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News > Context Spring 2022 > Up Close: Kevin Mahoney

Up Close: Kevin Mahoney

By JoAnn Greco

Kevin Mahoney’s life changed within the span of a few days one hot summer more than forty years ago. He was 19, freshly kicked out of Millersville University (a 1.98 GPA will do that to you) and driving a tractor for a landscaper out in the cornfields of suburban Philadelphia, waiting until he could figure out something better to do with his life.

One day he met the client, developer Bill Rouse. “I remember him standing there with a cigarette in his hand on this plot of land near Route 29,” Mahoney, the CEO of University of Pennsylvania Health System (UPHS), says. “I had just been out there hunting pheasants a week before and here he was telling me of his vision to clear everything for an office park. I said, ‘all respect, but people get on the train at Berwyn and go to work in the city. They sleep out here.’”

“I thought it was an insane idea,” Mahoney continues. “But years later when he built Liberty Place taller than Billy Penn’s hat, I remembered our conversation. There was this idea of sticking to a vision and not letting artificial boundaries or naysayers hold you back.”

That determination became Mahoney’s guiding principle. He remembers his early years at Bryn Mawr Hospital, where he decided to get rid of the 14-bed tonsil unit. “The pediatrics association had declared that the need to have your tonsils removed was an old wives tale,” he recalls, “so this unit was for the past not for the future. And as we tore it out, I was thinking what a waste of money. It instilled a trait in me to always keep an eye on what’s coming around the corner.” The recently-unveiled $1.6 billion, 1.5 million-square foot UPHS Pavilion by Foster + Partners is a much more radical example of this way of thinking. “We tried to build it so, regardless of where medicine goes, we don’t have to tear it apart. It’s a platform for the future not just a hospital for today,” Mahoney says.

The 17-story facility with 504 private patient rooms and 47 operating rooms is only the latest, largest and showiest piece of Mahoney’s decades-old commitment to transforming the Penn medical campus. It’s also the culmination of Mahoney’s long career in healthcare administration, one that began that fateful summer in 1978.

Shortly after his encounter with Rouse, Mahoney had another memorable experience. Standing on his tractor, keeping an eye out for sinkholes in Rouse’s cornfields, he found himself suddenly tumbling from the vehicle. “The tractor ran over me,” Mahoney says flatly. “I was severely injured.” He was rushed to Paoli Hospital, where he remained for the duration of his care. “Every nurse, every person delivering my food, every physical therapist was pulling for me,” he says. “But they would also speak to me in direct, even harsh terms.” After a bout of self-pity that brought his mom to tears, a surgeon grabbed him by his pajamas and scolded him. “He said, ‘you’re lucky to be alive, it’s just skin, if you ever make your mother cry again, I’m going to kick your ass!’”

The dressing down acted like a “light switch,” says Mahoney. “That doctor made me, a self-absorbed teenager, grow up. From that point on, all I wanted was to work in a hospital.” But not at the kind of job where you needed to master chemistry and biology. He decided to return to Millersville to complete his degree in economics, and it was there that he met another pivotal force: Pam Kane, the woman who would become his wife and the mother of their three children. He credits her with teaching him how to study and stay focused, and encouraging him to pursue his MBA and doctoral degrees at Temple University.

Save for a two-year stint working in Bermuda for an offshore insurance company — a move precipitated by his distaste at being asked to make workforce cuts at Bryn Mawr, Mahoney has worked at hospitals ever since. He arrived at UPHS in 1996, shortly before the system entered a downward spiral in which it lost hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of several years.

A new CEO entered the picture in 2000, and the system gradually returned to profitability. “We needed a modern facility to convince everyone that we were back,” recalls Mahoney. “We had a vision to develop the old Civic Center site. Most hospitals add another new building every 15 years and they generally don’t connect. You see the ‘70s building, you see the ‘80s building…. We were going to build a more cohesive hospital from the ground up.”

They started with the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, which was completed in 2009. The $302 million, 500,000-square-foot outpatient facility consists of the Abramson Cancer Center (from Rafael Vinoly Architects) and the Roberts Proton Therapy Center (by Tsoi Kobus Design). But the development of the site was always going to be completed in phases — the only way that Penn could afford Vinoly’s ambitious master plan. In 2011, the Vinoly-designed Smilow Center for Translational Research opened on top of the complex’ ambulatory building. Vinoly’s Henry A. Jordan M’62 Medical Education Center and his South Tower, built over the whole shebang, came next. Ultimately, the complex reached nearly 2 million square feet, all of it connected by a series of bridges that brought researchers, patients and clinicians closer together in order to seamlessly foster care and innovation.

Cohesion may have been the goal, but the staggered debuts and modular nature of the project often led to a jumble of “too many hands” — and some 10,000 change orders. “I would be throwing fits left and right,” says Mahoney. “I’d say to Rafael, to the builders, this has got to stop. I’m paying for your dysfunction. When it came time to start on the Pavilion, I said: I am doing it 100-percent integrated product delivery (IPD).”

To facilitate this collaborative model — which revolves around the use of a single contract for all parties that spells out agreed-upon costs, deliverables, and expectations — UPHS established a 24,000-square-foot co-location space not far from the construction site. Here, members of the IPD team — Penn Medicine personnel, health care design firm HDR, architect Foster + Partners, engineering firm BR+A, and construction managers L.F. Driscoll and Balfour Beatty, among others — worked together for the duration of the project. Later, the team constructed a full-scale 30,000-square-foot foam and cardboard mockup of half of an inpatient floor to test how the spaces worked.  Nurses kicked the tires, actors portraying patients tried out the bathrooms, and technicians walked from one end of the floor to the other. Their suggestions — for, say, increased daylighting or additional elevators — were implemented.

“I try to listen, and listen well,” says Mahoney. “I think that goes back to growing up in a large family. [He’s one of eight kids]. Organizations are relationship-oriented and relationships take time. [My] empathy can help a doctor be more effective or an employee do his job better. I want people to look back [at my time at Penn] and say, not so much that I put up that building and that building, but that I had an impact and made the University and the city a better place.”

JoAnn Greco is a Philadelphia-based journalist who frequently writes about the built environment.

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