For more than 90 years, the American Cancer Society has worked to find a cure. And, since 1913, ACS has sought the best way to mix its local and national resources to create a very local, community-level organization to serve patients, their families and others concerned about the issue.
As CEO of ACS' South Atlantic division, Jack Shipkoski does his best to mix the agency's regional and national resources to serve the public. Shipkoski's division, ACS' largest, was created in 2003 with the merger of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic divisions. It was an arduous process that required both the assistance and they buy-in of many people.
"When you look at for-profit mergers, probably half of them don't work," says Shipkoski, who spearheaded the initiative. "A lot of it is cultural. That's why involvement is so important (instead of) just (directive) from the top down. You're getting people from all parts of the organization involved, and it's an understanding. It gets back to 'How are we communicating?'"
At one time, there were 58 divisions of ACS -- the national office, one in each state and several in large metropolitan areas. About seven years ago, a merger shrunk that number to 17.
That merger, says Shipkoski, was a learning experience.
"It gave us an opportunity to make sure we didn't make some of the same mistakes again," Shipkoski says. "By merging, you are more effective; you're able to put resources where they're needed."
Shipkoski previously served as head of the Georgia and Southeast divisions. His new entity covers seven states -- including Georgia -- and Washington D.C. One of the most important messages he had to communicate before, during and after the merger was that, despite the concentration of power, there would be no loss of control for the 500 communities that make up the new, larger division.
'The bigger you get, the further away you are from your constituents," he says. "We said we want to get closer to our constituents, closer to our donors. We did that by concentrating on community."
The newly formed South Atlantic division has four strategic points -- state-of-the-art in-mission delivery, concentration on volunteerism and community, renewed commitment to income development and getting connected.
"I've been able to drive that with our board members and with our staff," says Shipkoski. "And if you ask any staff member the four key strategic points in your division, I think they'd be able to tell you what they are."
But none of it would have been possible if Shipkoski had been unable to bring together the divisions and overcome the naysayers. Smart Business spoke with him about what it took to consummate the merger and how he overcame the cultural and structural issues that led to the largest merger in ACS history.
What prompted this latest merger?
It's basically efficiencies. How can we save money on a lot of these support items, and can we have a better product as we move forward?
Our key officers and key staff got together, and the major reason for merging was we can do a better job and be more efficient in mission delivery and cancer control. When I say cancer control and mission delivery, I'm talking about prevention, detection, quality of life for cancer patients. That was our major objective: Can we be better than we are today in mission delivery?
What was the problem?
We had ownership and cultural situations where the state was the corporation and everything revolved around the state. We found we couldn't do anything around (state) borders because we were running into somebody else's territory.
We didn't work together that well. You'd think we would; we're the same organization. But everyone had staff working for a different corporation.
When we merged [the first time] we formed regions put together by media markets and we also overlapped state lines. We did that on purpose in order to bring the divisions together and so we wouldn't have those border issues. That served well for seven or eight years.
With this new merger, what we found out is that there are a lot of issues that are state-based -- health departments, advocacy with governments -- so we put together this new organization based upon states .
Why did you insist on following business principles in the merger?
I also belong to a group called TEC -- The Executive Committee. It's 16 CEOs here in Atlanta. We get together on a monthly basis.
Fourteen of them are for-profit companies and two of them are not-for-profit. We talk business and we talk business principles. Moving ahead in a business manner when you talk about planning and organizing, teams, leadership and all those principles are the same whether you're not-for-profit or for profit. It was a major help to me putting together the merger because the one thing I knew I had to do right from the beginning was put together a leadership board.
My next challenge was I had to put together my executive team. We wanted to keep thing simple, mainly because people would ask me, 'Jack, how are you going to do this? It's so big. How are you going to make this happen?'
I try to keep it simple with these four key points, which I think most people know by now and can recite. The other thing was, let's put together the teams that are going to make this happen -- the volunteer team and the staff team.
The first thing we did was put that together and get buy-in from them as to the direction we were moving in. I believe we did that very successfully. We have a great executive team.
What benefits has the merger had?
I have a phrase, 'Start less and finish more.' Really, it's another name for focus. We have all these programs going on. Some divisions are doing the same and some are doing (things) differently.
We wanted to start less and finish more and focus and say, these are the programs and the fund-raising programs and the other programs that we're going to do, and just focus in on those so that we can be successful in it.
The other thing we wanted to do is increase our income and control expenses. We did that the first year. We had a $10 million increase in income and we decreased our expenses by $4 million. That gave us a differential of $14 million that we could use in the fight against cancer as we started out this fiscal year. So we're in pretty good shape, in fact, very good shape from a stewardship perspective and from a business perspective moving forward.
How challenging was it to meld the cultures of the two divisions?
Culture is an issue. For example, if Mid-Atlantic were to merge with Ohio, I think it would be a lot more difficult. It's a lot more difficult going north than it would be going south because there are a lot of differences.
One issue we have is tobacco. We have a lot of tobacco-growing states in the same culture. We have a lot of the Appalachia-type issues in the same culture.
There are (other) differences -- state-to-state you have differences. Advocacy, from the perspective of a state being more engaged in anti-cancer, anti-tobacco situations. For example, Delaware is a lot more prominent than some of the other states in making some things happen as far as dedicated insurance for health care reasons.
There are a lot of differences state-to-state, which is why we organized on a state basis for a lot of these advocacy reasons. We have people that work within the state (borders) vs. working across the division lines.
What was the reaction of your many volunteers?
From their perspective, there was some anxiety. The anxiety was you're going to forget about us down here in Macon, Ga. When Georgia was its own division, Macon was a big player. Now, all of a sudden, Macon is part of seven states, so you're going to forget about us.
The answer is no. In fact, we're going to put more emphasis on Macon so that we don't forget about you, so that we do involve you. We're going to communicate with you; we're going to have you involved.
We put together a great communications department. It's in the objectives of our key executive team and staff members that we go in that direction. It's in their performance reviews. If you measure it, you're going to receive action from it. We've been saying that to everybody. We want to walk the talk.
How did the merger affect the ACS's Relay for Life program?
Our bread and butter for fund-raising is Relay for Life. It's our 24-hour event. We're in the 20th anniversary of Relay for Life. If Relay for Life were a not-for-profit organization, it would be in the top five of all not-for-profits. That's how large it is.
This year, we'll raise about $300 million in Relay, and the South Atlantic division -- we're the No. 1 division. We'll raise $60 million in Relay for Life. This year, we'll have 600 events with the goal of $65 million. It's more than an event. Really, its mantra is about a community taking up the fight.
You have individuals coming together, an average of 4,000 to 5,000 people that come together at an event, and we have 600 of those within our division.
Here in Gwinnett County, it's the largest Relay in the country. In the 24-hour event, they raise about $2 million, and they'll have about 15,000 or 16,000 people there -- 20 percent of those are cancer survivors. We're bringing together cancer survivors.
It's really a community event. We bring together youth. In Gwinnett County, every school district is involved. You bring together adults and they pitch their tents and they have contests -- who has the most innovative tent, the best-looking tent and all that, but it's really about people coming together in the fight against cancer at the community level.
HOW TO REACH: American Cancer Society (404) 315-1123 or www.cancer.org