The Empire that Jack Connors Leaves Behind

I wrote about Jack Connors last year. I called him the king of Boston. Connors, the co-founder of Hill, Holliday, one of the nation’s largest ad firms, was chairing Partners Health Care at the time, the state’s largest hospital chain, and serving on the boards of BC and Harvard’s Board of Fellows, which was, of course, when he wasn’t working with Mayor Menino on a summer camp for disadvantaged kids or building Catholic schools with Cardinal O’Malley or hosting fundraisers for U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. This spring, Connors said he wanted to buy the Globe, his third run at the paper. Last month, at his Brookline home, he held a fundraiser for President Obama.

The man must stay busy. He told me he loves everything he does in his so-called retirement, even though it means fielding more than 100 calls a day. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear this morning that he’s stepping down as chairman of Partners. He’s been chairman since 1996, was key in overseeing not only the merger of Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham & Women’s but also the power that the chain obtained in the last decade. Partners is a behemoth today. For all its acclaim, however, its expansion into Boston’s suburbs and the premium price it demands everywhere has been a cause for investigation. Attorney General Martha Coakley said last year that Partner’s charges more for the same services that community hospitals offer with no difference in quality of care. Partners is able to do this because of its prestige — it’s affiliated with Harvard Medical School — but mostly because of its size.

When I spoke with Connors last year, and on the occasions I’ve checked in with him since, he’s grown weary when talk turned to Partners. He said he spends a lot of his time defending the chain, especially when no one wants to listen to the groundbreaking, life-saving research that happens there, he says, which the higher prices enable. He cares deeply about everything he does and, as a practicing Catholic, wants his business efforts to reflect his faith: that they are the right, and even the righteous, things to do. Seeing Partners slammed by the press and state government bothers him.

To be clear, Partners’ expansion and the higher rates it’s secured from insurers have been the work of Partners’ executive team, not its board. Jack Connors isn’t at the negotiating table with Blue Cross. But because he’s an ad man first, Connors knows how damaging public opinion can be, especially when it’s turned against you. Beacon Hill’s new directive to control health care costs only compounds matters. I, for one, think the hospital chain that will flourish in the future is the smaller, more efficient Tufts Medical Center. Partners, for all its strength and revenue, may very well falter.

Connors acknowledged as much to the Globe this morning: “We’re going into the tough years,” he said. Had Partners not formed, Boston’s leading hospitals may have resembled New York’s: prestigious but bankrupt. Fifteen-plus years after its founding, Partners now enters a turbulent adolescence. And at 69, Connors knows that for all he’s done, it’s time for someone else to steward the company to maturity. No man is king forever. Given Connor’s nature, it will be interesting to see how easily he let’s someone else reign.