Mary Flipse currently serves as the President of PreferCare, a healthcare startup that aims to build clinical partnerships in America’s smaller cities with independent primary care practices. PreferCare equips partners with the tools, expertise, and on-the-ground extended care teams for successful value-based contracting in Medicare. This allows doctors to be financially successful, spend more time with their patients, and stay independent.
She served at publicly traded Tivity Health and its predecessor Healthways in various roles over nearly a decade, most recently as chief legal and administrative officer and corp secretary. Earlier in her career, she served as assistant general counsel and vice president at Pfizer and practiced international law in Asia.
Mary received her bachelor’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University and her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. She is an active member of Women Business Leaders of the US Health Care Industry Foundation and the Council Fellows Alumni Association. Mary serves on the boards of Renewal House and Alive Hospice and on the advisory board for SerenityDTx, a startup using digital therapeutics delivered through virtual reality and binaural beats to address dementia in seniors.
Tell us about your career journey.
I did most of my growing up on a farm in rural Lascassas, Tennessee. I grew up kicking and screaming to leave that farm and to never come back. The hand-farming we did was hard. So, naturally, that’s where you can find me today – sitting right here where I said I was never coming back. So, advice right off the bat: don’t use the word “never.” It casts a spell on you. Or maybe it just took exploring the world to make me truly appreciate home.
Since I was 15 years old, my dream was to practice international law. After graduating from law school in the early 90s, I had an opportunity to work in Laos, in Southeast Asia, which is where my mother was from. I talked my then-boyfriend (now-husband), who is also a lawyer, into going with me. We founded the first international law firm in Laos and soon after founded the first international law office in Cambodia. The original vision was to build a regional practice covering all of mainland Southeast Asia – Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma. My former partner achieved that original vision and in 30 years built DFDL into a regional firm pioneering in emerging markets that covers all the locations of the original vision and more.
There was a point in time where we had to close the Laos office after running it for almost 8 years (its license was later recovered by our partner – long story, we’ll need beer for that story). We then found ourselves in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates – my husband had been hired by an English law firm looking to expand in the region, but our time there was interrupted by Desert Storm, and we returned to Thailand where I joined the US law firm, White & Case. After about 13 years overseas, with a toddler in tow and grandparents an ocean away, we decided to return to the United States. I landed a position with King Pharmaceuticals first in Bristol, Tennessee and then in Bridgewater, New Jersey, until it was acquired by Pfizer in 2011. My boss, the general counsel, was hired as the General Counsel of Healthways and recruited me to join his legal team there. Finally, I was back in Middle Tennessee! That was the beginning of a near decade-long stint at Tivity Health, Inc. (fka Healthways). Tivity Health was a publicly traded company whose most popularly known product was SilverSneakers®, the leading senior engagement offering at the time and even today. During that time, I worked with five CEOs in five years, worked through a full board refresh, divestiture of a large division of the company to Sharecare, worked through two shareholder activist campaigns, acquired and then divested Nutrisystem® – quite a bit of excitement and lots of truly great experiences. I worked with and learned from so many great people in all areas of the company, the board, management, legal and financial advisors, vendors, and customers. It was a master class for me.
Today, I’m working at PreferCare, a startup in healthcare, where we aim to build clinical partnerships in America’s smaller cities with independent primary care practices and equip them with the tools, expertise, and on-the-ground extended care teams for successful value-based contracting in Medicare, where these independent doctors can be financially successful, spend more time with their patients, and stay independent. We’re still in the very early stages, but I am thrilled to be a part of this new venture.
Why did you choose to end up in health care as opposed to staying in international law?
I got into health care because the opportunity was there. I stayed because this work feeds my curiosity and my soul. There are so many challenges, so much change, and so many ways for me to contribute. Strategy gets me leaping out of bed every day and the current environment in healthcare is fertile ground for strategically re-thinking so many things.
One of the areas where I spend a lot of energy is encouraging plain English communications and I find there’s ample opportunity for this in healthcare where we often get caught up in our acronyms and medical and industrial jargon, instead of focusing on the people we serve and ensuring we understand one another. When I first moved to Laos, I didn’t speak the language very well at all. It was my first language, but it was quite hard to maintain it growing up in the United States. Working as a lawyer in Laos, I had to learn a lot of legal and financial terminology to translate laws, regulations, and contracts from English to Lao and Lao to English. It was that work, in a country where the Lao bar had been disbanded where I had to work out legal terms without a community of Lao lawyers to lean on, that affected me the most and made me an ardent advocate of plain English -and Lao. There were common law concepts in English that were untranslatable into Lao. There were those boiler plate paragraphs where translation was impossible. In translating, I had to ensure clarity and meaning because there was no common culture or tradition between common law concepts then being introduced and the various regimes that had laid down the laws of Laos over hundreds of years, including a French colonial administration, as a Soviet client state, and its current dedication to Communism as a one-party state. The resulting linguistic arm wrestle made me truly despise common law legalese in business contracts because there was rarely a matching concept in the Lao language or tradition. As a result, my first and last impulse now almost thirty years later, is still to cut through jargony, corporatized language to get to the heart of the message. I’d love to see more of this in healthcare.
How did the Fellows program influence your life/career?
I’m not exaggerating when I say that Fellows is life-changing. Fellows share an intense experience as classmates that can open minds, challenge, and trigger passionate debate. I made connections in a matter of months that, by my lights, would have taken me ten years to cultivate given I wasn’t in the health system world of healthcare that is such a big part of healthcare in Nashville. I love that I can call a Fellows peer for a skull session or a connection. There is a palpable generosity and closeness among alumni. The shared experience is powerful. Fellows alums are a connected bunch and these relationships have been important to my transition into the startup world.
How do you think the Nashville Health Care Council continues to play a meaningful role in shaping the health care industry?
I served on the Nashville Healthcare Council Board for a year – it was a vantage point that gave me an intense appreciation for what the Council seeks for Nashville, from support for the Nashville Entrepreneur Center to the relevant, relatable, on point programming, guest speakers, and events. I never walk away empty-handed from a Council event. I am heartened to see that the Council is leading efforts to increase DEI efforts across the industry and its influence is evident in the Fellows program. The 2022 Fellows class was the most diverse yet, with 40% of the class being women. Women are a dominant force in healthcare and I’m truly heartened that the Fellows program is seeing an uptick in the number of women interested in the program. I’d love to see the first Fellows class that represents the national demographic.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My dad spent time in the military and as a community development specialist with the US Agency for International Development in Laos during the Secret War in Laos, so I picked up lots of colorful (also off-color) advice. Two things that have stuck with me to this day. Whether they’re useful is debatable but they’re fun to repeat in my dad’s laconic style: “If there’s something to eat, there’ll be something there to eat it.” And, “Keep your pants up and your prices high.”
Tell me something about yourself that isn’t on your resume.
I grew up on a farm, was taught to track, hunt, and field dress a deer by a Cherokee neighbor, and my family ran the grist mill at Readyville on Highway 70 in Cannon County. And I’m back on the farm that I said I’d never return to, and I have a pretty big garden, too.
What books would you recommend that have shaped your business thinking?
One of my favorite books is The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday. Holiday discusses stoic philosophy applied to problem-solving today. My favorite quote-to-live-by in the book comes from the famous stoic and Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Applying this quote to my day got me through the heat of the pandemic. “Objective judgement, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance – now, at this very moment – of all external events. That’s all you need.”