OMBA Equips Hospital CFO to Serve Community Through Crisis

October 20, 2023

For Ryan Nelson, an Online MBA was a key ingredient in learning to serve his local community well in the COVID era.

Online MBA - Ryan Nelson

At 23, Ryan Nelson started an MBA program before having to withdraw when life got in the way.

At 40, he enrolled in Baylor’s Online MBA program, resolving to expand and strengthen his skills as he eyed his next opportunity in healthcare administration. He began the program in January 2020, just before he would face the challenge of a lifetime during the COVID-19 pandemic.

His Baylor experience not only helped him weather the pandemic; it helped him land a dream job in his hometown. Now, as chief financial officer (CFO) of Saint Francis Hospital in Memphis, he is better equipped to serve his community through a fiscally challenging season in healthcare administration.

Discovering a Calling

A native of central Illinois, Ryan earned a bachelor’s degree in finance before beginning his career as a financial analyst at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System. He had been searching for a role that made good use of his analytical skills, and healthcare administration fit the bill.

“I loved story problems in school, which is exactly what this role turned out to be,” he said.

He connected immediately with the task of telling a story through data, especially when the direct benefit to patients was evident, but he became frustrated with the distance between the corporate office and the hospital floor.

“In decision support, I would submit a report and never hear back about what happened next,” he said. “I realized that I needed to get into an operational role to see a situation through and find out the end of the story. I wanted to be the person making changes in staffing or supply chain management.”

In the early 2000s, he relocated to Memphis for a role as a financial controller at Baptist Memorial Health Care.

In this capacity, he would take a deep dive into the factors that were impacting cost, from how often physicians ordered certain tests to how long the average patient stayed. He was a sponge for clinical knowledge, learning how to speak the language of a clinician as he honed his analytical skills.

Ryan stayed in the role for 15 years, propelled by his passion for identifying large and small ways to improve patient care. He aspired to become a hospital CFO, but CFO roles in Memphis were few and far between.

Despite their deep ties to Memphis, Ryan and his wife, Sarah, made the decision to bet on his career by moving across the country for a CFO role at Community Health Systems in Texas.

“At that point, I decided to go all in to advance my career by pursuing an MBA,” Ryan said.

Attracted to the flexibility and affordability of Baylor’s online MBA program, he began classes at the beginning of 2020.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Ryan led a team at a 140-bed acute care hospital that was bursting at the seams in the early days of the pandemic. With the hospital at 140 percent capacity, he put in 17-hour days as he and his colleagues opened new units to accommodate the influx of patients. At the same time, they struggled to cope with persistent shortages of everything from N-95 masks to plastic tubing.

“I spent a lot of my time quarterbacking, trying to secure supplies when everything had to be sourced differently overnight,” he said.

Against the odds, he also managed to earn his MBA. He expresses appreciation for the ways in which his wife and daughter, who was a toddler at the time, supported him and spurred him onward.

He also credits the online MBA program for emphasizing ethical servant leadership.

“My ethics class, in particular, forced me to look at things differently as I was working to allocate resources during a crisis,” he said.

A class on management, in turn, shaped his leadership style by requiring him to reach out to previous direct reports and identify areas of improvement.

“I became more aware of the fact that I excelled at being decisive, but that I had room to be more collaborative and place a higher weight on the input of the people I led,” he said.

While he successfully steered his team through the pandemic in Texas, Ryan and his family missed living in Memphis, where they still maintained deep ties. In the summer of 2022, he landed a CFO role at Saint Francis Hospital, which he calls “one of the top six jobs in the country I would have wanted.”

There is no doubt in his mind that having an MBA improved his candidacy for the role.

"Had I not invested in my own growth, I might not have been at the point where I could take the job, which would have delayed my career by a few years,” Ryan said.

Taking on the Next Challenge

Now, as he moves from a 149-bed facility to two facilities with over 675 licensed beds, Ryan is taking on a fresh set of challenges.

In the post-COVID era, Ryan, like the majority of his peers in healthcare administration, spends a significant portion of his time developing strategies to recruit and retain talent. Between lingering pandemic burnout and the rise of travel nursing, building a more sustainable long-term workforce feels like a daily uphill battle.

“Ultimately, I have learned that financial incentives will only work for so long,” Ryan said. “My objective is to cultivate an environment that makes people want to stay. This hinges on waking up every day and showing the people I lead that I care about their well-being in tangible ways.”

Apart from workforce challenges, a day in the life of a CFO is never cut-and-dry. Ryan goes to work with a daily to-do list that usually changes as he is called to put out fires, from addressing equipment failures to clearing out a surgical backlog.

On his most harrowing days, he is motivated by the endless opportunities to serve the people around him.

“This is my home,” he said. “I'm not just making a difference; I’m making a difference in my own community in the lives of people I care about. That is what keeps me here.”

Do you want to be equipped to better serve your own community? Learn more about the Baylor Online MBA program by clicking here, or fill out a Request for Information form to speak directly with an admissions advisor.