‘Bob the Builder’ leaving Rowan hospital for position in Rocky Mount
By Mark Wineka
Ronnie Smith called them his “Jim Bob meetings.”
In the days, when Smith, Jim Freeman and Bob Skelton were strategizing two and three times a week to raise money for Rowan Regional Medical Center, Smith says he emerged from every meeting more energized than when he went in.
He gives all the credit to Freeman, then chief executive officer of the hospital, and Skelton, executive director of the hospital’s chief fundraising arm, the Rowan Regional Medical Center Foundation.
“The Jim-Bob team made that campaign a success,” Smith says. “They worked so well together.”
The Partners in Progress Capital Campaign wrapped up in January 2008 by raising more than $26.3 million.
Except for a capital campaign at Catawba College, which relied on contributors from across the country, the hospital’s effort could be considered Rowan County’s biggest fund drive ever.
It was one of the chief reasons Freeman hired Skelton 10 years ago, and with that campaign now in the rear-view mirror, Skelton has decided to take on one more challenge before retirement.
Skelton will be leaving Rowan Regional July 31 to become vice president and chief development officer at Nash Health Care Systems in Rocky Mount.
He also will be part of a nine-member Corporate Officers Group.
Skelton, 62, was hired from a group of 33 candidates for the position.
“They’re literally rebuilding from the bottom up,” Skelton says.
His new employer wants to conduct a major capital campaign, which would be the 14th in Skelton’s long career as a certified fundraising executive.
Nash County Health Care Systems also has no special events on which it relies every year for contributions.
For Rowan Regional, Skelton oversaw dramatic growth in the Patrons Ball and the Golf Classic, the hospital’s signature fundraisers.
Before he arrived in Salisbury from Ohio, the Patrons Ball’s average income was $63,000; today, $153,000.
The Golf Classic used to average $30,000 a year before 1999; today, $102,000.
Skelton transformed the annual Donor Appreciation and Recognition Dinner into a huge event, and it’s where he became known as “Bob the Builder.”
At the 2005 dinner, he donned Bob the Builder attire to help chairman Smith with his pitch for the capital campaign.
“He looked exactly like him,” Smith says of the 5-6 Skelton’s resemblance to the cartoon character.
The name fit, Smith says, when you think of Skelton’s role in building hospital additions such as the Heart and Vascular Center, the new Emergency Department, the Patient Tower and more.
“He adopted that role and cherished that role,” Smith says. “That sort of brought him out.”
Smith says he was always impressed with Skelton’s attention to detail. He’s a perfectionist, who wanted first, second and third drafts of things, according to Smith.
“He was then ó and is now ó a knowledgeable fundraiser, and he did have a lot of good ideas about how to approach physicians,” Freeman recalls of his first impressions of Skelton 10 years ago.
The hospital wanted to improve the participation of physicians with the foundation, “and he laid on the table suggestions that made a lot of sense to me,” Freeman says.
But Skelton also was coming to the hospital at a time when the community was still reeling from the unexpected death of his popular predecessor, John Campbell.
Freeman says Skelton seemed to have the personality that would allow a proper tribute to all Campbell had done for the foundation and give people time to heal before taking on any aggressive campaign.
Skelton acknowledges that his biggest challenge was to follow Campbell.
“He knew everybody and was beloved by everyone,” Skelton says. “Those were some big shoes to fill.”
Freeman was confident, too, that Skelton could carry the foundation to its maximum potential over time, “and that’s exactly what he did.”
Skelton now says the timing is right for him to move on.
Directing Partners in Progress was the chief reason for his being hired. Now it’s over, and he considers it a major highlight of his career.
He also led a strategic planning process that in 2008 refined the foundation’s mission and goals through 2012. Five task forces already are established, including one to create a Hospice House and one to develop the Whitehead-Stokes Society as a new annual giving membership program.
Skelton says significant funds will be coming to the foundation this year and next, including $1.8 million this December and more than $10 million in April 2010.
And he thinks his experienced staff ó including Diane Hooper, Monica Cameron and Vivian Connor ó will make his departure easier for the hospital. He describes them as “highly skilled, vastly experienced and very productive.”
Skelton earned a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a bachelor’s degree from Edinboro University in Pennsylvania.
His wife, Sonja, has been highly involved with the hospital, the Salisbury Chapter of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees and with Rowan County Master Gardeners.
Skelton thinks his Nash County job will wind up his career.
Serving six counties, Nash Health Care is a hospital authority made up of four hospitals: Nash Hospital, Nash Day Hospital, Coastal Plain Hospital and the Bryant T. Aldridge Rehabilitation Center.
Skelton says he’ll miss the people he has come to know in Salisbury and described it as “a very, very special community,” with the likes of Wilson and Ronnie Smith, the Hurleys, the Stanbacks, the Johnsons and others.
“I had no idea the wonderful people I would meet when I arrived here 10 years ago,” he says. “And I had no idea of their generosity.”
Skelton says he was set up for success by having Wilson and Ronnie Smith and Freeman on his team, to go along with a strong, supportive board overall.
And what about that Jim Bob partnership?
“We were partners, more than boss and employee,” Freeman says. “I grew to have a lot of respect for him as an individual and professional.”