Executive Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors; Former CEO | Kindred Healthcare
One sunny day last May, Paul J. Diaz—then CEO of Kindred Healthcare—stood onstage at American University’s graduation ceremony and looked over the crowd. He spoke to his alma mater’s class of 2014 and recalled an autumn day three decades earlier, when he drove his old Toyota Corolla from Miami to Washington, DC, to start classes as a freshman.
A first-generation Cuban-American, Diaz had grown up in Miami as the son of a single mother who immigrated to the United States as a young woman. She worked in the billing department of a hospital to support her three boys on an annual salary of about $17,000. “It was a modest upbringing,” Diaz says.
When Diaz arrived on campus in the fall of 1980, he was terrified. “Meeting my classmates and looking around that day, I thought, ‘I’m out of my league,’” he said to the assembled graduates.
But he quickly distinguished himself academically. He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and accounting and attended Georgetown Law. He made his first foray into the health-care industry by taking a position as legal counsel and chief finance officer for a skilled-nursing facility start-up.
“I was kind of moonlighting for a while,” he says. “We bootstrapped it to $120 million in revenue.”
Diaz later became the CEO of the company, Allegis Health Services, which eventually sold to Mariner Health Group.
In 2004, Diaz took the helm of Kindred Healthcare, now a Fortune 500 company that boasts $7.2 billion in revenue and 105,000 employees across 47 states.
One of the largest health-care companies in the country, Kindred operates health-care service businesses that include hospitals, skilled-nursing facilities, home health care, and hospice services. For the last six years, the company has been named one of Fortune’s most admired health-care companies, based on surveys of industry leaders.
But when Diaz was recruited to join Kindred as its chief operating officer in 2002, the company wasn’t so healthy; it had just emerged from bankruptcy. Diaz says his background in law helped him navigate the ups and downs that followed. “There were a lot of operational challenges,” he admits. Diaz says he had to “not lose heart and stay focused on the path ahead” as the company reorganized and grew the home-health and hospice aspects of its business.
His commitment eventually paid off. For the last seven years, Modern Healthcare has named Diaz one of the 100 most influential people in health care.
Diaz traces the roots of his success back to wisdom he learned as a child and later summed up in his commencement speech: “It may seem obvious, but a lot of business leaders forget: business is about people.”
Diaz first saw that principle in action as a 12-year-old Eagle Scout. He coordinated a volunteer program at the hospital where his mother worked and volunteered. Many of the patients were from Cuba and spoke little English. Eventually, the hospital administrator asked Diaz to act as an interpreter while he made the rounds, asking patients if they were getting their pain medication and whether the nurses were answering their call lights.
“The example he set of talking to patients—and listening to them—is what service excellence is all about,” Diaz says. “If you’re going to lead, you’ve got to know people, and you’ve got to listen to people.”
Ultimately, each person’s path will be different, he says. Diaz never set out to be the CEO of a health-care company, but the position makes use of his accounting skills, his legal knowledge, and the interest in health care that was sparked in his youth.
He adds that young Latinos who want to go far in the business world should think about where their own talents intersect with the skills employers need. “Life,” he says, “is about leveraging all of your collective experience.”
Words by Allie Johnson // Photography by William DeShazer