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

In 1973, at Homestead High School outside Milwaukee, Kent Thiry staged his first theatrical act of empathy. As he tells it now, coaches at the school had an established rule dictating that male athletes couldn’t wear long hair. Thiry—himself a clean-cut kid—grew so appalled that he lobbied school board members to revoke the rule because of its “irrational, arbitrary definition of commitment.” Although he thought he’d secured enough support to reverse the ban, he overstepped. Before the school board meeting where the rule was to be discussed, 17-year-old Thiry jumped onto the school’s PA system—one of his tasks as student body president was to make the daily announcements—and urged everyone to show up and support the longhairs. The move repelled his administration allies and earned him an ass-chewing from the principal. The rule stood. Though it wasn’t exactly the March on Washington, the young idealist’s ill-fated crusade left an impression. “It was a flop in every way,” he says. “But I got to fight for something that I thought was right, which is a pretty good way to spend a life.”

When he wasn’t rallying students, Thiry, the second of six kids, honed his civic mindedness at home with his Midwestern family. (“On DaVita,” a reworded version of the University of Wisconsin fight song, “On Wisconsin,” is belted out heartily at many company events.) “People voted, people didn’t litter, and everyone gave to local activities,” he says. “Everyone got a job, behaved responsibly, paid their taxes. That was just the norm. If someone got sick or fell on hard times, you helped them out.”

Chief among Thiry’s inspirations was his father, who spent more than 25 years as a consultant for Arthur Andersen. “He said, ‘Study hard, do the best you can, and don’t make excuses. Don’t fall into a trap where you don’t have enough discipline; you own your effort and performance relative to your abilities.’ ” Acting on his father’s advice, Thiry led blood drives, excelled academically, and played football and basketball despite his modest size. (Thiry’s glass-encased Musketeer boots might get the athletically built exec up to 5 feet 10 inches.) “What Kent lacked in natural ability, he made up for in practice ethics,” says Thiry’s younger brother Craig. “It was what our parents taught us, but I don’t think any of us have carried it as far as Kent has.”

Thiry majored in political science at Stanford and was a member of the school’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. He graduated with honors in 1978, and a few years later landed at Harvard Business School. There he met Denise O’Leary, who still marvels at the way Thiry approached his Harvard courses. “He always made it seem like he’d read the case study on his way to class,” his wife recalls. “He’d stumble in with his notes barely together, the professor would call on him to open the discussion, and he’d give a killer opening. It never ceased to amaze me. He was an intense student, but he pulled a few rabbits out of his hat.” (Despite their similar backgrounds, the couple have never worked together. “No,” O’Leary says. “I’d kill him.”)

In 1983, shortly after graduating from Harvard as a Baker Scholar, the school’s second-highest designation, Thiry joined the Boston-based management consulting firm Bain & Company, where one of his recruiters was Mitt Romney. (About the presidential candidate, the pan-political Thiry—he’s long donated time and money to both sides of the aisle—will only divulge, “[Romney] was exceptionally smart and a superb problem-solver.”)

After eight years with Bain, Thiry joined Vivra, a midsize, Northern California–based kidney dialysis company. He eventually became CEO and began to hone his principles of intentionality—Thiry’s idea that almost anything people do should unfold with purpose, thoughtfulness, and efficiency. The practice would come to govern all aspects of his life. His exhausting work and travel schedule motivated him to track everything—literally. He set goals for “driveway time”—the number of evenings spent with his family. He would record the metrics daily, tweaking as necessary. He describes it now the way an accountant might outline a revenue sheet. “If I had a goal of spending 2.2 nights away from home every week and I was at 2.3, I’d cut a trip short, or not stay for a business dinner, or have someone else cover for me until I got it back down to 2.2,” he says. (He does the same thing with his workouts.) “It’s easy to lose track of things that are important, so a bad week becomes a bad month becomes a bad year. I marvel at people who bring such thoughtfulness to a problem at work and don’t bring the same thoughtfulness, brainstorming, problem-solving, re-engineering, and analytical attitude toward their personal lives.”

This philosophy is most evident in Thiry’s legendary “Question Nights,” which he dreamed up as his two children were nearing their teens. About once a week, the whole family would gather to discuss topics most people would reserve for term papers or the therapist’s couch: what law they might change, and why; how their friends might criticize their biggest fault; or what kind of sibling, child, or parent they’d been in the past week, and how they might improve. Any guests who happened to be there were not exempt from participating. “People want to talk about their problems,” Thiry says. “And this was about liberating people to be the humans that they’ve always wanted to be.”

Although the family was initially dubious, they grew to appreciate these odd meetings. “It became a way for Kent and I to discuss our failures as well as what we were proud of,” O’Leary says. “It let the kids see that even successful people like Mommy and Daddy make mistakes. That’s how you learn and grow, and you don’t have to be ashamed of it.” Their daughter, Christina Thiry, now 22, told me that her parents’ frank, deliberate, and open style earned her respect once she realized they too held themselves accountable for their actions. She credits Question Nights and similar family rituals with influencing her decision to choose an education-focused major at Stanford, from which she graduated in June. “I realized that whenever we had those discussions, I’d always talk about education, so clearly that mattered to me,” she says.

Throughout the ’90s, Thiry built Vivra into a nearly $600 million company before overseeing its sale. By this time he was ready to take a break, enjoy more driveway time at home in San Mateo, California, teach, write business articles, and travel. Before he could settle into his hiatus, he got a call from a larger but financially troubled dialysis company called Total Renal Care (TRC), inviting him to take the reins. Although he declined at first, TRC persisted. Around this time, says Thiry, he caught a showing of The Man in the Iron Mask, a critically panned film adaptation of the Three Musketeers legend starring Leonardo DiCaprio. “The Three Musketeers were famous for their dedication to their mission and to each other,” Thiry says. “They were the Marines of their time.” By the end of the film, he was dewy-eyed with inspiration, so thoroughly moved that he soon made a transformative life decision. Before he called TRC to accept its offer, he reached out to three former dialysis colleagues (including Yoda) and asked them simply, “Will you ride again?”

One of Thiry’s first acts as the new CEO was to gauge his new teammates’ interest in changing TRC’s name. By democratic vote at the inaugural Nationwide meeting in Phoenix, attendees chose to call their reborn company DaVita. Roughly translated from Italian, it means, “for life.”