From the western piney woods to the oxbow lakes in the east, there's something different about south Arkansas and the people who call it home. It's a land of loggers, mining, oil and a breed of Arkansan with a signature grit to harness all three, fiercely proud and unapologetically independent.
At first meeting, Gena Wingfield doesn't come off as typical of this rough-and-tumble breed, but just like her home region itself, there's much more there than meets the eye. For nearly 40 years -- 23 of them as chief financial officer and six as executive vice president -- hers has been the steady hand at the financial rudder of Arkansas Children's Hospital. As such, she has helped guide the state's landmark pediatric institution from a wobbly-legged standalone hospital to a health system serving children and families from one corner of the state to the other.
And it all started in the tidy little community of Glenwood, where Wingfield spent her childhood among big dreamers and hard workers.
"I think people there are very real," she says. "They're very appreciative, they help each other. And they're not afraid to get their hands dirty. They're going to jump in.
"Coming from a small school where you participated in everything, if everyone didn't participate in everything, you wouldn't have a team. You wouldn't have a band. You wouldn't have a cheerleading squad if everybody didn't participate. You learn early that in order to have something, you have to jump in and be willing to do it."
Wingfield joined Children's Hospital in 1985, just two years after graduating from the University of Central Arkansas, where she had worked in public accounting for Arthur Young & Co., now Ernst & Young. She advanced quickly; by 1993, she was promoted to controller and served a stint as interim CFO. Three years later, the job came open again and this time the quietly confident Wingfield threw her hat in the ring.
"Because I was interim for a while, it really gave me that opportunity to test-drive the job, if you will," she says. "I was fortunate in that respect, looking back on it. It just made me realize that you have to step up and step in sometimes. I just felt like the time was right for me."
At the time, Wingfield would have had as many people disagree with that perspective as applaud it. Arkansas Children's Hospital was not the rock-solid institution then as it is now, financially speaking. And the community of hospital CFOs -- CFOs in general, for that matter -- had seen few women, especially as young as she.
"We're part of the Children's Hospital Association and for years, I would go to CFO meetings where I was the only female at the table. And I was a young female at the time," she says. "Thank goodness a lot of things have changed. That said, I've had tremendous mentors who probably didn't realize they were mentoring me at the time."
Wingfield may have had few female peers on which to lean in those years, but the early foundation laid by her late mother, Clara Jane Grant, more than made up for it. Wingfield's late father Harold Ray Grant owned Friendly Ford in Glenwood and where his abundant people skills made him a natural for the sales floor, it was co-owner Clara Jane who kept order in the back office.
"My mom totally ran the whole office and all of the accounting. I worked there in the summers in the office and got my first taste of accounting in real life, reconciling their bank statements, helping pay bills," she said. "I think seeing my mother work full-time and then come home and take care of all the kids' responsibilities and all the house responsibilities, that was just a good role model for me.
"My mom was a very strong person. She was really the person who was the glue that held our family together. She gave me the realization that women can do everything; they can work and still take care of the kids and take care of the house and do all those things."
Drawing from her parents' example and real-world work experience, Wingfield developed a head for business that would serve her well throughout in her career. But she also got an ample dose of the kind of servant mentality that sprang from her folks like summer wildflowers from the Pike County soil.
"My dad, while he owned the Ford dealership, his joy was really running our wrecker service," she said. "He loved helping people out. He would get calls in the middle of the night to go pull people out of the ditch or whatever."
Through this part of the business, as much ministry as money-maker, a family legend grew up about something that happened when Wingfield was a tot. The story begins when Harold Ray fished an out-of-town family out of a jam.
'THOSE FOLKS REALLY DID'
"The family was from Texas, and they were traveling through, and Daddy got called to go pull their car out of the ditch and take it in to the dealership to be fixed. They didn't have any money to pay," she says. "The story goes that they said they wanted to pay and as they were on their way someplace else, when they drove back through town, they would pay him. They actually gave Daddy their family Bible to hold as collateral.
"Well, you can imagine he didn't think he would ever get paid. But lo and behold, those folks really did. They left him with their family Bible and when they came back through town, they paid him and got the Bible back."
Today, the story is a real- life parable for Wingfield, of holding an unshakable belief in the capacity for good in people and how investing in others eventually comes back to you. It's a belief system she'd dip into time and again in her career, pouring into her teams and watching them grow.
"I think that's one reason that I have been here so long; at Arkansas Children's we really do realize that it takes a whole team. It takes a village, if you remember that phrase," she says. "Regardless of what role that you're in, we're all important and it takes all of us to do the things that we do, to champion children by making them better today and healthier tomorrow. That's our mission. And it really does take all of us working together as a team."
The most important teammate in Wingfield's life -- her husband Mark -- walked into her life the day she reported to UCA with the rest of her freshman class. Mark's fraternity was helping the new coeds with move-in duties and he was friends with Gena's roommate. He and Gena started dating shortly thereafter and now can boast 38 years of married life, along with two grown children and five grandchildren.
Surviving that long under the pressures of family and career obligations took a partnership, something she's proud to look back on today.
"I have to say, my husband and I have both worked our whole adult lives and I'm very fortunate that we have really shared everything almost 50/50," she says. "Just very equally as far as the children's responsibilities and home responsibilities. I'm very fortunate in that I haven't had to do everything by myself."
ROCKY FINANCIAL ROAD
Having that support and partnership was key to Wingfield tackling the challenges of her career, which in the early days were many and substantial. According to the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the hospital began as an orphanage and can trace it roots to 1912 when the seeds of the nonprofit Arkansas Children's Home Society were sown. The organization briefly moved to Morrilton, during which time the beginnings of a hospital were formulating.
Returning to Little Rock in 1916, the organization would move into larger quarters renamed Arkansas Children's Home and Hospital during the 1920s and come to focus solely on pediatric medicine starting in 1954. Major expansions would follow, including $1 million spent on a new south wing in 1979 and $14 million in 1980 to double the size of the facility.
For as robust as the hospital appeared from the outside, financing hospital operations was a recurrent balancing act internally.
"When I started in 1985, it was a much smaller place and we had a lot of financial difficulties," Wingfield says. "Back then, we couldn't release anyone's paychecks early; we had to wait until we got our weekly Medicaid deposits. We had to have that deposited before we could release anyone's paycheck. So, those were some pretty lean days.
"I can remember we would do budget after budget after budget. We'd do all that and it would be red on the bottom line and we would say, 'No, start over.' And so, we would do multiple budgets just trying to break even. Not trying to have anything on the bottom line at the end of the day, but at least to break even. It's what we did for years."
Wingfield stepped into the CFO role with her jaw set and a clear focus on the intersection of money and mission that needed to occur for the hospital to survive and grow. She credits the board members she has served with and their CEO Marcy Doderer, for being similarly minded.
"It really is a myth that nonprofits should not be profitable," she says. "At Arkansas Children's, our mission definitely comes first, but you have to be financially healthy in order to invest in your people and your places and your programs. So, every net gain that we have goes back into providing those resources to fuel the mission. I've been fortunate to work with board members who are not only pillars in the business community but have a passion for child health as well."
"When I think of Gena and her work at Arkansas Children's, it really embodies the mission," says Fred Scarborough, executive vice president, chief communications officer and chief development officer, who's worked with Wingfield for 17 years.
"Often one thinks of a chief financial officer solely in terms of accounting and accuracy and all of those skill sets that come to mind. But when I think of Gena, I think of impact. She thinks strategically, she's very proactive in terms of the team and she's continuously learning. Whenever you think of selecting a work group, Gena always comes to mind for me; she's so thoughtful but also precise and so comprehensive in her thinking."
OUT OF THE RED
Bolstered by her fellow administrators and supported by her team, Wingfield dove into the challenges of funding the hospital's mission. In a manner that would have made Clara Jane proud, she adopted a stringent set of protocols ensuring sound, reliable financial reporting and planning for the future. Under her guidance, the financial department harnessed data to identify areas worth tightening up without affecting level of care. Those measures have stood the test of time, even as ACH has expanded services and built new facilities including clinics in Little Rock, Pine Bluff and Jonesboro.
"Having become very data-driven, we're focused on our performance to make sure we are as efficient as we can be," she says. "If you receive donations, which we do, you have to be very good stewards of those donations. So, we're very prudent with our costs and make sure we're as efficient as possible."
The results speak for themselves: Under Wingfield's leadership, Arkansas Children's bond rating improved to A1 with Moody's and AA- with Standard and Poor's and the financial department mastered EPIC, a revenue cycle software and electronic medical records system, to award-winning levels. Her team was instrumental in the financial work behind Arkansas Children's Hospital growing into a health system and also put together the proforma for Arkansas Children's Northwest in Springdale, an ambitious project that rivals any of the institution's major milestones.
"What stands out to me is her professionalism. Gena is always professional, she is a great listener and she's just really people oriented," says Ruby Hancock, audit partner with KPMG, the organization's auditor of record, who has known Wingfield for nearly a decade.
"She doesn't view our relationship as a vendor relationship, she views us as a partner with her. She's always been very transparent in her communications with us and her expectations of us. She walks right beside us making sure that at the end of the day, the product that she gets is acceptable and up to auditing standards. She's more of an extension of the process, which I appreciate."
Wingfield doesn't take sole credit for the institution's turnaround, but she doesn't minimize her team's contribution to it, either.
"If you have no margin, you have no mission," she says. "It's not one thing that we've done, it is multiple things that we've done in order to make Arkansas Children's financially healthy. Not only do we provide the best health care for children 24-7, but I'm very proud that we've come so far on the financial side."
The financial picture isn't the only thing that has changed in the almost-four decades of Wingfield's career. These days, women hold positions of authority throughout Arkansas Children's, from president and CEO to half of the executive staff and myriad other roles throughout the organization. As one of the most tenured, Wingfield has the opportunity to mentor others, particularly women, in ways not readily available during her career.
And in those moments, when she's asked for advice or direction, her mind goes back to a comment made years ago that has stuck with her throughout a lengthy career. It's a phrase so profound, that time hasn't lessened the difficulty she has in getting the words out.
"I had a board member who complimented me one time," she said, as her voice begins to teeter. "She thanked me for keeping the numbers in my head and the kids in my heart. I can hardly say it without getting emotional. I think it's a good summation of who we are and for my whole team in finance, that is our mantra.
"When I became CFO, I had the goal of wanting to be a part of something bigger than myself. [Arkansas Children's] has been here for over 100 years, and we have a responsibility to this state, to Arkansans, to make sure that we're here for the future. I'm very proud that we've come so far."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Oct. 20, 1961, Hot Springs
• MY FAVORITE MOVIE IS: "Dead Poet's Society."
• A HIDDEN TALENT THAT I HAVE IS: I used to play the piano and saxophone.
• IF I WASN'T IN MY CURRENT ROLE: I'd still be in health care. Growing up I wanted to be a doctor.
• THE ONE THING I KNOW TO BE TRUE ABOUT ALL PEOPLE IS: Most people will rise to the occasion if you trust them and give them a chance.
• MY MOM, CLARA JANE GRANTS, GAVE ME THE BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT. SHE SAID: "Do the right thing even when no one is watching. And, lead by example."
• THE PERFECT SATURDAY MUST INCLUDE: Sitting by the fire on my patio with a glass of red wine and watching the Razorbacks with my family.
• MY GO-TO GUILTY PLEASURE IS: Cheese dip from Local Lime.
• ONE THING I'D CHANGE ABOUT MYSELF IS: I wish I could function with less sleep!
• WHEN I AM NOT WORKING, YOU'RE MOST LIKELY TO FIND ME: Visiting my kids, who both live out of state, and playing with my grandchildren.
• MY PROUDEST ACCOMPLISHMENTS ARE: Twofold. Personally, I'm the proud parent of two amazing children who have grown into incredible adults and for being a part of Arkansas Children's Hospital's remarkable story. At work, I'm most proud of becoming a data driven, performance-focused organization improving the financial health of Arkansas Children's.
• MY FAVORITE QUOTES ARE: "Progress moves at the speed of trust," by Stephen Covey; and "No margin, no mission" by Sister Irene Kraus.
• THE WORDS THAT BEST DESCRIBE ME ARE: Grateful and curious.