At one point, Mark Gridley wasn’t sure he’d live beyond age 30. His journey to becoming President and CEO of FHN is proof that it’s OK to accept help, and it’s imperative to work hard.
It took some soul-searching, but once Mark Gridley aspired to work in health care, he found a way to make it happen.
Now, he’s the President and CEO of FHN, an award-winning regional health care system serving the people of northwest Illinois and southern Wisconsin. But once upon a time, he was just a kid trying to grow up in a tumultuous world.
“Something that’s not commonly known about me is I’m a first-generation immigrant,” Gridley says. “I was born outside of London in a town called Hammersmith. It was just during the Vietnam era.”
Gridley never knew his biological father, and he was young when his mother, Janet, fell in love with his stepfather, who was a member of the United States Marine Corps. Their new family moved to Milwaukee in 1975, when Gridley was just under 6 years old. “We grew up in a lower income type of area – there wasn’t much extra to go around,” Gridley describes. “My stepfather had a lot of trouble dealing with things after Vietnam. Honestly, it was a very abusive household.”
Gridley has three younger half-siblings – one brother, Carl, and two sisters, Katrina and Toni – whom he ultimately helped to raise. Just after his sophomore year of high school, Gridley’s stepfather was incarcerated for committing a violent felony, which resulted in his mother needing to work multiple jobs to keep the family afloat.
As the oldest sibling, Gridley felt a massive responsibility to help take care of his family. But he wasn’t quite sure of his path, and the uncertainty led him into trouble.
“I struggled in school, which was difficult for me. I didn’t really have any hobbies, and I was very rebellious,” Gridley says. “Today we’d call that adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, but I think it’s probably been around since the beginning of mankind.”
Even though he failed many high school classes in the beginning, Gridley’s intellect was high and there was potential in him to succeed. When he reached a point when he needed to pass every single class, including some remedial courses, in order to graduate, Gridley felt a wake-up call and buckled down.
“I literally went from skipping classes and getting D’s and F’s to being a 3.8 GPA student,” he says. He even ended up becoming the vice president of his senior class.
With all of the drugs, crime and abuse around him, Gridley was doubtful at one point that he’d even live beyond age 30. He wanted something different, something more purposeful, which stimulated his interest in theology.
“I almost looked at it as a way to escape the environment I was in,” Gridley says. “I was lost, and I was looking for something that had hope.”
After graduating high school, Gridley applied and was accepted into a private seminary-type university, much to his delight. However, his excitement soon deflated when he realized the cost of college.
“There was this thing called tuition – I’m sure nobody has heard of it,” Gridley jokes.
Since he didn’t have any money, he changed course and decided to join the military, much like many of his family members before him. In 1989, he officially began service in the Army, stationed at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga.
Once in the military, Gridley was exposed to martial arts, which proved to be a game-changer. Now, he’s been training in martial arts for more than 30 years and has an impressive resume of accomplishments. He’s even traveled all around the world to teach classes. But at first, martial arts was just a way for Gridley to not feel so angry or like a victim anymore.
“It’s not so much about the accomplishments – it’s about the journey, sharing, and personal development,” he says. “Many of my instructors, training partners and students were and are mentors to me far beyond the physical.”
Meanwhile, since his aptitude scores were high enough, Gridley was able to do any occupation within the Army that he wanted. But all it took was one video of a person driving an ambulance for him to make up his mind.
“I thought being a medical specialist – referred to as a combat medic – would be interesting,” he says. “And you know, it wasn’t the first life I saved that drove my passion in health care. It was actually when I was on the scene and I lost somebody who I was trying to save. I began to realize how high the stakes were, and how important this was. Since that point, I still feel blessed today to be working in health care because I earn my living by helping other people. And so that’s what really ignited my passion.”
Originally, Gridley planned on completing a two-year enlistment before going to college. But before he was discharged, Operation Desert Storm went into effect in 1991. During the 42-day period when the United States responded to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Gridley and all other active military members were not allowed to be discharged.
“We were holding the force together because we were now going into war,” Gridley explains.
During that time, Gridley found himself working in a hospital setting, which deepened his desire to continue to help others. So, when Desert Storm lifted and the time came to make a decision, Gridley chose to re-enlist in the Army. He went to Fort Sam Houston – a U.S. Army post in San Antonio, Texas – where he remained on active duty while training through the Academy of Health and Sciences to become a practical nurse. After graduating a year later, he was stationed at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C., where he served for three years in the general surgery unit.
But helping patients face-to-face wasn’t always enough.
“I was pretty cynical as a nurse,” Gridley admits. “I was complaining about how I couldn’t provide the type of care I wanted to provide. I wanted to teach the patients, be there with them, and be able to spend that time educating them on their wound care or whatever it may be. A senior nurse who was in charge of the unit pulled me aside and said, ‘Mark, you’re a really compassionate, caring guy, but I’m going to ask you to shut up unless you’re going to do something about it.’”
Being the rebellious person that he was, Gridley took that as a challenge. He decided to approach the hospital’s senior administration to “educate” them about his ideas.
“They were very courteous to me in retrospect,” Gridley laughs. “I hadn’t yet developed the perspective to really understand.”
Even though the conversation was brief, Gridley quickly realized the senior administrators had much more knowledge than him about health care. He felt they were speaking different languages, and if he wanted to understand, he’d have to seek out more education.
While that was at the forefront of his mind, Gridley meanwhile received some life-altering news. His mother, still in Milwaukee, had developed small cell lung cancer. There was no one else at home to take care of his mother and youngest sister, who was still in high school.
So, instead of re-enlisting, Gridley moved to Milwaukee to help take care of his family. He is grateful for having the opportunity to serve his country, and for the discipline, ethics and the servant leadership training that the military provided him.
“It was an honor to be able to serve” he says.
After returning home, Gridley began taking night classes at a local community college. He soon transferred to Upper Iowa University, which he describes as a friendly school toward military students, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in business.
While in school, he took as many shifts as he could get at an urgent care medical clinic as well as working nights at nursing homes. He certainly found it stressful to navigate these shifts, college classes, and the responsibilities of his family, but all of it was reaffirming to Gridley that he was on a purposeful path.
“My mother ended up in hospice care, and it was only a couple of years before she died, so that was tough, but one thing that was eye-opening for me was trying to navigate her bills,” Gridley recalls. “I didn’t understand the insurance billing. I didn’t understand those charges. That was a mystery, and that was another reason for getting into the business aspect of health care.”
Other physicians working at the medical clinic were drawn to Gridley’s potential, which opened doors for him to work at a number of private practices after he graduated.
“I worked in private practice, running operations, for nearly seven years,” Gridley says. “But it was during a time when it was hard, especially in the Milwaukee area, for independent groups to thrive. I was looking for growth.”
That ambition led him to join Aurora Healthcare, where he was responsible for managing multiple clinics north of Milwaukee in Washington, Dodge and Ozaukee counties. Here, Gridley was exposed to a larger health system and larger organizational thinking. But in order for him to someday become a senior administrator, he knew he’d need to get a master’s degree.
“I had a great mentor at Aurora Healthcare who was an administrator, and he shared that if I was willing to spend the time and pursue graduate school on top of my normal responsibilities, they could provide some tuition assistance to help pay for it. So between that and my GI bill – I still had some money left over – I knew it was something I could do.”
Gridley chose Cardinal Stritch University –in part because of its theological values – to complete his Master’s of Business Administration at night. Shortly after he completed the program, he received a promotion at Aurora Healthcare to serve as an administrator. His role kept growing, just like he hoped and imagined.
But the grass wasn’t necessarily greener.
“I was working late hours, and I realized I was working on a spreadsheet that had a lot of people’s names on it, and I didn’t know these people who I was making decisions about or for,” Gridley explains. “That gave me pause. That’s not what I wanted – that’s not what I had envisioned myself doing. I was always more about the people.”
So, when he read an email about an opportunity in Freeport, a much more rural community in the Midwest, Gridley felt intrigued. He was also now married and starting to raise a family with his wife, Elizabeth, making Freeport all the more attractive.
“What really interested me about coming to Freeport was my first conversation with Dr. Michael Perry, who was the previous CEO of FHN,” Gridley says. “He was all about the community, and he was all about the people here. He shared that his goal was to bring somebody in who would one day care for the people he cared about. That made me want to learn more.”
It was a long interview process, but ultimately Gridley was hired in 2010 to be FHN’s vice president of physician affairs.
“That role was pretty familiar to me since I had been doing it in a larger health system, but right away I realized the physicians and providers here were community-minded. I mean, they truly did care,” Gridley says. “The team I was working with, including the board of directors, they wanted to take care of people. That was important to me.”
As someone who aspires to be a life-long learner, Gridley also appreciated that FHN invested in him by allowing him to receive an executive scholar certificate in finance through Northwestern University. That helped Gridley to understand more about how hospitals operate financially.
When Sharon Summers, the previous chief operating officer at FHN, was preparing to retire, Gridley took on additional responsibilities before gradually assuming the role with her insightful mentoring. He officially became FHN’s chief operating officer in 2013.
It seemed likely that Gridley would next become the next CEO. But he never took anything for granted.
“When Dr. Perry decided that he was going to retire, we went through, again, an interview process with the physicians, our leadership team, and our board, and ultimately I was privileged to become the chief executive officer,” he recalls.
“What I would say I’m most proud of is the people. The people who are doing the work day in and day out. I look at myself as a facilitator at best,” Gridley continues. “What I share with our new employees is that it isn’t about new technology or the latest piece of equipment. That’s nice, but it doesn’t matter unless you have skilled hands to utilize it. It’s not about bricks and mortar, it’s about the care that’s being provided to each person. That’s what differentiates us as an organization, and what’s appealing about FHN as a rural market. Truly, the patients we’re taking care of are literal family members of people working here, or they’re people who we know. So it’s the personal connections that I’m proud of.”
Ongoing professional development is important to Gridley. His next aspiration is to pursue a doctorate in strategic leadership, and he’s already been accepted to Liberty University. But that goal is on the backburner for now, since serving the Freeport community comes first.
To anyone who feels lost, as Gridley once was, his message is tied to his martial arts principles.
“Know your true north for the unpredictable journey. Be willing to be flexible in your tactics, but steadfast on your principles,” he says. “You’re capable of doing more than you ever expected.”