Mary Angela Miller: Team Builder

Mary Angela Miller uses lessons learned early on and applies them at OSUMC—one of the biggest being assembling and keeping the right staff.

At A Glance: Mary Angela Miller
•Administrative Director, Nutrition Services
•Ohio State University Medical Center, Columbus, Ohio
•BS in nutrition, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio
•Master’s degree in food and nutrition, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland
•Married to Jim; two children, Angela and Carlin
•Born in Youngstown, Ohio
•Enjoys bead work and reading
•Miller’s operation includes six hospitals with 1,158 beds, two full-size cafés, two express cafés and several retail locations. Each day, Miller and her 225 FTEs serve about 4,930 meals. Annual sales are $7.1 million.
•During her tenure, Miller has increased retail sales from $2 million to $7.3 million, by increasing options for hospital staff by bringing in contracted operations.
•In 2004, Miller implemented a bedside meal service system, e-Choice, in which diet technicians use handheld PDAs to send information to the kitchen.
•Miller was able to reduce FTEs by 90, while maintaining service volume, by increasing efficiency through technology. 


Food Service Director - Spotlight - Silver Plate - Mary Angela Miller - OSU Medical Center

After unexpectedly coming into foodservice, Mary Angela Miller has since developed a thriving operation using the business savvy she learned while working at a couple of small clinics. One of the skills she learned was the importance of building a competent and motivated team, which she says has been the most challenging—and rewarding—aspect during her 20 years in the industry.

“I worked at the Cleveland Clinic as a young dietitian. I would call those my formative years and I am forever grateful for my time there. It was my first management job and I had a great boss who really helped me learn how to be a manager. I would say that more than anything, I am most proud of my management team and the climate we have created. I really enjoy helping someone do something for the first time, whether it’s publishing an article or putting on a special event or being recognized for an award. I like to be a manager’s manager and to really work on bringing the best out of people and building a team where the individual people’s skills complement one another. We  have that at OSU. People are so loyal to OSU, and I am very fortunate to get fantastic people who just want to be part of this place.

If you are going to be in Columbus, Ohio, and you want to be somewhere that has an impact, Ohio State University is the place to be. It’s huge—it is the largest college campus in the U.S.—and it’s important. I came to OSU in 1990 as the director of nutrition services. How did I get into foodservice? OSU decided for me. I was interviewing for a position in the hospital’s weight management program—part of the hospital’s Center for Wellness and Prevention—and the administrator who was interviewing me asked me about the director’s job. I said, okay, as long as you keep me in the loop for the weight management job. I didn’t have a foodservice background. Over the course of six months of interviews, that was the job they offered. I am forever grateful because it raised my potential. It was the job to learn and grow and be able to contribute in a much bigger way.

In my job now, I manage a number of departments, some of which have nothing to do with foodservice, but food, nutrition and wellness are still part of that core. My responsibilities keep changing because we keep changing. Every time we shift another department around, I get new things. For 13 years, I had the same administrator, Judy Gilliam, and she was awesome. She gave me opportunities to do things that were totally out of my realm that people would ask, “why would she ask Mary to do that,” but they are things I have learned a lot from doing. One example was to take over the women’s health OB/GYN resident clinic. I don’t know that she would say she was my mentor, but I learned a lot from working with her and I am a better manager. So I look at that as mentoring.

In healthcare, foodservice leaders are among the people with the most business sense. That is a skill my previous jobs have helped me develop over time, and I didn’t realize that most of my colleagues didn’t have that. But think about how much you can do to help the organization because you have some business skills and you know how to manage. I don’t have an MBA; I’m from a clinical background. For those of us who have come up with this business knowledge, you can leverage that knowledge to help healthcare be better. I think that’s something that healthcare foodservice leaders bring to the table.

I learned a lot about running a small business in the three years I worked at a medical practice in Columbus. I created a weight and management program there that had a modified fasting program for morbidly obese people—this was before the technology was perfected for bariatric surgery. We also did some wellness and prevention programs for local businesses, like cholesterol screening. People ask me if I have a lot of pressure in my job now, and I say there was more pressure running a small business. Every week, we had to enroll people into our weight management program and have them be successful in getting healthier, or I didn’t make payroll for that Friday. So I am forever grateful for that small business. I left because I was anxious to get back into a large organization. I love being part of a place like OSU where you are surrounded by brilliant people, because that, to me, is what makes work a good place to be. And I missed that being in a small practice—not that I didn’t work with great people, but here there are just so many of them.

One of the things that’s challenging in foodservice, but I also think is a huge benefit and opportunity, is that you get to work with all kinds of people and job classifications. I have entry-level service workers; I have clinical, master’s-prepared people; I have technical people; I have analytical people; I have chefs. By learning to work with all of those different roles and all of those different people, it makes you a better manager, much more so than if you only have to work with people who are just like you. But you also have to learn a lot about how to do that effectively. I look at that as why I’ve been a successful manager because I’ve had the opportunity to manage all kinds of people and learn from them and adjust accordingly. 

The thing that most people forget about with foodservice is that almost anything else you can delay. You can cancel elective surgery; you can reschedule an appointment; you can empty the trash in an office once a day instead of three times. So any time things like ice storms or power outages happen, they affect us first because our window is so short. So if I come in and the whole freezer is out after the Labor Day weekend—which we have had happen—because I’m a cook-chill facility, all the food I have prepared isn’t usable. I can’t wait until lunch to serve breakfast. I have to have a resolution for that issue that works and is pretty much invisible to the patient or café customer and I’ve got to do that fast. We are the ones who are so deadline-oriented, and I don’t think most people realize that. You cannot miss a meal because missing a meal will affect everybody. So those are the things that, in general, are the biggest challenges because you have to be really good at problem solving and making big decisions without having anywhere near all the information you need. Then you just have to ask, “what did I learn from this and how are we going to avoid or do this better next time?” You can’t beat yourself up because there is no way you are going to be perfect in those kinds of situations. You are just going to be as good as you can be and that’s it. 

The biggest change I’ve had since first getting into the industry has been with scale and scope. I’ve learned to be much more of a strategic, big picture thinker. I learned early on that when you work in healthcare  foodservice, there is absolutely no way you can be good in everything, because we’re not just culinary and we’re not just clinical and we’re not just retail and we’re not just purchasing. Those are all businesses unto themselves, so you have to quickly identify what you can do and then make sure that in those other important aspects of the business, you have the best talent. And that’s why building that management team was my biggest accomplishment here. You have to make sure you have the right mix in your team. When a position is open, we look at what we need and not just what’s out there, but what we need right now to fill a void. I think I’ve really learned how to put together a good team with complementary skills and then making sure they work together well.

The department of nutrition won the spirit award last year, and a lot of it had to do with our staff training and team building. My management team has a retreat every year or so, where we will do something really novel. One year, we made a video tour, where each group could use only public transportation, and had a limited amount of money and no cell phones, to go around the city and find different things. We have taken our management/supervisor-level staff, who are the nuts and bolts of the operation in my mind, and done things like trips to the art museum. We try to do things they may never have been exposed to just to get them out of the building. The last few years, we have taken it to the staff level where we had a wall-climbing day at the recreation building. These events aren’t just fun; they are team building as well.”