Orthopedics Visionary, Lew Bennett, Dies at Age 87

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Lew Bennett, one of the founders of Howmet (later Howmedica Corporation, later part of Stryker Corporation) and a senior executive at Sofamor Danek (now Medtronic, Inc.), Smith &Nephew plc, NuVasive, Inc., SpineMedica Corp., Custom Spine, Inc., board member of HydroCision, Inc., and one of the most beloved veterans of the orthopedic industry, passed away on August 15, 2013. In his wake he leaves a long trail of patients, co-workers and friends made better by his having passed through their lives.

Lew was born in Nashville, Tennessee on, December 17, 1926. Lew attended West High School and went on to marry his grade school sweetheart, Betty Gene Boone, in Nashville in 1947.

He was always driven to succeed, and early on bought a “house in an area that we couldn’t afford.” One Sunday Lew saw his neighbor drinking whiskey and grilling steaks. He strolled over and introduced himself. “What is your name? I’m Lew Bennett. He said, ‘My name’s Jim Thompson.’ He told the man, “Jim, you don’t look a lot different than I do, but you are living a lot better than I am.” The man started laughing and Lew said, “What do you do?” This led to a Sunday phone call to a company called Ethicon, Inc.; that led to Lew getting an interview with Ethicon where he would soon be Salesman of the Year…the rest is orthopedic industry history.

In the more than 50 years that Lew Bennett shined in the orthopedic and spine worlds he never met a stranger and spoke to everyone with his signature, “Hi, How ya doing?” When they responded in kind, his answer was always “Like a million!” Lew held executive positions at multiple orthopedic and spine companies in the industry and developed long-term personal relationships with a number of surgeons.

As one of the founders of Howmet (which later became Howmedica Corporation), Lew helped position the company for an acquisition by Stryker. Lew also held executive positions at Sofamor Danek (now a division of Medtronic), Smith and Nephew, and NuVasive. His most recent positions included CEO of SpineMedica, president of Custom Spine and board member of Hydrocision. At some point, Lew got the public speaking bug, and he became a popular consultant and presenter, helping many people and surgeon practices. In all, he lectured at over 300 orthopedic and neurological resident programs. In addition, he consulted for over 550 orthopedic and neurological practices and universities.

As Lew told it, his wife had no interest in relocating to New York City during the Howmedica years. The result was that Lew logged a lot of frequent flyer miles, commuting between New York and Atlanta for ten years.

Randal R. Betz, M.D. of Shriners Hospitals in Philadelphia recalls Lew Bennett as one of his best friends. “One of the best years of my life was 1981, when I had the opportunity to meet Lew. At that time, he was giving a new residents program on practice management. Since then, Lew has done several hundred of these, and these were then refined and developed into a program for spine fellows and then into one for practicing physicians. During Lew’s practice management session, there were several principles he liked to teach. One was “listening and learning,” and there’s a story that illustrates this. He was flying on an airplane (first class, of course). The lady sitting next to him had a young baby. When they started to descend from 35,000 feet, the woman began breastfeeding. Lew, trying not to stare too much, asked the woman why she was doing that, and she said, “Because it helps keep his ears from hurting.” Lew’s response was, “And to think all this time I’ve been chewing gum.”

“In all seriousness, Lew is one of the most outstanding people persons I know. The key to his success was his wife, Betty Gene. She had to sit through all his jokes over all these years. If you ever watched Betty Gene when he’s telling his jokes, she’d either hide her head in her hands or give you this cute little smirk and just nod.”

Lew was known for being thorough. Everyone he interviewed could expect to sit there for two hours; on average he checked roughly 12 references. He often said to people, “Why the heck should I hire you?” When I (EH) spoke with him a few years ago he told me, “I want the whole story on a person, practically from when they were in diapers. Most distributors I know of don’t take the time to thoroughly interview and vet the person. Weeks or months later they’re wondering what went wrong.”

His personality was golden, in part because not only did he teach, but he lived a positive attitude. “Look,” said Lew, “a negative person is the kind who goes to an orgy and then complains about the cheese dip. Weed out these people.” When attending trade shows, Lew was continually stopped by friends and well-wishers. One tradeshow observer commented, “Lew is like a rock star. He cannot walk two feet without someone stopping him to talk.”

Jack Blair, former CEO of Smith & Nephew Richards, talks of his old friend: “How are you, Lew?” The answer was always the same…“Like a million.” Lew grew up in and helped define the role of professional medical sales representative. From his earliest days with J&J, Lew quickly learned to develop personal relationships…not only with key hospital decision makers, but with their secretaries and assistants as well. “Lovable Lew” had his photo affixed to his business card, so everyone would remember him.”

“Lew brought his experience and positive personality to Smith & Nephew Orthopedics (formerly Richards Medical) in 1980. He helped develop the company’s sales organization, as well as organizing teaching seminars on how to manage successful physician practices (with a focus on patient satisfaction). Lew developed strong personal relationships with hundreds of orthopedic surgeons in the U.S. and overseas.”

“Lew was a genial colleague. He always had time for his fellow employees…to mentor them, encourage them and to pass on his industry knowledge. He was never without a humorous story and he loved an appreciative audience. ‘Lovable Lew’ was one in a million!”

John McClellan M.D. of the Nebraska Spine Center met Lew Bennett during his orthopedic residency training. He says, “Lew was a great mentor and a true friend. He taught the residents how to evaluate job opportunities to help us find the right position. I later met him when he visited our spine surgical practice. He taught the group how to better manage our practice and helped us run annual retreats.”

“He taught us about marriage. He provided us with a book ‘Like a Million’ that taught me to have frequent discussions with my wife about our individual goals. It helped me build a stronger marriage. He taught life lessons on the golf course when at almost twice my age he could hit the golf ball straighter and shoot a lower score.”

“Lew was the world’s greatest mentor and a true friend. I will miss my friend.”

Ron Pickard, former CEO of Sofamor Danek recalls time with his dear friend: “Lew was one in a million; someone you just enjoyed being around. As Lew would say, ‘He wears well with people.’ Lew, you certainly did.”

Those wishing to remember Lew Bennett with a donation are asked that in lieu of flowers please contribute Suncoast Hospice. They allowed Lew to stay home the entire time, which was his wish. http://www.thehospice.org/Donate

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