After Michael Packnett interviewed with a Parkview Health System search committee in 2005, he called his wife, Donna, to reassure her that, even though he really liked the board members, he was certain he wouldn’t get the job and they wouldn’t have to leave Oklahoma City and move north. After all, he was the first candidate on that cold and early Saturday morning, and they would likely forget his name after two days of interviews for the president/CEO post.
“Quite to the contrary. If you ask other members of the search committee, they will tell you he stood out from the very first question,” recalls Charles Schrimper, a committee member. “We asked him to describe his leadership style and he responded that he viewed himself as a servant leader.”
Eight years later, nothing Packnett has done or said has changed the Parkview board chairman’s view that he is the perfect example of a servant leader.
“With the sincerity of his answers, he set the bar for everybody who followed,” Schrimper said. “Wherever I go and people learn my Parkview connection, they thank me for bringing Mike Packnett to Fort Wayne.”
While the health care system benefits from the talents of a skilled administrator, northeast Indiana has found in Packnett a leader capable of drawing disparate interests toward common goals: restoring the region’s pride, raising its per-capita income and creating a community young residents will be happy to call home. For his work in promoting economic development and inspiring a new generation of leaders, Packnett is The Journal Gazette’s Citizen of the Year.
The opportunity to help build a major regional medical center helped lure Packnett from the job he loved at the Sisters of Mercy health care system in Oklahoma City. But in eight years, he’s built much more than a $550 million regional medical center. Inspired by the success of a community turnaround he originally doubted, Packnett pushed northeast Indiana leaders to follow Oklahoma City’s model, in which public projects and a collaborative approach fueled $2.5 billion in private investment. A second-class city mentality was replaced with community pride.
“To see it done there was so important when I came to Fort Wayne,” Packnett, 59, recalls. “When I came, there were a lot of great people doing a lot of great things, but it felt splintered.”
With the blessing of a community-minded Parkview board and counsel from experienced leaders, including retired Lincoln National chairman Ian Rolland, the new Parkview president began hosting small dinners to find out what was in the “heads and the hearts” of northeast Indiana leaders. From those gatherings, a group of 25 participants launched Vision 2020, a Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership initiative aimed at making the region a global competitor by developing, attracting and retaining talent.
Packnett’s contributions in the past eight years have reinforced those goals. He has been chairman of the partnership’s board and drove efforts to merge the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce and the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance into Greater Fort Wayne Inc. He’s served on the boards of the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana, the Allen County Capital Improvement Board and Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. Packnett takes over as board chairman for the Indiana Hospital Association in 2014.
When opinions over a downtown ballpark were still sharply divided, he helped shift community sentiment by leading Parkview Health officials to sign a naming-rights deal for the Harrison Square development.
“My initial experience with Mike was when I was deputy mayor and we were working on the (baseball) project,” said Mark Becker, now CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. “He was new to the community, but he was at the public meetings showing support for the project. That always impressed me – seeing that commitment when there were so many people against it. That spoke volumes about him.”
Becker said Packnett was very intentionally chosen to lead the transition of the Chamber and Alliance.
“He’s a very thoughtful leader. Mike believes that you need to set your sights high and if you work collaboratively, you can achieve. That says who Mike is – dream big dreams, you might just surprise yourself.”
Now Packnett is helping change minds about downtown and river development, inspiring once-splintered northeast Indiana communities to recognize that the region’s fortunes depend on a strong Fort Wayne.
“There wasn’t much trust among the 10 area counties,” the Parkview leader said of early discussions. “But there’s now an understanding – for the first time, I think – that when people look at us from the outside they are viewing us as a region, not just as Fort Wayne, and a realization started to permeate that unless Fort Wayne and Allen County had success, our region would never be as strong.”
Leaders in training
Packnett’s greatest strength might be his ability to recognize and encourage leadership in the next generation. He’s reached out to young entrepreneurs, seeking their ideas, and he’s given voice to Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana and a new Millennial Leaders Alliance, with members age 15 to 25.
Lauren Zuber, Vision 2020 coordinator for the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, counts herself among the young leaders inspired by his example.
“I think Mike Packnett is an incredible advocate for people of the millennial generation,” she said. “The level of his encouragement and involvement with younger leaders is really something to admire. He’s a great example of how you can get involved.”
Zuber, who met Packnett when she organized the regional partnership’s initiative to engage young people, said he has “demystified” leadership for young entrepreneurs and leaders with his approachability and personal example, encouraging them to offer ideas and opinions.
Becker said Packnett has instilled that same sense of inclusiveness into his leadership at Greater Fort Wayne Inc., helping establish a charter board that is large – 60 members – but diverse in county geography, ethnicity and gender.
“I don’t think 10 years ago you would have seen this board seated,” Becker said. “But I have to say, in the two meetings we’ve had so far – the retreat and first board meeting – the interaction and thoughtful discussion have been awesome to observe.”
Packnett, a native of Ada, Okla., who studied finance at the University of Central Oklahoma, spent a decade in the oil business before a family friend encouraged him to leave the ups and downs of the industry for health care.
“When he talked about working for a hospital, I thought, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ But the more we talked, the more it had an appeal, particularly from the service side,” Packnett said. “I left a good job, took a pay cut for a job with the Sisters of Mercy in St. Louis. A few months in, I knew this would be my life’s work.”
Today, he references his personal, professional and community contributions with a collective “we.”
“We have 8,500 people (at Parkview Regional) now and it just gives me such great energy to talk with them and understand just how great a job they do,” Packnett said. “If I’m having a bad day, all it takes is just for me to go make rounds at one of our hospitals or a clinic just to see the passion people have to do the best for every patient, every day.”
The pride and passion Mike and Donna Packnett have in their new community helped draw their daughters, Kristin and Kelli, to join them here. Kristin is preparing to open a retail business early next year, and Kelli is a second-grade teacher at Fort Wayne Community Schools’ Levan Scott Academy, where her father volunteers in her classroom with the United Way’s Real Men Read program.
Donna’s activities include support for the Early Childhood Alliance, one of the key partners in the Big Goal initiative Mike Packnett helped to create – what he describes as an “outrageous” goal to increase the number of northeast Indiana adults with academic degrees and credentials from fewer than 35 percent today to 60 percent by 2025.
To that end, he’s already planning to focus new energy on the early childhood piece of the education initiative and efforts to draw entrepreneurs to the region. “We have to create this environment where Fort Wayne is attracting and growing not only our own, but attracting others who say, ‘They’ve got something going on in northeast Indiana and I want to be part of it.’ ”
“Mike has led the new generation of leaders,” said Parkview’s Schrimper. “Mike is the singular reason these things are happening.”