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Posted: June 01, 2011

Executive edge: Kent Thiry

DaVita CEO brings Fortune 500 cachet to Denver's Union Station

Lynn Bronikowski

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Photo by Sam Adams

When Davita Inc. opens its $100 million headquarters near Denver's Union Station next year, the 14th floor penthouse will house a cafeteria with a huge terrace.

"In most corporate buildings the top floor has the CEO, the board room and things like that," said Kent Thiry, CEO of the Fortune 500 company that last year moved its corporate headquarters from El Segundo, Calif. "In ours, it's going to be the cafeteria so that every teammate - both the ones that live here and the ones who visit to attend DaVita University - gets the best view."

That's just one of the fingerprints Thiry has put on DaVita, where he calls employees teammates, likens the company to a village and labels himself Mayor KT. He developed the village metaphor shortly after taking over near bankrupt Total Renal Care in 1999 and overseeing its emergence as DaVita, which last year had revenues of $6.1 billion.

"We were trying to create a special place for people to work," Thiry said. "In a village you look out for each other; you pay your taxes; you don't litter. We wanted to be a healthy community, and everyone knows how to behave in a healthy village."

At first the idea of calling the company a village was met with dead silence by his senior team.

"We have a lot of people who never lived like that," he said. "But what we attempt to do here is we liberate people's desire to celebrate universal values. We're about humanness, and most people want to be about humanness."

Thiry himself grew up in small villages in Wisconsin - Thiensville and neighboring Maquon - where his father was a partner at Arthur Andersen and his mother was a stay-at-home-mom of six children. He envisioned growing up to become mayor or running a company, although not near the scope of DaVita where at 55 he is Colorado's highest-paid CEO, earning $13.8 million 2010.

"Being raised in a small community, you got exposed to people who made a difference and believed in the community," Thiry said. "All these people didn't give flowery conceptual speeches, but just the way they lived right in front of you, spoke of their quiet civic leadership."

He would go on to earn a B.A. in political science from Stanford University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Today he delivers "State of the Village" addresses to his teammates, even pointing to some of his own shortcomings, which he admits can be brutal.
"Many of my faults were embarrassing, and yet it did set very positive forces in motion because once you discuss some of this stuff, you're really on the hook for improving," he said. "I used to be into micromanagement, and when I was disappointed, I would get angry. That took me a few years to get over so it was on my 360."

As part of his DaVita boosterism, Thiry regularly dons a "Three Musketeers" costume that he insists on calling "my uniform." Shortly before joining Total Renal Care, Thiry had seen the movie "The Man in the Iron Mask," and the company's "All for one and one for all" mantra was born.

The company was in terrible condition when 90 of its top executives were called to a meeting in a cramped restaurant meeting room.

"I thought, ‘We had to have a skit because we wanted to have fun,'" said Thiry, who sent people to Hollywood to rent costumes and equipment. "We did this skit about the "Three Muskateers" defending a dialysis center that was being taken over by evil forces. The energy was amazing so we did it for all our teammates months later.

"Even now before our earnings calls, the last thing we say before the call is ‘All for one and one for all.'"
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Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.

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Readers Respond

Colorado's highest-paid CEO, earning $13.8 million in 2010 - is Anyone Really worth that kind of pay check? By Mark on 2011 06 30
Thiry has done a fine job in getting his corporation to do what a fine corporation does: keep the labor costs low, crank out the product rapidly (in this case treatments), and charge as much as possible. However, this has resulted in a field of medicine that has had soaring infection rates and has been unique in medicine for increasing mortality - some of the highest rates in the industrialized world. If you want to see what is behind the curtain in Thiry's emerald city I would suggest reading the fairly recent Propublica expose for starters. By Chris on 2011 06 12
Something has gone hideously wrong in Wisconsin. One can only conclude that some sort of warped social army experiment from trhe 60's backfired up there, resulting in soulless goons like Scott Walker, Paul Ryan and this wildly overpaid jester seeping out of the social plumbing and infecting American society. God help us all. By Mike on 2011 06 11
If Thiry is the Mayor, and his employees are the villagers, what does that make the kidney patients? The crops?? This company is image driven, the ego of Thiry and the over paid board of directors leave you wondering where the heart is. The kidney patients depend on these centers to keep them alive, yet they do not benefit from the bundles of cash billed through private insurance and Medicare. They are sustained, but the quality of the treatment and the budget cutting, over worked managers and technicians make it a stressful and lonely time, 3 days a week, 4 hours a treatment, for the patients. By IHateDialysis on 2011 06 11
Is "humanness" even a word? Isn't it "humanity"? In Davita clinics, I've yet to see much "humanness" or even "humanity." Being a Davita employee may be marvellous; I hope it is better than being a Davita patient. By Michelle on 2011 06 09
Davita is all smoke and mirrors. The VPs are pathetic and dump all the work on the Facility Administrators and Regional Managers. The "village" concept exists only in Thiry's mind. By Peter North on 2011 06 09
If only this much attention were focused on the dialysis centers. It would be nice if the amount time that was focused on a cafeteria was shifted toward allowing Davita patients to perform Nocturnal Home Treatments with NxStage and other Cyclers.... Instead of trying to create the best place for people to work....how about spending some of that money on creating the facilies for those who dialyze.... I'm sure that in Kent's "villiage" will be only the best up to date equipment and flowers planted in the terrace...but yet in the Dialysis centers it continues to be "the lowest bidder" and cheapest when it comes to dialysis supplies. By m3riddler on 2011 06 09

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