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2018 Lifetime Achievement Awards: Gail Markham and Dr. Allen Weiss

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The Fight for What Matters

Gail Markham of Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co. has spent her life creating a better world for herself and others.

“Some people give up and I don’t.” That’s the seven-word answer that Gail Markham, one of Lee County’s foremost business executives and philanthropists, offers when pressed on the secrets to her success. She follows it with the slightest of caveats: “The only time I walk away from something is if it’s not worth my time and effort, and then it’s a conscious decision to walk away.”

Markham’s stubborn childhood resilience put her on a path to her adulthood success. Her mother had four children by the time she was 23. Her father, an outwardly charming man with a penchant for persuasion, abused alcohol and, in turn, his wife. He also sexually abused Markham in secret, starting when she was 4.

Markham’s mother eventually fled with her children, and they were forced to start over with nearly nothing in a cramped, two-bedroom, one-bathroom home.

“I remember scraping together pennies to go buy some milk or a loaf of bread,” Markham says.

Education became Markham’s escape. She received a full ride to the University of Florida, where she went for two years before graduating, cum laude, from the University of Maryland in 1974 with a Bachelor of Science in accounting from the College of Business and Management.

When she moved to Southwest Florida to find a job, she quickly learned success would be an uphill battle, as the accounting firm that hired her seemingly had no intention of promoting her. At the time, women in the accounting field were still an anomaly.

“I worked very hard, but I really wasn’t taken seriously,” Markham recalls. “They were making men partners around me that didn’t work nearly as hard as me.”

So she started her own practice in Cape Coral in 1979, in a 1,100-square-foot office all by herself.

Today, Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co., P.A. (MNMW) is known as one of the largest tax, accounting and business consulting firms in Southwest Florida, with 50 employees, including partners. It’s grown 5 to 10 percent in revenue per year. But Markham doesn’t measure the company’s success in numbers as much as she does the culture.

“I’ve never deviated from my mission to build a place where I wanted to be every day, and where everybody is kind and treats each other well,” she says.

The long-term relationships at the company attest to this: The first partner at MNMW has been with the firm at least 36 years, and many employees started as interns or right out of college.

“We’re very into that mentoring process here,” Markham says.

She’s incredibly dedicated to mentoring outside of work, too, candidly sharing the hardships—and successes—in her life to inspire others. Markham founded the Lee County PACE Center for Girls and chaired the board of directors from

2006 to 2013. Her story of abuse showed at-risk girls in the program that they, too, could rebuild after ruin.

“She bravely put herself out there so candidly and vulnerably to serve as an inspiration for thriving beyond hardships,” says Melissa Cofta, who worked at PACE with Markham before joining- ing Priority Marketing. Markham has also mentored her for 10 years.

Though Markham has left PACE, she still readily lends herself to women in need. She’s changed
the lives of two Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) students in particular, who messaged her on a whim for guidance a few years back. They’d both lost their mothers and didn’t know to navigate the professional world. Markham has helped them obtain scholarships and professional clothing, and even learn how to cook during their monthly dinners at her home.

“Honestly, Gail is like our mother figure because we both don’t have that in our life and she’s somebody we can go to for those kinds of things, Taylor Toreno, the recent FGCU graduate who connected with Markham, says. “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know where I would be.”

As sacred as Cofta and Toreno’s relationships are with Markham, both say they’re just a few of many people whose lives she has touched.

And Markham will continue to touch lives, with the endowed scholarship fund she set up in 2013 with the Southwest Florida Community Foundation for area girls to attend college.

It’s her way of honoring the scholarship, set up by a woman, that initially helped her attend college and discover her dreams. There’s another woman in her life who she thanks for becoming the person she is today: her mother, who taught her how to persist, no matter what.

“She’s a survivor,” Markham says. “She did the best she could do to put it all back together. She’s always had class, held her head up, and just kept going.” Like mother, like daughter.

 

Leading by Example

Dr. Allen Weiss emphasizes quality care and healthy lifestyles for Southwest Florida residents.

When a young Dr. Allen Weiss arrived in Naples in 1977, he became doctor No. 58 to set up shop in town. He had no connections here, but he saw all sorts of potential in this little community—a chance for his internal medicine, rheumatology and geriatrics practice to grow and flourish.

Here we are, 41 years later, and Weiss not only grew his own practice and stature, but as CEO and president of NCH Healthcare System, he’s also now responsible for leading an organization that includes 700 doctors and is setting the bar for high-quality, award-winning medical care.

“Never in the world did I dream I would be doing what I do these days,” Weiss says.

Philadelphia-born Weiss didn’t really imagine a career in medicine to begin with. He didn’t come from a family of doctors, and his early academic record was “undistinguished.” But as he buckled down in his schoolwork and enrolled at La Salle University to study biology and chemistry, his interest in medicine developed. Weiss ultimately won acceptance to Columbia University as
an M.D.–Ph.D. candidate. La Salle was just 20 minutes
from his parents’ home in the quiet suburbs, Columbia
University in bustling New York City.

“It was a risk [to attend Columbia University], but if you don’t take the risk you don’t get the reward,” Weiss says.

Following his training, Weiss, his pregnant wife and their 2-year-old daughter relocated to Naples, a town so undeveloped that the family had to drive to Fort Myers to purchase baby clothes.

But the community’s size helped Weiss and his staff
cultivate a close relationship with their patients. “It
was pre-internet, so patients would call [the office] and a couple of [employees] actually knew people’s voices by phone,” Weiss recalls. He got to know the small circle of doctors well, too, and chaired Community Health Partners, a medical provider network affiliated with NCH. He went back to school, earning a Master of Business Administration from Florida Gulf Coast University, so that he could better manage the network’s financials.

That same year, Weiss became president of NCH Healthcare System, fresh from learning about quality parameters in school and eager to apply them to the role. He worked closely with the system’s officers to develop clinical quality, and, in 2003, NCH earned its first quality award for cardiology, as a result of a Code- Save-A-Heart initiative that reduced cardiac mortality.

“We had never gotten a quality award before that time, and now we’ve gotten so many I can’t even keep track of them,” Weiss says. “Quality and patient-centeredness really made the difference in our institution.”

Three years later, Weiss beat national contenders to also become CEO of NCH, and started leading a charge to shift the health care system’s focus from treating disease to preventing disease. “Eighty percent of what causes disease people do to themselves, so we’re working on that 80 percent,” Weiss says. “We want to keep people healthy; we don’t want them to be patients.”

Since 2013, NCH has sponsored the Blue Zones Project, a community-wide well-being improvement initiative to help Southwest Florida residents make healthy choices.

The region now holds the No. 1 spot in Gallup-Sharecare’s State of American Well-Being Community Rankings for an unprecedented three years in a row. The report measures how residents of 186 U.S. cities feel about their physical health, social ties, financial security, community and sense of purpose. Weiss credits his 4,300-member staff for accolades like that one. But former Florida State Sen. Garrett Richter, president and CEO of First Florida Integrity Bank and friend of Weiss’s for 20-plus years, says Weiss is worthy of main praise.

“If you were to point to one individual in our community who’s responsible for that rating … I think it would be [Weiss].” Richter says. “He has had a great influence over the subtleties of leading a healthy life.”

Recently, NCH received five-star status among the top 7 percent of healthcare systems in the nation, measured by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Rankings like that draw patients from out of the area— and make NCH a regional “economic engine.”

During Weiss’ tenure, NCH opened its Heart Institute; joined the Mayo Clinic Care Network; built the region’s first freestanding emergency department; created a pediatric emergency room; constructed a new hospital tower downtown; started a medical residency program; and developed NCH Imaging, the county’s largest imaging service.

For Weiss, the former internist, the greatest payoff still comes in the form of patient interactions. This year, he met a man who experienced a sudden heart issue and was treated by the NCH Heart Institute. The patient was recovering in the ICU with his family when Weiss walked in.

“They were just so happy. His heart attack had been averted, his wife was not a widow, the daughter was not missing her dad, so they literally wanted to celebrate and hug,” Weiss says. “Patients remember these things and that’s thrilling for me. If you do the right thing often enough, you get the right results.” 

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