Three new leaders – one just days into the job, another two months in, and a third a year in – holding among the most influential positions in the community, gave an update on their roles and visions at Thursday’s Power Breakfast series.
Hosted by the Greater Wilmington Business Journal, the “New Leaders + New Directions” Power Breakfast attracted roughly 500 attendees.
Panelists included Wilmington International Airport (ILM) director Jeff Bourk, who took the helm at the beginning of the year, New Hanover Community Endowment president and CEO William Buster, who started his new gig Tuesday, and Shelbourn Stevens, who was named president of Novant Health’s coastal market last April.
Each had different focus areas and provided the audience intel on their backgrounds, ongoing projects and plans for the future.
The newest leader of the newest organization, Buster, said he still had clothes in his car to unpack. He has plenty of local faces and topics to familiarize himself with as he settles into Wilmington. Asked whether the endowment could fund a replacement for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, he said “What is it?” and “No.”
Now in charge of the $1.25 billion endowment – the largest philanthropic nest egg the region has ever seen – Buster was understandably one of the most sought-after individuals in attendance; a line of more than a dozen people waited for a chance to speak with the new CEO after the event concluded.
He still doesn’t have an email through the endowment and asked folks in the audience to stop reaching him through his private Gmail address, which somehow leaked before his move.
Buster brings with him relevant experience from a nearby health legacy foundation also still in its infancy. He was previously the Asheville-based Dogwood Health Trust’s senior vice president of impact. There, he said his role was to “turn them around a little bit” after a couple of missteps. At the New Hanover Community Endowment, Buster is tasked with steering its strategic goals and forging a set of criteria that will be used to weigh grant applications.
A 15-member community advisory committee will provide the board with formal feedback and recommendations, per the sale agreement. Information on the application or appointment process for the advisory committee will be released in the coming weeks, he said. Criteria are anticipated to be approved in July with grant applications welcomed by September, per the endowment’s tentative timeline.
As one of the highest funded health legacy foundations per capita across the nation, Buster said “There's nothing else in this country like the New Hanover Community Endowment.”
He views philanthropy as catalytic: “We don’t create the change; we support the folks who create the change.”
One of the worst things Buster has seen in the field is “too many resources going in too fast to a small area,” he said. “It's like flooding the engine,” he said. “If you're not used to deploying the level of resources that we're going to be deploying, it can do more harm than good. And you get one chance to start.”
Getting nonprofits ready to receive an amped-up level of resources will be key, he said. “If you are a nonprofit and your annual budget has been $100,000, it doesn't make much sense to ask for a million-dollar grant.”
Beefing up budgets is possible, he said, but it’s important for organizations to scale responsibly. Buster said the endowment will be part of the process in improving nonprofits' opportunities to access resources to assess operational capacities and strategic plans that are hard to achieve otherwise on tight budgets.
What the community needs most is for nonprofits to collaborate on shared ideals, he said. “There’s nothing worse than… having a shotgun wedding as a philanthropy,” he said, explaining the endowment won’t be telling organizations they have to partner up.
As former president of Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, Stevens already had a deep understanding of the local healthcare market before moving into his new role as the system’s coastal market president, which includes Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
The transition was prompted by the February 2021 sale of the once-county-owned New Hanover hospital to Novant.
“When Carl [Amato] calls, ‘no’ is not in the conversation,” Stevens said, explaining his promotion coordinated by Novant’s CEO.
As head of the region’s largest employer, Stevens reflected on how the pandemic exacerbated healthcare staff shortages that pre-dated the latest exodus of workers. “Nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, they all left the field. They had enough, they retired. People thinking that they wanted to go into healthcare now are rethinking that,” he said.
The shortage of workers has heightened competition among healthcare systems and has created pressure to increase pay. “We're all fighting for the same nurses and doctors and staff,” he said. Last year, Novant invested $36 million into its team member salaries to bring them up to market rate, he said.
Collaboration with UNCW and community colleges is necessary to grow programs that educate healthcare workers, according to Stevens. “Some of the colleges graduate between 40 and 46 nurses a year. I need them to put a zero on the end of that to meet our demand,” Stevens said.
To deal with the strain, Novant is relying on traveling healthcare professionals, he said.
Novant is putting a heightened focus on completing its planned community hospital in Scotts Hill, which will expand the current emergency department campus off Highway 17 near the Pender County line. The new 66-bed hospital should open by 2024 and a 108-bed Neurosciences Institute off 17th Street will open this fall, he said.
From a patient-care side, though previous COVID-19 surges have waned, lately it’s been difficult due to the volume of patience who need care that put off appointments and treatment because of the pandemic, Stevens said. “We’ve all been overwhelmed,” he said.
Novant is opening up two medical office buildings in Brunswick County and will continue to look for this type of space.
After one year post-acquisition, Stevens said “it’s a bit too early to tell” if healthcare costs have been affected.
On his first month on the job, Bourk helped ILM christen the most visible component of its multi-year expansion plans. Last month, the airport opened its extended terminal, upping its building space by 75% and creating room to accommodate 50% more passengers.
Long-term, Bourk said he saw ILM as being only halfway through its expansion plans, with several more projects left to diagnose and pursue.
ILM is in a unique position compared to other airports post-pandemic, he said, adding the domestic market is down 20% on average. “We have more seats in the market in Wilmington than pre-pandemic,” he said. “That’s not seen around the country.”
A majority of the airport’s customers are business travelers. Changes in the business travel industry may be long-term, he said, adding that he’s excited about the potential growth in the leisure travel market.
ILM’s three dedicated carriers – American Airlines, Delta and United – service nine nonstop routes that connect to 360 markets across the globe with one stop. “That's an incredible level of service for a community this size,” he said. “There’s room for more.”
At present, ILM doesn’t host any low-cost carriers, but soon, that could change. “There is room for low-cost service in this market,” he said.
Every new flight generates about $35 million in economic impact and creates 90 jobs annually to the region on average, according to Bourk. “Air service development is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said.
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