Interview with Cook Group President Kem Hawkins

Kem Hawkins, president of Cook Medical Group, shares memories of company founder and Indiana philanthropist Bill Cook and speculates on the company's future.

Officials say Cook Group will continue its operations with little interruption. This after founder and CEO Bill Cook died Friday. The 80-year-old philanthropist and entrepreneur died at his Bloomington home after battling congestive heart failure for years.

Cook Group president Kem Hawkins says Bill Cook left the company in a good position so operations could continue as normal. Hawkins will remain president and Steve Ferguson will continue in his role as chairman of the board. Cook’s son, Carl, will take over as chief executive officer of Cook Group.

WFIU’s Sara Wittmeyer spoke with Kem Hawkins about the future of the company and continuing Bill Cook’s philanthropic legacy.

Can you describe how you first became associated with Mr. Cook?

Well, this goes back nearly 30 years, and Bill Cook had already had the beginnings of cardiovascular disease and had already had a triple bypass, and he would walk every evening. And I can remember — I was the band director at this point at Bloomington High School South — and I can remember this gentleman kind of leaning on the fence and watching the practices, and it was a great time for the band program and the students involved, and I had just incredibly talented and gifted kids. And I can remember turning off the lights at night from the stadium, and walking out, and he would always be there. And he would say, “You know, that was a great practice, wasn’t it?” And I would talk to him. I really didn’t have any idea at the time who that was.  And I did have a son in the band program at the time, and it was through him just watching that provided the opportunity eventually for me to join Cook.

How do you think his legacy’s going to be remembered?

Well, that’s up to us, and it’s up to all 10,000 employees to make sure that that happens. I think about 48 years that Cook has contributed to fighting disease, and I think there are millions of people around the globe that are expecting us to continue in our perseverance to that end. And it’s going to be through our actions that Bill will have the opportunity to continue to smile and be proud of us.

How will his philanthropic work be continued? What projects will you decide to continue? How will you decide what projects to invest in in the future?

I don’t think it’ll be any different in that regard. Certainly Gayle and Carl are very, very interested, and those projects have been an ongoing family concern for years. Historic preservation is at the very core of that family. In addition to that, all the promises and the expectations that we have as a company will continue in the same vein, and probably with a vigor that will probably be increased.

Reading through the press release, it talked a bit about what Cook contributed to the medical industry, but can you elaborate a bit more on his impact to the medical industry?

As a company, we’ve had a number of firsts. We even had the first coronary stent. We were the very first to put, for the Seldinger technique, which is percutaneous entry. When Bill started the company, he was the very first to manufacture a wire catheter and needle and put them together in a set. That was really an end to, or provided an end to, exploratory surgery and to cutdowns in order to gain access to the circulatory system. We have taken that single and profound invention, and we have leveraged that into urology and critical care and gastroenterology and disciplines. We actually serve about 25 different disciplines now in the world. And his entrepreneurial spirit is just embedded and is in every cell of all of us in this company. And it’s just incredible, when you look forward, we have 350 new device projects that are ongoing at this very time that will save lives or make lives better for those that are fighting sometimes very, very serious diseases.

How involved did Mr. Cook continue to be in the day-to-day operations of the company?

Well, I think he would have told you that, the day-to-day, he kind of turned that over many years ago, but certainly he was involved. I loved the opportunity to share with him the good, bad, and the ugly sometimes. And we had some great talks. He was an incredible mentor to all of us. And there’s an incredible responsibility to ensure that his legacy lives on, because we have been a company of standing on the highest ethical ground, of making sure that we do the right thing by the patient. And our loyalty to the medical disciplines that we serve. And we certainly don’t want to look back at any point in the future and disappoint Bill.

If you can, can you talk about how different Bloomington might be if it weren’t for Mr. Cook?

Well, for anyone that’s been here, I think it’s pretty obvious. You know, whether you go to the Y, or whether you go to a night game at the stadium and see the lights, or whether you go downtown for the lighting of the Christmas lights. The hospital, some of the equipment that’s been given there. All the historic preservation. All the people that are employed in the Bloomington area as a result of the success of Cook. These 48 years have been remarkable because, for every year in 48 years, we’ve increased in our topline sales numbers, and we’ve increased in our number of employees. For 48 consecutive years. That’s pretty hard to do, but I think it’s a testament to doing things right. And when new people come into town, I think they’ll very quickly discern the difference of Bloomington, and the growth of Bloomington, and what we’ve been able to contribute and give back as a result of our success. And I absolutely can guarantee that there’ll be no pause in that. As we go forward, that obligation and that responsibility doesn’t change.

He seems like he was a very private person. The media didn’t speak to him very often. How do you think he’d want to be remembered now?

Well, that is a very difficult question! [laughs] I think all of us want to make our mark on life, and I think it is important to be remembered. His name is on the building out in front. And it’s important to understand, at least from my perspective, that to truly honor him is to be able to continue in our perseverance, to make sure that we take care of the patients that are to come. And in sharing, too, the fruits of that labor. And in making people’s lives better. I can’t begin to tell you the number of things that have never been published, where Bill, the family, and the company have intervened at times to help both individuals and group with no expectation of a thank-you, or no expectation of an acknowledgment … but done just to make life a little easier for some, and sometimes to make a right out of a wrong.

It does seem like he was a very wealthy man, but he didn’t let money affect him. There was an article about how he still ran his own errands. What do you understand his personal relationship with money to have been?

It was a tool. And it was a tool that had great responsibility, and it could be used in a manner that could be destructive, or it could be used in a manner that would build. And I know that I am the only president in the world that, almost 11 years ago, Bill Cook said to me, “You know, Kem, this isn’t about money. I want you to make every decision in the best interest of the patients.” Now I’d already been with the company for almost 20 years before that, and we’d always lived that, but you could imagine telling the president that, you know, the priority here will never be money. It will be about that patient. And so all of us, when we put our heads on the pillow that night, know that everything that we have done, and every decision that we’ve attempted to make, has been for the benefit of the patient. That’s what makes us special.

What’s your final memory of Bill Cook?

A fighter beyond anything that might be humanly expected. He’s been fighting cardiovascular disease forever. I mean, for a long time. And in 1998, he was told to get his affairs in order. And what he did at that point was, he got with Chris Gebhardt, who was a professional trainer and extraordinary individual, and he started working out. And he worked out three times a week, sometimes four. And he got 11 years instead of a few months. And even at the end, when it was very difficult for Bill, and he was very uncomfortable, Bill got up out of bed, and even on Wednesday of this week, he tried to work out. You know, part of staying alive is getting out of bed in the morning, and part of it is having the tenacity to make something of every single day, every single hour, and every single minute. I know of no one that has been able to achieve that better than Bill.

Sara Wittmeyer

Sara Wittmeyer is the News Bureau Chief for WFIU and WTIU. Sara has more than a decade of experience as a news reporter and previously served with KBIA at the University of Missouri, WNKU at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY, and at WCPO News in Cincinnati.

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