What To Do When The White House Calls

J.R. Ball Finance, Issue 08 - Nov/Dec 2013 Leave a Comment

When the leader of the free world beckons, go, advises Dr. Lawrence Mathews, chief financial officer at the Institute for Population Health.

By J.R. Ball

You are sitting in your office. The phone rings. You do not recognize the number, but regardless you answer. It is the White House. The woman on the other end of the line informs you that the President of The United States requests that you join him at once for a brainstorming meeting in the Oval Office, based on your unique insights as a leader in your field.

You hang up. Clearly that was a prank call. Your mind races as you narrow down the friends who may be responsible for this ruse. By now you are wishing you had let the call go to voicemail.

mathews_side_photosThe phone rings again. It is the same number and same woman on the line. This time, her tone is more persuasive. Her credentials sound surprisingly authentic, and her insistence that you get on the next flight to Washington, D.C., more compelling.

This time when you hang up, it is to pack your bags. If there has ever been an indication that you have made the right choices in life, that you have accomplished something disparate and unique from your peers, that your contribution to the greater good of society has been recognized, it may well be getting a call from the President’s Office.

For Lawrence Mathews, Ph.D., the man on the receiving end of that phone call, it was the highlight of a career comprised of many.

“The first time I was invited to the White House, I honestly thought it was a joke,” reaffirmed Mathews, currently Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for the Institute for Population Health (IPH). Founded in 2012, the grant-funded public health organization provides a robust variety of health care services to residents of Detroit.

In 1993, the Clinton Administration began drafting the Health Security Act, a star-crossed health care reform package that aimed to provide universal coverage to all Americans. To work out the semantics of such an undertaking, Clinton sought counsel from content experts across the health care and finance spectrum.

Mathews fit the bill. A former U.S. Army First Lieutenant with a master’s degree in Public Administration and a doctorate in Public Administration and Public Policy, his financial expertise includes consulting, government and private-sector experience—the vast majority of which reside within the realm of public health care.

But, beyond a resume steeped in high-profile financial services roles, it is Mathews’ intangibles that attracted the attention of the nation’s top executive.

“I’ve always believed that you have to identify your passion in life and pursue it,” Mathews said. “I’m passionate about crafting a vision that will have a long-term positive impact on the well-being of this community, as well as the nation.”

On a tactical level, Mathews’ has been able to combine his passion for helping others access high-quality care with his innately strong business acumen and financial aptitude.

“Many people don’t understand that a CFO is such a broad position. You’re guiding the entire financial future of an organization,” he said. “You must understand where the company wants to go and how they’ll get there. Without the finances, you can’t do anything.”

For Clinton, Mathews’ cerebral mastery of both finance and the domestic health care system secured him a seat at the table—specifically, the coffee table adjacent to the President’s desk inside the Oval Office.

quote2“We were joined by Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman to discuss how to go about reinventing the health care system, specifically concerning budgeting and finance,” said Mathews, who notes that during their meeting, Clinton was funneling information to First Lady Hillary Clinton, who was in Denver drafting provisions of the plan in preparation for presentation to Congress.

Mathews visited the White House on three separate occasions to meet with Clinton and his Cabinet, and still speaks of the experiences with a contagious exuberance.

“Can you imagine?,” Mathews asked. “What an amazing experience to be a part of—truly amazing.”

Setbacks, Comebacks & New Directions

From his office located in the historic Virginia Park district of Detroit, Mathews candidly reflects on a career that has been defined not only by presidential meetings and C-suite responsibilities but also by challenges.

“If you haven’t failed, you haven’t really tried,” he said, explaining that he prefers not to use the term “failure” when discussing career setbacks, referring to them simply as “new opportunities.

Prior to his role with IPH, Mathews had served The Wellness Plan Medical Centers of Detroit, a primary health care provider serving the Motor City’s disadvantaged, as CFO for nearly two decades.


When Mathews, who still speaks with great pride and satisfaction of his time with the organization, was passed over while in line to succeed the outgoing President, he realized it was time for a change.

Always a firm believer in having a contingency plan, he recalled: “When it happened, I immediately said, ‘OK, what’s my next opportunity?’”

“It’s very important to have plan B—even plan C’s and D’s,” Mathews said. His approach has been to develop and continually reassess a five-year “rolling plan.”

mathews_quote“It’s important to regularly examine the goals and plans you have for your life and ask yourself if you’re still on that path,” he said. “Otherwise, if you’re caught off guard by an unforeseen setback, it can be very traumatic.”

Mathews’ mantra, which he makes an effort to impress upon others, is to “ask yourself, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?”—regardless of how old you are.” Furthermore, he advocates that one’s passion should be the main driver of those goals, and not to let a stumble derail those plans.

“I often tell people to remember that every setback is a setup for a comeback,” Mathews said. “You’re just one step away from another opportunity or a new direction.”

Success Beyond the Balance Sheet

The lessons Mathews took from his career challenges have only served to make his successes that much grander. If outside forces dictated his success at The Wellness Plan, making sure his touch could be found on IPH was imperative.

“We’re basically a startup, albeit one with a $44-million operating budget,” noted Mathews, who was personally selected by the organization’s Founder to join the executive team while the very idea of IPH was still in its infancy.

mathews_sidebar“To be a sustained success, we knew we had to put our stamp on so it. We’re also happy to note that we’re saving the local government a great deal of money, eight percent on admin costs alone, because we’re not publicly funded by the city.”

From a financial leadership perspective, Mathews’ approach at IPH entailed not only implementing stringent financial systems capable of issue reports and statements any given moment (although they can), but also assembling a team of nine specialized individuals, all of whom are focused on the success of the mission at hand.

“I brought aboard a data and systems specialist who is a former Lieutenant Colonel, as well as a grant manager who is a Six Sigma-trained process manager,” Mathews said. “I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, particularly the expansion of our grant program to more than 30 grants. This means we’re able to provide top-quality care with zero impact from the city’s financial woes.”

But for Mathews, his greatest successes and proudest achievements lie not within a balance sheet, but rather within the home he and his wife have created for their family and their now-grown children.

“I came from a solid family of six, and I wanted my children to have that stability as well. My wife and I made sure of it,” said Mathews, adding that he and his wife still reside in the same home in which they raised their children so that they “could always come home and have a bed to sleep in.”

The pride with which Mathews speaks of his family is rivaled only by the passion in which he advocates the importance of both faith and integrity. In business and in life, Mathews said, “One must have the highest ethical and moral standards, and a faith that is unwavering—whether it’s a faith in your family and loved ones or something greater.”

It may be no coincidence then that so many have put their faith in the insights and intellect of Dr. Mathews throughout the years.

J.R. Ball is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. 

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