MBA rose quickly through the health care ranks

February 2006

Most people who say they‘re not sure what they want to do wind up not doing much of anything. Not Kathleen Kaney, MBA ’96.

As a teen, Kaney knew she was attracted to the health care field, partly as a reaction to a serious accident at the age of 12 that put her life in surgeons’ hands. But she admits that she applied to UB specifically because it offered “a lot of variety–and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “I thought I’d get into physical therapy.”

Kaney ended up majoring in biology, but thinks that her extracurriculars played an arguably more vital a role in her later career. She played basketball and was vice president of the Student Association. Both activities exposed her to a wide range of university people, from students in a range of campus organizations to then-president William Greiner and his wife. Through those activities, she says, “I learned so much about diversity and people.”

After she finished her next degree at UB–an MBA with a concentration in health care–her contact at UB’s Alumni Association sent her résumé out to a group of alumni. Her résumé landed on the desk of a UB medical school alumnus who was working at the Carolinas Healthcare System in North Carolina, the nation’s fourth-largest public healthcare system with hospitals, physician practices, home-health agencies and other facilities, and some 18,000 employees. Again, Kaney wasn’t completely sure what she wanted to do: “I didn’t know I’d end up in operations.” But she interviewed with the system’s Corporate Compliance Department and took an entry-level job there.

She didn’t stay in the position for long, though. Kaney became a department supervisor in just 10 months. Eighteen months after that, she was named an assistant vice president in the Carolinas Physicians Network, handling emergency department staffing throughout the Carolinas Healthcare System.

Then, at just 27 years old, she was promoted to vice president of administration of the company, one of youngest in its history. Kaney ran the emergency department and trauma service at the system’s flagship facility, the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C. Just a few years later came an expansion in Benfield’s role; today she oversees seven departments with responsibility for around 550 employees.

Although many would think otherwise, Kaney doesn’t credit herself for achieving so much at a relatively young age. She does believe that her age allows her to approach her job differently than would someone in the field for 20 or 25 years. “What surprised me is that past administrators were reluctant to partner with the people who know the most – the healthcare professionals on the front lines. I can’t do my job unless I’m tied at the hip to the clinicians, and I’ve embraced all the people I work with. We do things in partnership to help patients.”

Indeed, some of her proudest moments have come about through partnership with a foresighted physician colleague. “In 1997, Dr. Thomas Blackwell was seeking money for disaster preparedness planning. Before 9/11 everyone thought that he was Chicken Little. I thought he had vision, and I supported him. It was the right thing to do, even though it wasn’t popular.” Ironically, the hospital was having an emergency drill as part of that planning on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Kaney also actively defends research whose “value isn’t necessarily foreseen.” The same physician had an idea for a mobile hospital, which Kaney supported and which was just deployed during Hurricane Katrina. “We were the hospital for a community in one of the affected areas,” she says. “If we’d not supported him in his efforts to put that together, we wouldn’t have been down there.”

Though she emphasizes that she never looked at her age as a hurdle, Benfield was also surprised that, at first, “my age did matter to people I worked with. I was responsible for the cardiac catheter lab for a while, and a doctor told me I had no business being there because he had kids older than me,” she says, laughing.

Today, Kaney rarely experiences that attitude from colleagues, likely as a result of her record of success. “My strength,” she reckons, “is recognizing people’s talents and having people collaborate. I can get things done because I work with the people around me.” She has also maintained a strong tie with the UB Alumni Association, as leader of the Charlotte alumni chapter.

Written by Grace Lazzara