Boston Children’s Hospital said Monday that Kevin Churchwell, chief executive Sandra Fenwick’s top lieutenant, will take over as CEO after Fenwick retires at the end of March.
The hospital’s board of trustees approved Churchwell’s promotion to chief executive on Friday. He has been a member of Fenwick’s leadership team as chief operating officer since 2013, and he became president in 2018.
Churchwell will also be one of the most prominent Black chief executives in Boston, a city that still lacks diversity among the highest ranks of its business community. He is believed to be the first Black leader of a major teaching hospital in the city.
“He’s on par with any other children’s hospital leader in the country,” said Ralph Martin, Northeastern University’s general counsel and a member of the hospital board’s succession planning committee.
Churchwell, who turns 59 next month, will take charge at a time of sustained growth for the Harvard-affiliated research hospital, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The hospital plans to open an 11-story, $636 million addition to its main Longwood Medical Area campus in 2022, and a $165 million, 8-story ambulatory clinical care center in Brookline next year; both projects were in the works long before the pandemic began.
This is, as Churchwell described it, his second tour of duty in Boston. He completed his medical training as a resident at Children’s and then was a fellow in pediatric critical care there from 1990 to 1993, and a staff physician from 1993 to 1995, before returning to his home state of Tennessee.
He said he has always been impressed by the hospital’s mission, which includes taking on the most complex and challenging medical cases, helping kids who can’t find adequate medical treatment elsewhere.
“I always had some part of my brain saying if Boston Children’s called, I would be happy to take the opportunity to come back,” Churchwell said.
By the time that call came more than seven years ago, Churchwell had switched from clinical practice to hospital management. Before joining Children’s in 2013, he was chief executive at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, in Wilmington, Del.
Fenwick isn’t a physician, so she wanted someone with medical training at her side after she became chief executive in 2013. Churchwell also had proven management experience and was well regarded by the hospital employees who had worked with him two decades earlier. And Fenwick had hoped she had found a potential successor she could cultivate; Churchwell eventually lived up to that hope, as evidenced by her decision to promote him to president two years ago.
“He had demonstrated he could move from the clinical leadership side to being a leader in health care more broadly, running a hospital and understanding all the complex aspects of an academic medical center,” Fenwick said.
Martin said it wasn’t a given that Churchwell would eventually take Fenwick’s place as chief executive when he was first hired seven years ago, but he proved himself more than capable for the job.
In particular, Churchwell continued to advance the hospital’s mission during the pandemic while making crucial business and clinical adjustments and rallying the troops.
″That’s a side we may not have seen under more normal times," Martin said. “The pandemic really demonstrated his ability to help lead the organization in ways that perhaps weren’t evident before . . . He’s very levelheaded, very unflappable.”
A hospital spokesman said Churchwell’s compensation for his new job has not yet been determined. The board’s compensation committee will establish it prior to March 31, the date his promotion takes effect.
Churchwell’s goals include continuing Fenwick’s ambitious agenda, one that has solidified the hospital’s place atop the U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of children’s hospitals. Churchwell will oversee a nonprofit with a nearly $3 billion annual budget, and about 14,000 employees. He’ll be tasked with completing the 2 Brookline Place project in 2021, and the Hale Family Building expansion the following year.
“As I tell the board, our job is not to break it,” Churchwell said of Fenwick’s agenda. “Our job is to make sure we stay on track.”
The Hale project was particularly controversial: Its construction meant the end of the Prouty Garden, a beloved refuge for patients and their families. Supporters fought to keep the Prouty intact, and even went to court with an unsuccessful bid to protect it. Churchwell, who played an integral role as Fenwick’s number two, said he learned important lessons about listening to and communicating with stakeholders through that process.
Churchwell has another important task ahead of him, one shared by many executives: improving diversity at the organization. Churchwell grew up in the South not long after the schools there were desegregated. He knows cultural change can take time to take hold, but he’s hopeful about Boston’s prospects.
“Boston has its issues, like any major city,” Churchwell said. “I think it has a lot of great opportunity, too, and I stress that in recruiting. The ability to be part of that change is one of the most important things we can do. You just can’t find an environment that has this much innovation, education, and excitement, I think, anywhere else in this country. You take that, and you build with that.”
Martin, who was the first Black district attorney for Suffolk County and held that post from 1992 to 2002, expects Churchwell’s experience as a Black executive to be an asset for the hospital.
“What you’re going to see in him is a person and a leader who understands the journey and will try to bring others along,” Martin said. “[He] will try to make the organization even more accessible and even more diverse and, as a result, stronger.”