What is the adage about history giving us the right leaders at the right time?
As the COVID pandemic continues to roil and surge, how timely that the incoming chairman of Tulsa Regional Chamber is health care professional Kevin Gross. As president and CEO of Hillcrest HealthCare System, Gross has front-line experience dealing with one of the toughest times in the city’s public health history. The place, the time and the leader: perfect match.
“I feel we have turned the corner,” Gross said in a November 2021 interview. COVID-19 will never go away “and for 2022 it’s anybody’s guess,” he says, “but with the number of people vaccinated, the number who have had COVID and the precautions we’ve taken,” he believes “we’ve got it under control.” That gives him the freedom to focus on other Chamber objectives.
What is your immediate goal?
As Chamber chairman, Gross is focusing on economic development, attracting and retaining businesses. It’s a very competitive marketplace out there, nationally and internationally, he says, but the timing is right. “Everything took a bit of a pause in 2020 because of the pandemic and shutdowns, but things are reopening and there’s going to be a lot of activity,” Gross says. “Companies are back at expanding, looking at relocating, and we’re in the appropriate position to capitalize on that.”
Where does the Chamber start?
“First, I want to continue to support the efforts of (outgoing) chair Rose Washington-Jones, moving toward being more diverse and inclusive as an organization,” he says. “The incoming board is the most diverse group of individuals the Chamber has had.”
Another goal is looking forward to the next decade. The 2020 census results indicate the Tulsa metro has surpassed a million people, “a big milestone,” so Gross is challenging the Chamber board and staff to anticipate the next census. He asks, “What do we want Tulsa to look like in 2030? What kinds of things do we imagine we can achieve? What does the Chamber need to do to make that happen? Or, do differently to achieve real growth in the next decade?”
And speaking of the future ...
“I want to continue supporting TYPROS … the leaders of the future.” TYPROS, the Chamber’s organization for younger people, provides an opportunity for leadership roles and networking among peers. Gross says, “Mentoring can’t be understated for young people. I was given an opportunity by one of my mentors to run a hospital when I was 30 years old. Without that opportunity — somebody willing to take a chance on me — my career would be totally different.”
But wait, there’s more.
It’s an election year at the state level and nationally there are mid-term elections. “Part of what the Chamber does is advocacy work, so we’ll be spending a lot of time looking at the issues, reviewing people who are running for public office and helping shape the agenda,” he says. “It’s important to have good leaders in public office.”
What are Tulsa’s strengths for economic growth?
“The Chamber has a great economic development team and great success. Tulsa is a great place to live, raise a family and work. We have the tools we need. That includes resources, places for companies to relocate and economic incentives.”
What other factors contribute to growth?
Tourism and the economic impact of more than 7 million people who visited Tulsa last year, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and shopping, contributing to Tulsa’s growth by spending more than $800 million. “An important part of what we do is to promote Tulsa as a place to visit. One of the highlights of 2022 is the PGA Championship in May, which will bring tens of thousands of individuals here for tourism. Thanks to our partners at Southern Hills Country Club, this will be a great opportunity to showcase Tulsa.”
You’ve been here before, haven’t you? Both here in Tulsa and at the Chamber.
“I’ve come to Tulsa twice.” He was here from 2004-2006, with Hillcrest and the Chamber, and when his successor at the hospital system retired and he was invited back, “I jumped at the opportunity.”
“All the things we have to offer here. Tulsa is a very livable city, lots of things to do, easy to be involved in the community. A very comfortable place to live and work.”
What is your favorite place in Tulsa?
“That’s a hard one. Clearly, Gathering Place has put us on the map as a world-class recreational center for families, thanks to the George Kaiser Family Foundation and other donors that made it happen. Also, my list of top places includes the BOK Center, a great venue that attracts a variety of performers and performances, concerts and events from professional bull riding to ice skating.
“When I came to Tulsa in 2004, downtown was a totally different place and there was not much going on there after 5 o’clock at night. That changed with the BOK Center at one end, ONEOK Field at the other and the infill of restaurants, museums and activities. Now, downtown is an exciting place at night with plenty of people and activity. The vision that developed the BOK was the spark that made the revitalization of downtown happen.”
Who was your biggest influence in life?
“My father. He was the classic success story, the son of immigrants (from Ireland), didn’t finish high school, went off to World War II, returned and found a job as a salesman for a company that manufactured concrete, was with that organization for 32 years and retired as president of the company. He truly experienced the American dream and he shaped my life, my values and provided the opportunity for me and my two sisters to go to college. His work ethic and values shaped me to be the person I am today.”
What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Two rules: (1) If you take care of the big things, the little things will take care of themselves, and (2) there are no big things.” The advice was for running hospitals, but it applies to life. “In other words, there are a million things to do 365 days a year. You can’t do a couple of things and expect everything will work out; you have to do a lot of things and do them consistently over a long period of time to be successful.”
What was the toughest time in your life?
“The last 22 months. I’ve been running hospitals for 36 years and never had a 22-month period like we’ve had with this pandemic. It has challenged everyone. A hospital is a 24/7 operation. We don’t close. We’ve never been through anything like this in the health care industry.”
What do you do for fun?
“I work hard so I don’t have a lot of spare time, but I do enjoy fishing of all kinds.”
What is your wish for Tulsa?
“Other cities have grown but got challenged with congestion, high cost of living and high cost of housing. My wish for Tulsa is that we can have good, strong growth, but not lose our character — maintain the things that attract people to Tulsa.”