by Maria SCRIVANI
John Friedlander has spent his life learning to provide service, a notion
that has kept him grounded in the roots of community activism through a steady climb up
corporate ladders. Since 1996 he has led the development of a new regional health care
system for Western New York, serving as president and chief executive officer of CGF
Health System. It might be the pinnacle of someone elses career, but thats not
the way John Friedlander thinks.
We are clearly in the service business, says the 51-year-old California
native. I just want CGF Health System to be an outstanding provider. That is
his professional mission statement but it might just as well be personal. Though he
insists that he never had any idea what he would end up doing with his life,
Friedlanders employment history hinges on the service principle. Thats service
with a passionfor this is a man who clearly throws himself wholeheartedly into
whatever is the task at hand.
It is his most engaging personality feature; this contagious enthusiasm and optimism.
Talking about the time he worked setting up community mental health centers for the state
of New Jersey, he describes spending nights in mental hospitals trying to get a
patients perspective. He talks about working in New York City during John
Lindsays administration when, as part of his job developing employee assistance
programs, he had to scour some rough neighborhoods ferreting out alcoholic city workers.
I had some real wake-up life experiences, Friedlander says.
Its all pretty hard to imagine when youre sitting in his office at CGF headquarters on Washington Street. His office windows give Friedlander an inspiring view of what he calls the Renaissance of Buffalo, the medical corridor with its renovated and new buildings, concrete evidence that 21st-century health care is here.
Friedlander typically has plunged right in. And though he disavows any kind of planning
or goal-setting that has brought him to this point (I just dont think that
way, he says), it seems as if his whole life was preparation for this job. It
has, he says with some bemusement, all just evolved.
John at age one in Cambridge, Mass.
Showing off his first bike at the age of six
in the backyard
John at the age of nine.
He was born in San Francisco, the first of three children. Their father, now retired,
was an academic physician, a neurologist by training who eventually moved his family to
Boston and Albany. Friedlander earned an undergraduate degree in sociology from American
International College in Springfield, Massachusetts and a masters in health care
administration from Northeastern University. He went to work in New York City,
administering a million-dollar federal grant to set up substance-abuse programs for
municipal employees. From there he went to work as an administrator for Long Island
College Hospital in Brooklyn.
John and his dad, Walter, a retired physician, at Nantucket, Mass., while celebrating Johns 50th birthday in July, 1997.
That was followed by tenure as head of the state psychiatric hospital division of New
Jerseys Department of Mental Health. Friedlander had his initiation into the
corporate world when he took a job as a health care consultant for Coopers and Lybrand
accounting firm, a turn in the road that eventually led to Buffalo.
My first exposure to Buffalo came at the end of 1979 when Buffalo General
Hospital was looking to expand its hospital facilities and had completed the merger with
Deaconess, he says. As the lead consultant he worked with Buffalo Generals
President and CEO, Dr. William Kinnard, whom Friedlander identifies as one of his
lifes mentors. In 1984 when the hospitals board decided that a new number-two
post of chief operating officer was warranted (its $210-million construction project was
the largest HUD-funded hospital project of its time), Friedlander came on board. The top
job became his in 1990. Six years later Friedlander assumed his current postguiding
the merger process involving Buffalo General Health System, The Childrens Hospital
of Buffalo and Millard Fillmore Health System. The merger, which also included DeGraff
Memorial Hospital in North Tonawanda, was completed April 1, l998, creating the largest
health care system in Upstate New York.
I really want this enterprise of ours to be recognized as a very, very
high-quality health care provider, Friedlander says. We have the best doctors,
the best hospitals. I would like to leverage them so the community has absolute, total
confidence when they are in the hands of our staff....Were no Johns Hopkins,
Cleveland Clinic or Columbia-Presbyterian when it comes to reputationbut we can
offer, at the right cost, the best quality and efficiency of care for all in Western New
Yorkand we should accept nothing less.
John as a high school senior in 1965.
He brings the same passion to his volunteer work in the community-at-large, serving
currently as chair of the Board of Directors of the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County
and Board chair of the Healthcare Association of New York State (HANYS). Its
an honor for me to serve, he says.
Friedlander clearly enjoys the excitement of every workdayThere are things
going on every second, he says. You know youre providing something good
for the community and I like that. One thing he doesnt like much anymore is
business travelfortunately his work now doesnt require much. Married to the
former Diane Zielinski since 1989 (they met at Buffalo General, where she worked in
information services), he is the doting father of two daughters, Zoe, 8 and Devin, 6 and a
son, Alec, 4. Friedlander also has two grown daughters from a previous marriage.
One corner of his office is reserved for photos of the family. They enjoy spending time in their Nantucket home, skiing the slopes of Western New York and taking advantage of the many recreational and cultural opportunities this area offers. Last weekend we were at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery on Friday night, he says. On Saturday I took my son to the Buffalo Zoo. Sunday we enjoyed a Buffalo Philharmonic concert. I love it here!.
He is a major sports fan, having grown up sneaking off to as many Red Sox games in
Fenway Park as he could get away with. Now Sabres and Bills games take up a lot of his
leisure time, and he often attends games with a child or two in tow.
His fit, youthful appearance and cheerful demeanorone wonders if he learned
bedside manner at his fathers kneebelie the high stress level of
his job. The secret is simple: Friedlander is one of those people who believe in playing
as hard as he works. Every Wednesday night he plays a rousing round of ice hockey in a
casual league made up of similarly-minded guys. We just pick sides and go at it for
an hour and a half. Its the toughest hour of my weekphysically. Like
many baby boomers he also has a treadmill at home. Several times a week he actually uses
John Friedlander carrying the Olympic Flame during the torch relay which passed through Western New York in June 1996. John was among 55 community heroes who were selected to participate in the torch relay.
If staying excited and energized can be viewed as a kind of philosophy of
life, thats it for John Friedlander. As long as he can passionately pursue the goal
of providing service, as long as there is what he terms a place for opportunity and
creativity, thats how long he expects to stay in town. With all the
challenging health care issues these days, it looks like hes here for the long haul.
Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.
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