The Strangest Show On Earth

Denver-based health-care mogul Kent Thiry runs DaVita, his multibillion-dollar kidney dialysis company, unlike anything the buttoned-down corporate world has ever seen. Are his carnival-like theatrics a stroke of genius, or are they designed to distract people from the hard truths about his business?

September 2012

On a humid Tennessee morning this past April, the vast ballroom of Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center is pulsing with anticipation. A football field long, the hall accommodates some 3,000 giddy men and women who await the arrival of Kent Thiry, the gregarious, unrestrained, 56-year-old health-care magnate who happens to be their boss. Thiry is the CEO and chairman of the board of Denver-based DaVita, the second-largest kidney dialysis company in the world and one of Colorado’s latest additions to the Fortune 500. Each year, DaVita produces this event—it’s formally called “Nationwide”—to honor its brightest stars.

Thiry, who’s known by employees as the “mayor of DaVita Village,” or, more often, as “KT,” always arrives with a surprise. At Nationwide meetings in Washington, D.C., he zip-lined down from the ceiling in 2010 and ambled in on horseback in 2011. At a 2001 outdoor gathering in Orlando, he landed a roaring speedboat on the beach. He pulled his first-ever grand entrance—rappelling down a turned-off artificial waterfall in Phoenix—at the inaugural Nationwide in 2000, at the very moment his company was flirting with insolvency. Thiry knew the attendees would greet his debut with skepticism, but today—given that DaVita generates about $6.8 billion annually—his bravado is remembered fondly. It’s also rewarded lavishly: Thiry made at least $17.5 million before bonuses in 2011, and he’s taken home more than $125 million over the past five years, making him one of the wealthiest executives in Colorado.

Thiry’s turnaround of DaVita, along with his unconventional approach to leadership, have granted him a savior’s devotion from his 41,000 employees, known in company parlance as “teammates” or “citizens.” Though many of DaVita’s low-level employees make a modest hourly wage, the company’s nurses, technicians, and administrators, scattered throughout more than 1,800 dialysis clinics in the United States (with an expanding roster of international centers), are beneficiaries of morale-boosting financial, wellness, and scholarship programs that have landed DaVita atop numerous best-companies-to-work-for lists. At the Nashville conference, teammates swoon with gratitude and company pride. Back home at their clinics, devotees demonstrate commitment to DaVita by contributing to “Walls of Fame”—collages of photos and artwork dedicated to the organization’s patients and caregivers—and enjoying DaVita’s myriad perks and initiatives. “KT uses this phrase—and I really believe it—that ‘a village produces most what it honors most,’ ” says Shelly Azen, a Pennsylvania-based group director of people services (that’s DaVita-speak for human resources). “Every single person is expected to make a difference, and the more you honor the Core Values, the more you see them happen.”

Azen, like every “teammate” I meet, radiates an almost evangelical loyalty to the company. Neither she nor anyone else I encounter acknowledges what can be seen as DaVita’s darker side: the years-long onslaught of lawsuits that accuse the company of everything from patient neglect and unfair business practices to Medicare fraud; federal investigations into its income statements; and the overarching fact that DaVita’s profits derive primarily from a taxpayer-funded health-care system that, according to critics, is driven by inefficiencies, conflicts of interest, and overbilling. These public-relations inconveniences will receive scant attention at this year’s Nationwide. The event, as any dedicated employee knows, is a time to celebrate, a time to embrace the “DaVita Way.”

At 8 a.m. sharp, a video brings the throngs in the ballroom to their feet as KT appears on several massive screens. He’s astride a Harley-Davidson, draped in a silky getup inspired by the Three Musketeers, his blond, boyish coif flitting in the breeze as he “travels” from Colorado to Nashville in front of an animated blue screen. Ever the ham, he stands on the seat, props his bare feet on the handlebars—his swashbuckling boots reside under a glass case in his Denver office—and waves to his fellow citizens while motoring past a comically unrealistic backdrop of Middle America. The video concludes with KT “riding” into Nashville. Then, in real life, he enters the ballroom on his Harley. As he cruises the aisles, klieg lights sweep the venue and cameras—some handheld, some on giant booms—dip and swirl to capture the delight of the attendees, who clap rhythmically to KT’s theme song, Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.” Thiry motors through the main aisle and onto the stage, kills the engine, dismounts, does a trademark somersault, and starts with a well-rehearsed call and response.

“Yo, DaVitAAAAA!” Thiry booms.

“YO, DAVITAAAAA!” the crowd echoes.

Thiry: “What is this company?”

Crowd: “NEW!”

Thiry: “Whose is it?”

Crowd: “OURS!”

Thiry: “What can it be?”

Crowd: “SPECIAL!”

Thiry: “All for one!”

Crowd: “ONE FOR ALL!”

Thiry: “Damn straight!”

He congratulates the attendees for posting DaVita’s best clinical outcomes for the 12th consecutive year. (Thiry: “No brag!” Crowd: “JUST FACTS!”) Then, on the video screens, he posts a report card—his own. He’s proud to announce his first-ever rankings of “solid” or above in each of DaVita’s Core Values: service excellence, integrity, team, continuous improvement, accountability, fulfillment, and fun. Over the next two days, Thiry and his lieutenants will preach about the importance of “intentionality.” They’ll assure teammates that their very career choices make them unique and admirable. And they’ll discuss how Thiry's ambitions for his company extend far beyond dialysis and into everyday health care. Heartfelt speeches, tributes, and award presentations will be accompanied by songs such as “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “Chariots of Fire,” and “What a Wonderful World.” When he isn’t turning somersaults or cracking jokes or doling out hugs and high fives, Thiry will well up with tears of pride and empathy, and he’ll reach, along with his emotive employees, for the tissue boxes placed on each end of every table in the ballroom. When KT is finished, these 3,000 front-liners won’t just be energized about their work; they’ll trumpet the DaVita Way to whomever they encounter. As Thiry loves to tell his troops: “We do dialysis, but we’re not about dialysis—we’re about life!”