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

At a downtown Denver hotel, Yoda primes a new batch of DaVita teammates. It’s late May, and they’re here for one of the company’s two-day “Academy” orientation gatherings, held every few months around the country. About 350 newbies listen intently as the grandfatherly Yoda, in a white baseball jersey with “JEDI” in red and black across his chest, espouses the DaVita Way. “We dedicate our heads, hearts, and hands to pursue the mission, live the values, and build a healthy village,” he says. “You won’t find many senior executives at Fortune 500 companies telling you that we need to love each other, but that’s part of what we’re about.”

He explains the concept of “crossing the bridge,” DaVita’s term for embracing the company’s vision. It’s both figurative and literal: A 10-foot-long wooden bridge sits in the DaVita lobby and onstage at company events. The act of traversing it unfolds with sacramental solemnity. (Thiry makes a point of walking over it every day he’s in Denver.) Most of these folks won’t cross the bridge today; they’re excited to join this new, different, special company, but it’s too soon for them to undergo something so momentous. Instead, Yoda instructs the audience to ponder the company ethos. “I want you to look down at the table in front of you and think about how you give life,” he says, with the priestly conviction he delivers to his non-DaVita congregation. “Tell yourself out loud, ‘I give life.’ ”

The crowd murmurs a response.

Yoda: “If you really believe it, say it to the person next to you: ‘I give life.’ ”

The crowd does as instructed, but Yoda wants more. “Yell out what you do for a living! ‘I GIVE LIFE!’ ”

The rookies pipe up: “I GIVE LIFE!”

Moments later, the iconic, thumping piano notes of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” crank unexpectedly from the loudspeaker. No one knows what to make of it until they see the mayor of DaVita Village, here to thrill the crowd with a surprise cameo. Thiry runs from the back of the room through the audience, high-fiving the delighted newcomers as they applaud and cheer. As the music fades, he gives his new acolytes the first of many lessons; this one is about the star that dots the “I” in the company logo. Whenever it’s shown on-screen at these events, the star leaps through the “V” and lands triumphantly atop the “I.” “The dancing star represents YOU and the good you’re doing each and every day,” says Thiry, imploring them, as always, to continue spreading his word, to sway this world of detractors and nonbelievers more warmly toward the DaVita Way. “I want you to tell people about our dancing star!”