DaVita's new CEO Rodriguez talks strategy, style and the future of kidney care

Javier Rodriguez never planned on getting into healthcare.
The newest CEO of dialysis giant DaVita originally imagined he might do something in the financial realm, earning a bachelor's degree in finance and marketing from Boston College. He got his first taste in business when he and his brother started exporting dairy and other products from the U.S. to Mexico. But after relocating to Chicago to be closer to his then-girlfriend (now wife) who was earning her master's degree at Northwestern University, he discovered the world of healthcare at Baxter Healthcare. In 1997, he headed to Harvard Business School to earn an MBA before joining DaVita's predecessor Total Renal Care. 

"It is a very human experience when you see the people going through literally life-sustaining therapy," Rodriguez said. "As I spent time in clinics, I just grew so much respect and regard for our team. The nurses, the technicians, the social workers—they are on their feet, they are doing all sorts of things for our patients that have a lot of needs. I just remember feeling good about the human spirit and people doing good things all day. I said, 'My gosh, I could be a part of this.' That's much better than anything I'd do in professional services." 

Rodriguez is taking the helm from longtime predecessor Kent Thiry who, as the Denver Post put it, was known both for the massive growth he shepherded at the company as well as his "unconventional" leadership style, which included the morale-boosting tactic of dressing in full costume at company meetings as one of the Three Musketeers. Thiry has stayed on as chairman of DaVita's board.

RELATED: Optum’s $4.9B deal to buy DaVita Medical Group further expands UnitedHealth’s care delivery portfolio

I caught up with Rodriguez recently to chat a bit about his new gig, how his leadership style compares to Thiry's and the latest at DaVita. Here's a look at our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

More about Javier Rodriguez:

Age: 48
Home: Englewood, CO
First job: Bussing tables
Favorite ways to spend downtime: Meals with the family and exchanging stories
Favorite way to keep healthy: Hiking with the family in the beautiful Colorado mountains
Most impactful part of his morning routine: It’s a great morning if I get in a walk with my wife
Biggest pet peeve: Email clutter/irresponsible email—over copying and over replying
Best book he recommends right now: "The Art of a Good Life" by Rolf Dobelli
Three words that describe his management style: Collaborative, approachable, pragmatic

FierceHealthcare: What commonalities do you share with Kent Thiry?

Javier Rodriguez: I think we both have an enormous passion for doing well. We want our lives to matter and—of course, everyone wants their lives to matter—we are good at reminding ourselves of the privilege that we have to make an impact on this world. In addition, we have tremendous respect and admiration for the people that work so hard in our communities.

FH: And how do you and Kent differ?

JR: Instead of comparing, I think it's easier to describe myself. I really try to be very accepting and collaborative. If you talked to my team, you'd hear the words '"team" and "relationship-driven." I'm very passionate and enthusiastic. While I might not be the smartest guy, I will outwork other people.

FH: Are there any Three Musketeers costumes in your future?

JR: No. It's sometimes easy to make fun of some of these things but what is missed sometimes is what we're trying to do is communicate at scale. The Musketeers really stands for one for all. We're a team driven culture. We're pretty proud of our culture and what it stands for. And if you have 2,600 centers with roughly 70,000 people across many different geographies, you have to find a way to communicate efficiently and effectively ... You will see stylistic differences. At the end of the day, I'm a different person and I am comfortable in my skin. What's most important whether its Kent or myself or whoever else is in charge is we focus on taking care of our patients and our teams. That will not change.

FH: The dialysis industry itself has received plenty of scrutiny, including lawsuits alleging anti-competitive practices and charges that it is not doing enough to work within a coordinated care system. Is there any fairness to that criticism, in your opinion, and what is your response to that?

To be honest with you, it's one of the most disappointing things because if you were to compare us to any other segment of healthcare, I am hard-pressed to find any service that is as serious or as acute as the service that we provide outside of the hospital. We do it an amazing amount of time for a very efficient price trade-off in the system. I take enormous pride in the innovation we've had. The year over year and the improvement in mortality in the last decade is unmatched by any other disease state I know of. The consolidation happened because it is just so hard to make it in this space because it is so competitive, and the fact people talk about big numbers just because our patients need renal replacement therapy 144 times a year. 

FH: There have been a number of new entrants in this space who say they want to disrupt how kidney care is delivered to a more integrated care system. How do you expect that to impact DaVita's business? 

JR: We are very well-positioned. We have a tremendous platform with over 2,700 centers with 14,000 or so locations where people can treat at home and we're in over 900 hospitals ... In addition, we have two decades of data and analytics we can deploy to make sure that the care is delivered in a customized way for each and every one of our patients. One of the ironies of the whole thing is DaVita has been talking about integrated care for over 15 to 20 years. It's been a passion of ours, we've been pursuing it. We are very excited the time has come and people are focused on this now because we are poised and ready to go.

RELATED: DaVita group to pay $270M to settle Medicare Advantage false claims probe with DOJ

FH: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has said the health system needs to change its approach to kidney care and change its incentives around where dialysis is delivered. There have also been questions about bundled payments. How is DaVita preparing for payment changes that are coming down the pike?

DaVita is aligned with Secretary Azar's vision. What he's talking about is a focus on outcomes and preventative care and we are totally aligned and optimistic and eager to see the details of his plan. He's talked about payment reform and regulatory reform, and we've been working and giving our feedback and are excited to see what the details bring.

FH: There's been a lot of growth and change for DaVita in the last 10 to 20 years. Where do you see DaVita in the next 10 years?

This whole journey of integrated care, which we're so excited about, will mean care for our patients in a broader sense that over time we will have to take care of their comorbid conditions. Diabetes, mental health and other things. Because you know our patients have a lot of things going on. As you look at the next decade, I am confident people will understand we're going to shift from a dialysis company to a kidney care company.

FH: Where are you now in that shift?

JR: Myself? I'm totally there. As it relates to getting the system to really embrace that, it's hard to put a number or a stage on it. Where we have the most opportunity right now is to find our chronic kidney disease patient—and that means your kidneys are failing—and get the world to work with us on is to have those patients that are going through their earliest stages be shared with us. That way we can help them through the continuum and, then if they do experience kidney failure, they can experience a smooth transition.