Dr. Porter acted decisively, and, by the time he was done trimming, he had reduced the size of the staff from 20,000 to 13,000. Those sorts of deep cuts usually bear a political price, but Dr. Porter had a unique talent for appeasing different sides. Born in the civil war-ravaged country of Sierra Leone, he connected well with the medical centre’s most important demographic – Detroit’s urban black community. Sources both in Montreal and Detroit said he was fond of describing his ability to bridge racial divides with an oft-repeated line: “I look black but I speak white.”
But it wasn’t his cost-cutting at the hospital, nor his remarkable rise from an impoverished African country, that pushed him onto the front pages of the local media. More often than not, he found himself in the news because of concerns about his ability to manage both the hospital and his many private investments.
By the end of his tenure, reporters with the Detroit Free Press, relying on public records, identified Dr. Porter and an associate as the principals behind a dozen private businesses, including a cancer clinic in the Bahamas, an auto-parts company, a medical real-estate company and several IT firms. How he was able to effectively juggle all of these duties seemed a legitimate concern, but it was not enough to deter a selection team from Montreal when they came calling.
Around that time, Dr. Porter had threatened to seek bankruptcy protection for the Detroit Medical Center if the state of Michigan didn’t provide a funding infusion – which it promptly did, pledging $50-million. In some circles, this move was courageous, given that such a public threat would almost certainly cost him his job. The other interpretation, of course, was that Dr. Porter had failed to accomplish what he was hired to do and right the DMC’s finances.
The Montreal recruiters – a selection committee of doctors and directors, plus professional headhunters – were more inclined to believe the former narrative over the latter. They were in a desperate hunt for a decisive leader with teeth – someone who could cut through the morass of the Quebec bureaucracy and finally build Montreal’s new superhospital, which had been nothing more than a discussion for six years. And here was Dr. Porter, a man with a vocal distaste for red tape and the ideological bona fides to prove it; he was a self-identified Republican whose walls were adorned with photos of himself alongside George H.W. Bush and former vice-president Dick Cheney.
The headhunting firm, Egon Zehnder International, declined an interview request but issued a statement, through a public-relations company, that called its search “long and rigorous.” It’s not clear if that search included a review of publicly available court records, which turns up considerable litigation involving Dr. Porter.
A month before the search began, a medical-equipment financing company, DVI Financial Services, launched a $5-million lawsuit against Dr. Porter and two of his business partners in a California radiology clinic after they allegedly failed to pay back a loan. The suit would follow Dr. Porter all the way to Montreal, but not before lawyers unsuccessfully tried to seize Dr. Porter’s property and garnish his wages. During the same period, a Nevada company, the Medical Construction Resource Group, had also sued him and his business partners after they allegedly failed to pay a $137,000 debt. (Court records show the two sides settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.)
But the alarm bells weren’t confined to court records. During Dr. Porter’s final months at the Detroit Medical Center, a number of board members resigned. Oscar Feldman, a prominent Detroit tax lawyer and a former owner of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, was blunt about his reason for leaving – Dr. Porter.
“My departure stemmed from the fact that too often his prognostications on DMC finances proved untrustworthy,” he said in an e-mail to The Globe.
But none of this slowed down Dr. Porter. When he landed in Montreal in the spring of 2004, he sized up his surroundings and – if his subsequent actions are any indication – he came to a realization.
This was a city where he could do business.