A little more than two-and-a-half years ago, Chris Lumsden walked out of his office in South Boston, Virginia, for the final time, after having served 33 years at Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital — known as Halifax-South Boston Community Hospital when he joined the staff as chief operation officer in 1985.
The bulk of his time there was as the hospital’s CEO, a post he assumed in 1988, before he had turned 30. And by the end of March 2018, his run there had reached its conclusion.
Six months earlier he’d announced he would be stepping down, and when he finally made that last exit from his office, Lumsden was looking forward to a healthy, rewarding retirement. Travel was near the top of his list, maybe more time with his family, more focus on his interest in real estate and fishing.
Turns out, others had a different idea for Lumsden.
After leaving his job, he quickly jumped into some of his other interests, but weeks later he received a call from a recruiter working on behalf of what was then known locally as Northern Hospital of Surry County.
“I told them I had just retired two months ago.”
“We have talked to a number of your colleagues, and they said that you’re not ready to retire.”
Lumsden paused for a moment, then added, with a smile, “Sounds like they talked to my wife.”
Despite some attempts at putting off the recruiter, Lumsden said he decided to make his first-ever visit to Mount Airy to meet with some of the hospital’s board members and Robin Hodgin, who was serving as interim CEO.
After two hours, hospital officials had a succinct statement for what they wanted next: “We’d like you to come back and bring your wife.”
Lumsden and his wife, Linda, both fell in love with the community, and Lumsden said a chance to step in and work with the staff and board at Northern was too inviting to resist.
Lumsden has worked nearly his entire adult life in the field, with three decades as a CEO after having been more or less shoved into the fast lane toward that post, advancing quickly up the ladder early in his career.
The trek toward being a hospital CEO began when the Roanoke, Virginia-native was serving in a one-year administrative residency program at Community Hospital of Roanoke Valley, after his graduation from Bridgewater College. Six months into that residency, the hospital CEO at Community told Lumsden there was an opening at a small regional facility not too far down the road.
Well, he told him a little more than that.
“Chris, I got you an interview with Danville Community Hospital.”
When Lumsden reminded his boss he was only halfway through his one-year residency, his boss’s reply was a simple “Don’t worry about that, Chris.”
This was in December 1982. Upon returning from the interview, Chris found his boss waiting for him.
“How did the interview go?” he asked.
“I told him I thought it went okay, and he said, ‘You start Jan. 21.’” Lumsden laughs at the memory while recounting the story. “I hadn’t even talked to my wife yet. You can’t make stuff like this up. That’s how things were done then.”
His time at Danville wasn’t his favorite period — Lumsden said he wasn’t fond of the culture within the hospital there — and he strongly considered a career change after a couple of years at Danville, even gaining acceptance to the T.C. Williams School of Law at the University of Richmond.
But he ended up interviewing for the chief operating officer post at nearby Halifax South Boston Community Hospital, a position he took in 1985 at the age of 27. Less than three years later he was CEO.
During his 30 years as the top executive, Lumsden helped oversee the transition from a small community hospital to a regional medical center overseeing a hospital, two nursing homes, a hospice agency, and other organizations while growing from 500 employees to 1,250.
“It really became a big health enterprise in Southside Virginia,” he said.
For Lumsden, a hospital is not only a place to provide wellness and healthcare options, it’s a major economic driver in most communities, thus he believes in getting involved with local education and economic development agencies. He also believes deeply in providing educational opportunities for those who work for him, and for the greater community.
While in South Boston, he served on the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, Virginia Community College System and Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association — including a stint as chairman of each organization. He also helped found the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, which was initially financed by private money but is now part of the state’s public college system.
He didn’t change those philosophies during his brief retirement. Since assuming the top post at Northern, he has become involved with the North Carolina Hospital Association and the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, where he serves as vice chair.
He’s also overseen some significant changes already at Northern, not the least of which was changing the hospital’s name, and focus, from Northern Hospital of Surry County to Northern Regional Hospital.
Lumsden doesn’t talk easily about himself, instead wanting to focus on what those who work with him are doing, and the accomplishments he and his team have achieved. In his brief time at Northern, he says the team there has:
• Enhanced the employee educational assistance program to financially support staff that desire to return to school for a course, certificate or degree;
• Raised $250,000 to establish the “Robin Hardy Hodgin Nursing Scholarship,” in honor of Hodgin’s nearly four decades of work in the nursing field there. In addition to having served as interim CEO, Hodgin is the hospital’s vice president for patient service and chief nursing officer. The scholarship is to help area residents pursue a career in nursing;
• Established the Northern Leadership Academy with the inaugural 2020 class graduating from this six-month leadership development in the summer;
• Recruited 17 new doctors and providers to the hospital’s medical staff and community in 2019-20;
• Replaced the hospital’s older MRI with a state-of-the-art $2 million MRI unit with additional diagnostic features to better serve radiology and hospital patients;
• Received board approval to replace the hospital’s electronic medical record for the hospital’s physician practices. “This $7 million project will improve patient safety even more so, create one single medical record for all NRH patients, and go live Oct. 1, 2021,” he said;
• Opened the hospital’s first urgent care center — Northern Urgent Care — on Nov. 1;
• Developed and implemented a 30-step action plan in March “to protect our patients and employees from COVID-19, without laying off or furloughing any NRH employees;”
• Was selected as a “Top 100” Community Hospital in the US and a CMS “5-Star” hospital.
Along the way, Lumsden’s peers in the business community have taken notice. Earlier this year he was named a C-Suite Award winner by the Triad Business Journal. That publication said the awards go to the “most admired” CEOs and other executives in the greater Triad region. He was also recently named as one of the Top 20 CEOs in the Triad region by that same publication — the only hospital CEO to be on the list.
In a profile by that publication, Lumsden said if he could go by another title, it would be “chief people person.”
That would be evident in watching Lumsden interact easily and openly with staffers, with guests, with patients, and with others in the education and business community. Unlike some CEOs who maintain a distance from those around him or her, Lumsden embraces building relationships and getting to know those around him.
And he enjoys just having some fun with them, too. He sponsors an annual Horse tournament — a basketball shooting game in which individuals take turns shooting the ball. If the first person makes a shot, everyone after him must make the identical shot, or they get hit with a letter — H, then O, R, S, E. Once a competitor has spelled out the full word “horse” he or she is eliminated.
During the tournament, the hospital staffer who emerges as champion earns 12 hours extra vacation, and the right to take on Lumsden in a game of Horse. For the previous two years, he said the same person has emerged victorious among the hospital staff, only to have Lumsden — who played guard on Bridgewater College’s basketball team — easily defeat him.
That led to a ping pong challenge from the employee, who preceded to trounce Lumsden 8-0 when they played — commonly known as getting “skunked” in the game.
His prize? A ceramic skunk that Lumsden proudly displays in his office, and shows off with a laugh as he relates the story of being humbled at table tennis.
Recently, he explained why he puts such an emphasis on people.
“There’s an old saying, ‘No margin, no mission,’” he said. “If you don’t make money, you really can’t embrace the mission of the organization.
“But I believe no people, no margin, no mission. If you don’t have the people, if you don’t invest in people, there is no margin, and then there is no mission.”
Then he goes deeper, explaining that it’s really about more than simply developing people to accomplish the hospital’s mission.
“I had good mentors, good coaches, good people early in my career. There’s something satisfying in helping people who may not have had the same advantages I had growing up … beyond the good feeling, I believe we are here to help people. … People in ivory towers sometimes have no idea the struggles people, good people, all go through.”
Helping people — through scholarships, through leadership training, through personal mentoring — not only helps them advance in life, but sets them up to do the same for others, in the end building a stronger community.
And that — helping people, building community — seems to ultimately be what Lumsden is all about.