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December 1998

John Friedlander:
A Man on a Mission


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 else’s career, but that’s 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, Friedlander’s employment history hinges on the service principle. That’s service with a passion—for 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 patient’s perspective. He talks about working in New York City during John Lindsay’s 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.

It’s all pretty hard to imagine when you’re 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 don’t 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.”

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John at age one in Cambridge, Mass.

Showing off his first bike at the age of six in the backyard
of his San Fransisco home.

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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 master’s 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.

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John and his dad, Walter, a retired physician, at Nantucket, Mass., while celebrating John’s 50th birthday in July, 1997.

That was followed by tenure as head of the state psychiatric hospital division of New Jersey’s 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 General’s President and CEO, Dr. William Kinnard, whom Friedlander identifies as one of his life’s mentors. In 1984 when the hospital’s 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 post—guiding the merger process involving Buffalo General Health System, The Children’s 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....We’re no Johns Hopkins, Cleveland Clinic or Columbia-Presbyterian when it comes to reputation—but we can offer, at the right cost, the best quality and efficiency of care for all in Western New York—and we should accept nothing less.”

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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). “It’s an honor for me to serve,” he says.

Friedlander clearly enjoys the excitement of every workday—”There are things going on every second,” he says. “You know you’re providing something good for the community and I like that.” One thing he doesn’t like much anymore is business travel—fortunately his work now doesn’t 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 demeanor—one wonders if he learned ‘bedside manner’ at his father’s knee—belie 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. It’s the toughest hour of my week—physically.” Like many baby boomers he also has a treadmill at home. Several times a week he actually uses it.

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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, that’s 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”, that’s how long he expects to stay in town. With all the challenging health care issues these days, it looks like he’s here for the long haul.

Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.


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