕs profession, I started teaching our consultants how to use the software. I was also working with computers for our initiatives at Southside, Titusville and Corry Hospitals. Things were going very well."

Then, his father asked him to leave the company. "I encouraged him to go to work for other consulting firms so he could gain more experience and a perspective to learn how other companies work," said Jim. It turned out to be great advice for J.R., who picked up new skills, including data validation and workflow management.

After spending two years consulting at County Social Services, and in two corporations that each served more than 350 long-term care facilities, he returned to RPI, where he initially consulted with clients in non-clinical areas. Soon, he was also consulting with clinical areas. Although far from being the new kid on the block, he found himself working with 14 specialists who were clinical professionals, all of whom had significant, hands-on experience in such hospital areas as laboratory, nursing, materials management (to name a few), and extensive consulting backgrounds. Because heÕd had previous experience working in long-term nursing, J.R. was able to easily establish rapport with clinicians at the hospitals.

"ItÕs very important, in our work, to be able to deal with people in a professional manner and to diffuse difficult situations that may arise," said J.R., who is a certified management trainer and professional consultant. He gets involved in departmental operational processes at a level where, at times, he is called upon to manage the department, repair the operational problems and train a new manager -- then, turn the department over to that manager.

Although J.R. is quick to point out the tremendous amount heÕs learned from his father over the years, Jim said he believes his son has developed into a better consultant. J.R, loves the opportunity to work with hospitals from coast to coast, and the important role he plays in turning them around. He also enjoys the travel, but said he doesnÕt do it as much now as he did before.

J.R. has definite ideas about where he wants the company to go next, emphasizing that any and all change is driven by client needs. "The original RPI computer system uses a Microsoft Excel platform -- a database program. I have upgraded it twice since we developed our management tool," he said. HeÕs also looking at opportunities for information sharing.

After 387 engagements over 30 years improving hospitalsÕ performance, father and son would like RPI to lead the formation of a hospital information network Š collating, standardizing and sharing not only data, but also solutions to operational problems."

When the Surmans arenÕt working with hospitals, they like to spend their time off playing golf. Regarding retirement, Jim said, "I would like to return to a passion I once had -- flying light, fixed-wing, single-engine airplanes.

Lately, J.R. and Jim have revived an old family tradition -- the Sunday brunch, with wife Anna Jean (Sinatra), daughters Connie and Jayme, and, this time, two new additions Š granddaughters Genavieve and Rachel.

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Copyright © 2005 by John Fries, Pittsburgh, PA.
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