Executive Q&A with Garyl G. Geist

by Paula Burkes                                         


Garyl Geist was a fan of Dean McGee Eye Institute, long before recruiters called him about the chief operating officer job two years ago.

When he was a boy, Geist remembers his paternal grandmother, who lived on a farm in the Oklahoma Panhandle, traveling to Dean McGee to get injections in her eyes, as part of a clinical trial of new therapies for a form of macular degeneration.

“The treatments allowed her to continue doing handwork and live independently for years in Baker, OK,” Geist said.

More recently, just last fall, a Dean McGee ophthalmologist performed cataract surgery on Geist’s mother, 75.

“She said her vision today is better than it was when she was a girl of 16,” he said.

Geist — whose job involves overseeing financials, information technology, human resources and improving patient access systems — said he’s proud to help the institute help patients including, in the latest therapies, to get rid of the “cheaters” they wear to cope with poor age-related, up-close vision.

Dean McGee employs roughly 325, including 28 ophthalmologists and six optometrists who juggle 188,000 patient visits annually and perform some 8,300 surgeries.

From his office at 608 Stanton L Young Blvd., Geist, 46, sat down with The Oklahoman on Monday to talk about his life and career including his move into the health care industry 16 years ago.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I grew up in Ardmore with a sister one year ahead of me in school. She’s exactly 18 months older. Our father worked as a resident engineer for the state Department of Transportation. He and I played together on our church’s softball team. Sadly, we lost my dad early to cancer. He was 50; I was 20. After his death, our mother, who was a full-time homemaker and busy volunteer, went to work as an executive assistant at an oil company, until she remarried five years later. Her second husband is a CPA, whom she’d help at tax time. Both my mother and sister, who’s worked as a CPA in the oil industry, still live in Ardmore.

Q: What were the highlights of your school years?

A: I was active in the Ardmore Presbyterian Church, sang in the show choir at school and played tuba in the band. I went to East Central University in Ada on a tuba scholarship. Our ECU band got to travel to Houston to perform in the Foley’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and to Kansas City, when our basketball team played in Kemper Arena for the NAIA national championship. I considered a career in music, but didn’t know if I could support a family doing that. Being a family man was one of my goals. So I switched my sophomore year to business and accounting.

Q: After college graduation, you worked several years for Sight ‘N Sound, and then ran your own HR firm. Tell us about that.

A: At Sight ‘N Sound, I moved quickly from staff accountant to lead accountant to staff auditor to lead auditor to CFO (chief financial officer) — at age 24, upon the sudden departure of my burned-out predecessor. We had 25 appliance, electronics and furniture stores in five states and during my tenure, revenues for the retail and service company doubled from $60 million to $120 million. I oversaw everything that wasn’t sales related, from our relationships with bankers to workers’ compensation. It was a great education for me on how businesses work. After nearly eight years with the retailer, a partner and I started our own human resources company, HR Solutions — administering health insurance, workers‘ comp, training, tax filings and more for some 25 companies and 300 to 400 employees. My partner worked in Tulsa with three other employees and I and two others manned the Oklahoma City office.

Q: What prompted your move into health care?

A: It was a God thing. A year and nine months after we started HR Solutions, we sold to Florida-based Staff One Inc. At the same time, one of our clients — Valir Health, formerly Pinnacle Health Care Group — needed someone to manage cash flow and banking relationships, and grow the business. I missed running overall operations, as I had for Sight ‘N Sound. But I found a whole lot more pride working at Valir rehabilitation hospital, where someone might come in on a gurney and potentially walk out of there weeks later, than helping someone take home the right refrigerator. During my 10 years as president and CEO, I helped grow annual revenues from $650,000 to more than $50 million. I left Valir in 2010, when the majority owner wanted the CEO role. I sold my interest in the company that next year, but stayed in health care, serving four and half years as chief operating officer at the Oklahoma Allergy & Asthma Clinic before coming here in February 2015. I’m particularly proud to be serving at Dean McGee. Our physicians are exceptional. They have extremely busy practices — pushing the envelope with new therapies and treatments to do everything they can for their patients. They’re also dedicated to their craft and committed to teaching the next generation of doctors.

Q: What’s it like to concurrently parent a 20-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter?

A: There’s a lot of variety to be sure. One morning, I might talk to my eldest, who’s a sophomore at OU, about career choices and that evening, study spelling words with my youngest, who’s a second-grader. I have four children. There’s a seven-year gap between my two sons and two daughters, but our family is close-knit. The girls very much want their older brothers to be present at their dance, soccer and school activities. Fortunately, my son who’s in college lives nearby so that it’s possible.

* Garyl has shared a few clarifications of facts: that he was in his 30s (not a boy) when his grandmother was treated here, that his sister is an accountant but not a CPA, and that Valir Health grew from $4 million (not $650,000) in revenue to $50 million (with 650 employees) during his tenure of leadership there. *