Plain Folks Turned Millionaires, Wendell Cherry and David Jones Give Medicine a New Heart
12/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EST
For the second time, famed surgeon Dr. William DeVries has stitched an aluminum-and-plastic pump into a human chest, but patient William Schroeder, 52, got his mechanical heart mainly because high-rolling entrepreneurs David A. Jones and Wendell Cherry decided to make it happen. Jones, 53, and Cherry, 49, are the self-made-multimillionaire co-founders of Humana, an international chain of 91 hospitals that grossed $2.6 billion last year and made profits of some $200 million. Humana has agreed to finance artificial heart implant research—anticipating publicity and future profits—and that decision may give Schroeder longer life. It also has put Jones and Cherry in the middle of controversy about medical ethics and business practices that began when they persuaded Dr. DeVries to come to Louisville.
When DeVries met Jones last spring, he was frustrated with the nonprofit University of Utah research center. He was weary of scrambling to raise funds and secure permission for a second chance at the operation he pioneered in 1982, when he implanted an artificial heart in the chest of Dr. Barney Clark. "How many hearts do you need support for?" challenged Jones, once a Golden Gloves boxer. "Ten, will that be enough? We'll give you 100." With that, a stunned Dr. DeVries agreed to leave Utah and begin performing his headline-making operations at Humana Hospital-Audubon in Louisville, Ky., the corporation's headquarters.
The maneuver was typical of Jones' freewheeling, outgoing style. "David Jones just sort of exercised his personality," explains Dr. Robert Jarvik, designer of the mechanical heart. "He is a very smart businessman and he came up with this thing about supporting 100 cases. He could have committed to six, but no one would have cared." One hundred is a number that carries promotional punch. And by enticing Dr. Devries, the only surgeon with FDA approval to perform the operation, Jones made Humana Audubon the only hospital where implants can be done. A rival Louisville health care executive explains, "Jones and Cherry are always looking for something spectacular. They give a million to the arts, computers to the schools. There's nothing wrong with it. General Motors and General Electric do it. They just want to make a big splash."
The $50 million, 27-floor Humana headquarters building now rising in the center of Louisville is that big splash in stone. Designed by hot postmodernist architect Michael Graves, the pink granite skyscraper is highlighted with gold leaf stripes. When it is finished, six waterfalls will cascade 50 feet down an arch on the front of the building. Unappreciative townsfolk have nicknamed it "The Pink Privy."
No one scoffs at the money-making skills of the two Southern boys who 22 years ago chipped in $1,000 each to start their business. "And I borrowed my $1,000 from Household Finance Corporation," Jones points out. The son of a small contractor, Jones grew up in a Depression-poor family in Louisville's West End, attended the University of Louisville on a Navy ROTC scholarship, married his wife, Betty Ashbury, during a three-year Navy hitch and worked his way through Yale Law School on the GI bill. He graduated in 1960—broke, but with a job waiting in Louisville. To get back, "We were pulling a trailer we had bought for five dollars," he recalls. "We had to stop in Cincinnati because the fan belt on this old car broke. That wiped out our $25 reserve, and I had to postdate a check for $5 worth of gas to get us the rest of the way home."
In Louisville, Jones joined one of the state's most prestigious law firms, where he met Wendell Cherry, an equally ambitious young attorney. The son of a wholesale grocer, Cherry had grown up in Horse Cave, Ky. In 1962 they raised the money to start a nursing home, and by 1967 they had established Extendicare Inc. The company began selling stock in January 1968 at $8 a share. Ten months later it had shot up to $50. Owning more than 100,000 shares each, Jones and Cherry became instant multimillionaires. In 1972 they sold the company's 41 nursing homes to concentrate on accumulating hospitals.
Despite similar backgrounds, the two empire builders have developed dramatically different personal styles. An elegantly dressed, aloof man Cherry has four children by his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Baird of Munfordville, but after their divorce he married the former Dottie Morton of New York. A fashion pacesetter who has been photographed by Women's Wear Daily, Dottie runs a chic decorating firm in Louisville, though, according to one acquaintance, "she is not too happy with Louisville and spends a lot of time commuting to New York." Meanwhile, her husband has become nationally known as an art collector. The owner of a $5.3 million Picasso self-portrait, he chairs the Kentucky Center for the Arts and supervised construction of its $33.5 million cultural showcase near the Humana headquarters.
In business, Cherry is known as an impatient realist, while Jones plays the outgoing optimist who "comes in bubbling over with ideas," according to one former colleague. "Wendell would sit there with that sleepy look on his face and shoot them down. But when David proposed something and Wendell OK'd it, you could count on it being right." Others describe their complementary styles as "the white-hat guy and the shark." Cherry's temper is well known, though wife Dottie has said, "He'll try charm first. And if that doesn't work, he'll try something else."
Betty and David Jones have been married 30 years, have five children and are described by friends as "warm, plain people." They live in a large stone house on a hill in an exclusive suburban neighborhood east of Louisville.
Critics charge that Jones and Cherry should not be conducting a high-tech experiment in a hospital that is not a research institution. Others complain that by offering to supply funds for 100 hearts, Humana is, in essence, putting on the market free samples, which may create demand for a high-cost product that will help a very few people live only a little longer. But there's no debate about the partners' effectiveness. Marlow Burt, executive director of the art center, describes the entrepreneurial energy of their new money: "The old money is sitting there at the country club, playing cards and picking their noses. When I came here, all I heard was 'We can't do that in Louisville.' You never hear that from Cherry and Jones. They say, 'Get the damn job done.' "