Legend Spotlight: Dian Graves Stai

dian graves stai
hall of fame inductee, 2016


Co-founder and former Chairman of Owen Healthcare, Inc. 

Founder of the Dian Graves Owen Foundation 

You and your late husband Jean launched Owen Healthcare in 1969. What inspired you and your husband to start your own business? 

When Jean and I started Owen Healthcare, it was more about necessity than inspiration. When we met, Jean was a hospital pharmacist with a career developed in major hospital pharmacies. Together with some of the owners of his hospital, Jean had started a small pharmacy management company. However, shortly, after our marriage, his partners acquired enough stock to force Jean to sell his shares, and then decided to trim their overhead by cutting his salary. Two months after we married, Jean was out of a job. Thus, the necessity. Fortunately, Jean had excellent experience and some unique ideas to refine and develop the practice of hospital pharmacy. Those ideas ultimately became the competitive edge that Owen Healthcare brought to the industry. 

While Jean managed the pharmaceutical side, you were responsible for the marketing of the business in the early days. Did you have experience in marketing? What was your strategy for attracting new clients? 

Jean had seen waste and inefficiency in acute care hospitals, a lack of trust in the pharmacy service by nurses, and an acute lack of respect for the pharmacy profession from the medical staffs. His innovations addressed those issues. Only one problem; we had no hospital where he could develop those innovative practices! We reached out to contacts he had made in the past. We followed every lead, every opportunity to sell the concept of greater professionalism, higher margins, and lower cost. Those ideas seemed contradictory — indeed, impossible to implement in a revenue-producing department. Contracting (now known as outsourcing) pharmacy management to an outside company was unheard of. A forward-looking hospital administrator finally took a chance on us. We borrowed money (from my former in-laws!) and began. Working out of our home office with a state-of-the art IBM electric typewriter in the back of our car, off we went, calling on hospital administrators across West Texas. Every night, I would type contracts and correspondence in the hotel room. Before I married Jean, I had no real concept of what a “hospital pharmacy” was, so it was difficult for me to market Jean’s ideas, especially when I had no experience in marketing. Fortunately, Jean was a natural salesman. I worked hard to learn more about the industry and how to best present our concept. At that time, I had never heard of a trade show or a hospital “convention.” Once I learned about them, we were at all of them. 

You faced several challenges during the early years of your businesses. After the passing of your husband, you continued to run Owen Healthcare, taking on the role of Chairman. Despite some initial financial struggles, you never sold and managed to find new clients, keeping the business afloat. How did you stay motivated during those challenging times

The challenges alone were enough to keep me motivated. Initially, we had customer and employee unrest and apprehension as the “wife of the boss” took over. I had suddenly been thrust out of the background to become the face and voice of Owen Healthcare. I traveled nonstop building relationships with people inside and outside of the company. I made commitments to several key employees to pay them to my last cent if we didn’t succeed. I also convinced the pharmacists that we had an opportunity to build something good, new, and innovative — something that would provide better patient care in hospitals, elevate the role of pharmacists in that care, and lead to financial success. After a great deal of investment and training for our pharmacists, including the development of leadership and communication skills, we moved pharmacy operations to the forefront of patient care. 

I also believe that having a higher purpose is the best motivator. We weren’t just dispensing pills and preparing IVs; we were healing people. We showed we could improve patient care by moving pharmacy operations out of the invisible basement of acute care hospitals and making pharmacists part of the patient care team, all while becoming more efficient and lowering costs. With a lot of work, pharmacists became respected partners of the medical staff (tough battle, that one) and earned the trust of the nursing community. Those were difficult, exhausting times, but it was so exciting to accomplish those lofty goals! Working with great young people, solving problems… what could be more motivating? 

You created an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) in 1984, which in turn greatly benefitted employees at every level of the business after Owen Healthcare merged with Cardinal Healthcare in 1997. Can you tell us about your leadership style and philosophy? 

The ESOP was a natural evolution. Our employees built Owen Healthcare. It was not “mine;” it was “our” company. As we became successful, the ESOP was the logical way to reward the people who built the company, who trusted in me, and who shared our vision. They trusted me when there was only an idea, and I trusted them to bring the idea to fruition. 

The ESOP was reflective of my philosophy and leadership style. I could never understand the diagrams of the top-down management structure. I saw a circle, individuals linked to and depending on their coworkers. I was as responsible to the people at Owen as they were to me, and to our clients and to the patients we served, and back around again and again. 

After the merger, you refocused your energy as Chairman of the Dian Graves Owen Foundation and Mansefeldt Investment Corporation. As chairman, you have directed over a hundred and eighty million dollars to a diverse range of recipients in your local community of Abilene, Texas, and around the country. As an entrepreneur and business leader, why is giving back to your community so important? 

Once again, I will refer to my belief that having a “higher purpose” in business and life is the basis for what we did every day at Owen Healthcare. Sharing blessings and forging relationships are the big rewards. There is no greater joy than passing time, thoughts, prayers, help — and yes, monetary gifts — to others. Relationships are everything in life and in business. To flourish, relationships require total integrity and the utmost respect. 

How do you define “excellence” in business? 

In a word: integrity. When a business delivers on its promises to its employees and customers, it builds long-term relationships. A company must be profitable, of course; profitable enough to provide security and stability to employees and clients. But those long-term relationships are the true evidence of excellence. 

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