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Published in CenterView on February 25, 2013

Construction, life experiences help Burney lead ambitious health-care renovation projects

By Bruce Coleman

Before it was ever a place to Christopher Burney, Mississippi was a sound.

Burney
Burney

As a musician during the mid-1960s, the wailing riffs of legendary Delta bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf resonated in Burney’s ears from more than 4,000 miles away.

But from the northeastern coast of England where he was born and bred, Burney had a long path to travel before he would finally put sight to sound, helping lead one of the most ambitious facilities transformations in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s history.

Session guitarist. Taxi driver. Barman. Night club bouncer. Carpenter. Plumber. Wedding photographer. Fashion show emcee. Rugby player. The term “Renaissance Man” could barely describe the depth and variety of Burney’s career.

And all of that was before he came stateside to work for a company based in Syracuse, N.Y., that specialized in building and maintaining ice skating rinks.

A mechanical engineer by trade, Burney said over time he became “very comfortable” with the techniques of construction. That familiarity eventually led him from the rinks to a utility company in Connecticut and, finally, to leading health-care facilities in the Constitution State.

He was responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of hospital and health-care construction projects, and his expertise was so valued that he received a “Hospital Engineer of the Year” Award from the Connecticut Hospital Engineers Society.

“In every case where i succeeded in turning a hospital around, leaving it much better than when I got there, I felt good,” said Burney, executive director of planning, design and construction. “You have to be able to see the trees in the forest quickly so you can take the immediate steps with precision to make the right decisions.

“I can look back and say everywhere I went, I left it in better shape.”

After 28 years overseeing the construction of health-care facilities, Burney retired at the end of 2011. But the engineering itch never really left him. So when he was contacted in mid-2012 about a position at Mississippi’s only academic health-care institution, he just had to check out the state where the music of his youth originated.

“When I came here, it was like the stars were aligned,” he said. It took only six weeks for Burney to receive and accept the Medical Center’s offer, a rapid timeframe he said was indicative of the institution’s zeal for enhancement. 

“I figured, if this organization can make a decision this quickly, there really is an opportunity for change for the better,” he said. “That was a clear signal this was a place intent on making improvements.”

Michael Korpiel, chief operating officer of University Hospitals, was among the Medical Center executives Burney met on his initial visit. Korpial said UMMC is fortunate to have someone of Burney’s background and expertise helping to lead the institution’s ongoing renovation projects.

“He has already made an impact on our planning processes as we look to both renovate areas of the hospital and expand our capacity for the projected growth,” Korpiel said.
 
“Because of his vast experience, we can now use the planning process to better meet the needs of the patients and physicians to make the patient experience at UMMC a more pleasant one.”

The immediate challenge facing Burney was the sheer number of renovations being made to the Medical Center’s main campus.

“There were so many different factors, it was like a multi-headed monster,” he said. “There were so many overarching tentacles from PDC – planning, design and construction – that needed to be separated so I could get a clear picture.”

What he settled into was a concise dual philosophy of how to manage processes and people. By bringing all of the projects’ decision-making responsibilities into one core department, Burney helped the institution take full control of its renovation plans.

“in the past, some of the decision-making responsibilities were left to outside professionals,” he said. “This represents a quantum shift – we’re now responsible for our own fate. Our philosophy and direction will all be in-house.”

And by hiring a strong team of project managers with roots in Mississippi – including Brian Reddoch, who specializes in construction; William “Arthur” Jones, who has expertise in architecture; and Venicha “Nicole” Reese, a licensed architect and land contractor – and by working with long-term incumbent director Ron Horne, who Burney describes as “having an encyclopedic knowledge of the regulations,” Burney has bolstered the institution’s position for future renovations.

“We’ve put together the nucleus of what will represent the Medical Center going forward,” he said. “We now have a core of very talented people whose experience covers generations and multiple types of construction and facilities.

“They represent the future, and as a team, I feel pretty good that we’ve got our bases covered.”

One day, Burney, who is commuting from his home in Connecticut, will be content to return there, knowing that he left the Medical Center in better shape than he had found it. But with approximately $300 million of ongoing renovations in and around the Medical Center’s campus, that day will not come soon.

“I spend more time here in my office than I do at my apartment,” he said, gesturing to a room adorned with brilliant pictures of lush, seasonal landscapes he photographed himself. “Right now, I’m more comfortable here.”

UMMC's ongoing renovations

Chris Burney is helping to oversee approximately $300 million of ongoing renovations in and around the Medical Center’s main campus, including: 

•    a 1,100-space parking garage to be built on the northeast side of the campus, a project that will be bidding shortly;

•    a new School of Medicine building to be built in front of the Verner Holmes Learning Resource Center, a project that is awaiting legislative approval before it can be bid;

•   an additional research building to be built across from the
    Guyton Research Center, a project that will somewhat replicate
    the original building;

•    a major expansion to the Batson Children’s Hospital;

•    a “mixed-use” building across Lakeland Drive that will include retail space and apartments;

•    a hotel on the corner of Lakeland Drive that will support the community, families of UMMC patients and faculty and the Fondren area; and

•    a wellness center across North State Street that will include offices and gym facilities for Medical Center faculty and staff.