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
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
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
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.