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Of Like Mind & Mission

By Karen Dybis

“He shared his goals and his vision for how he wanted to build Henry Ford Health into a national and world-class hospital. He had a big vision (and) it was at that breakfast where I knew we could create a partnership and do something significant, not only for our respective organizations, but by making a real impact in Detroit.” -Arn Tellem, Vice Chair, Pistons Sports and Entertainment; Chair, 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference

Sometimes, a phone call to a friend to check in can become something more – and one conversation, in particular, between Henry Ford Health Chief Executive Officer Wright L. Lassiter III and Detroit Pistons Sports and Entertainment Vice Chairman Arn Tellem is a prime example.

It was April 2020, and as Lassiter tells it, Henry Ford Health needed more ICU surgical gowns only to find the nearest supply was in Cleveland. He mentioned the issue to Tellem on a call, and before he knew it, Lassiter said Tellem had gotten the ball rolling. Within hours, Pistons employees made the drive to Cleveland, where they picked up the 15,000 gowns and delivered the personal protection equipment to Henry Ford Health.

“When you react like that in a crisis, it’s a sign of your humanity,” Lassiter said of his friendship with Tellem. “It shows compassion and a willingness to help out another person to meet a common goal.”

An early trust exercise

Lassiter and Tellem met in 2015 when Lassiter moderated a panel on sports and race relations as part of the Crain’s Detroit Homecoming event. The two understood the weight Tellem felt as a panelist to discuss whether the Detroit Pistons might move downtown, a development that would eventually occur in many ways due to a strong partnership that would develop between the two organizations. As the moderator, Lassiter addressed it but never pressured Tellem to say more than he could at the time.

Photo by: Brian Sevald – brian@briansevald.com

Months later, when the two met for breakfast at Birmingham’s Townsend Hotel, Tellem recalls how that initial trust started to grow. They not only had sports in common – Lassiter played men’s basketball for the Le Moyne Dolphins and is in the team’s hall of fame, and Tellem was a longtime sports agent for prominent professional athletes – but they also loved wine, dining out, and travel. Both had also arrived as transplants in the region within about a year of each other, well-respected executives bringing their talents to Detroit and looking to make a difference.

“Of all the meetings that I took, and I had a lot of meetings, Wright immediately got it,” Tellem recalled. “He shared his goals and his vision for how he wanted to build Henry Ford Health into a national and world-class hospital. He had a big vision (and) it was at that breakfast where I knew we could create a partnership and do something significant, not only for our respective organizations, but by making a real impact in Detroit.”

“When you react like that in a crisis, it’s a sign of your humanity,” Lassiter said of his friendship with Tellem. “It shows compassion and a willingness to help out another person to meet a common goal.”
-Wright L. Lassiter III, President and Chief Executive Officer, Henry Ford Health

Merger of minds and missions

That breakfast and many other meetings resulted in the 2017 announcement that the Detroit Pistons and Henry Ford Health would partner to build the state-of-the-art training, rehabilitation and sports-medicine complex in Detroit’s Midtown. The Pistons, who had by then announced its move into Little Caesars Arena, called the partnership “a groundbreaking alliance.”

Tellem and Lassiter agree: Being a part of Detroit’s revitalization both in terms of sports and medicine as well as community investment was a merger of minds and missions. That bond strengthened during the pandemic as both executives struggled with how to keep their individual teams strong while also supporting Detroit’s vaccine rollout and more.

Photo by: Brian Sevald – brian@briansevald.com

While Henry Ford Health’s doctors and nurses were stretched to their limits, Lassiter said he was humbled as a leader to work alongside them as best he could, listening and supporting them. Henry Ford Health officials advised Mayor Mike Duggan as well as state officials, and the health system led local Moderna and J&J vaccine trials. Henry Ford Health also became the official medical advisor for Michigan’s mass vaccination site and the first health system in the state to require workforce vaccination.

“I have the privilege of leading an organization that has a long legacy and a deep commitment to the community in trying to do what’s right on behalf of all of the citizens that we serve,” Lassiter said. “I’ve never seen a more dedicated, committed and preserving set of human beings than I got to work with and support over the past couple of years during the global pandemic.”

The pandemic’s lessons of strength

The pandemic was a time like no other, Lassiter added, but it also taught Detroit just how strong it is –and how strong its residents and businesses are. He and Tellem believe their partnership also has a strength to it that will continue to serve Detroit in the years ahead.

“Our values aligned,” Lassiter said. “When you can create strong friendships that are both business-based and have some sense of personal respect, that can create stronger business relationships.”

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.