“We won’t be around in another 60 years if we don’t change.”
Roy Roper spoke those words recently as he discussed the future of the Blood Bank of Delmarva, which marks its 60th anniversary this year. Roper, who has been the president and CEO of the Newark-based BBD since 2011, knows a bit about change.
Born in Bermuda, he grew up in Brooklyn and Yonkers in a family of four girls and two boys raised by a single mother who was also a full-time nurse. He was an industrious kid—working two paper routes and doing odd jobs in the neighborhood—but admits to being an indifferent high school student. His attitude toward education would eventually change markedly, as would his career choices.
After dropping out in his senior year, Roper joined the Army, became a military policeman in Germany, and got his GED while in the service. Following his discharge and a two-year stint as a cop in Connecticut, his career path soon took him into the life sciences and managed care, as well as employer sales and service, and to both coasts. He eventually formed Roper Consulting Group, where he worked with a variety of organizations in the life sciences industry, focusing on strategy and operational planning, customer growth and retention, and operational efficiency. His consulting experience spans many areas, including commercial, research and development, regulatory and scientific affairs, and human resources.
As for his education, he pursued it throughout his career, often taking evening courses, finally earning a master’s degree in organization development from American University in 2001.
So the 56-year-old Roper brings to the BBD job an array of life experiences and business savvy that are essential to running the $27 million per year nonprofit organization that collects, processes, and distributes blood and blood products to hospitals serving the Delmarva Peninsula and more than 1.2 million residents.
Roper also has a strong sense of community, which is a key to the Blood Bank’s mission. An active volunteer with the Delaware YMCA, he served as chair of its Resource Center branch, and is currently a member of the statewide board. He’s been a personal mentor and supporter of student development at both the University of Delaware and Delaware State University. His friends say he dotes on his daughter and two grandchildren.
After living in Delaware with his wife, Mary, for many years but working out of state, Roper joined the BBD in 2009.
“I wanted to get more involved in the community I lived in, and the Blood Bank turned out to be a perfect job for me,” he says. Hired as vice president of administrative services, he became president and CEO in January of 2011, succeeding Robert L. Travis, who retired after 17 years.
Roper heads an organization that has grown exponentially since its inception in 1954.
“Back then,” says Michael Waite, director of marketing and community relations, “it was little more than a service to the hospitals, scheduling donors to come into the hospital to replace blood that had been used in surgeries. Before the Blood Bank was established, hospitals had to recruit blood donors on their own, and many surgeries and other functions were delayed because there was not an adequate supply of blood on the shelves.”
In 1977, Waite says, “Blood Bank of Delaware became what is known as a ‘wet’ blood bank and actually started collecting, processing and testing blood for distribution to the hospitals it served. That practice continues to this day.”
In 1990 Blood Bank of Delaware merged with Blood Bank of the Eastern Shore to become Blood Bank of Delaware/Eastern Shore, and in 2004, as part of the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Blood Bank, the name was changed to better reflect the area it serves, becoming Blood Bank of Delmarva.
The BBD continues to evolve. In October of 2007, it became the first organization of its kind in the world to screen blood donations for diabetes. Since then, more than 336,980 donations have been screened for the disease. Of those, about 18,000 showed elevated glucose levels, and another 3,700 had levels over 200. As a result, those donors were referred to a physician for follow-up.
Diabetes isn’t the only affliction detected by Blood Bank exams, which amount to mini-physicals (See sidebar). In fact, the examination can be downright life-saving. Just ask Rachel Strickland of Newark, who is administrative director of the BADER Consortium at the University of Delaware.
Years ago, she says, “My mother went to donate, and after the examination [which includes a hemoglobin test], they said, ‘Not only are you not donating blood today, but we strongly recommend you see your doctor.’ It turned out that she had stage four colon cancer. She had successful surgery and now is in remission.”
A few years later, when Strickland went in for her regular donation, she learned about platelets and the Blood Bank’s need for them.
“I said, ‘You guys saved my mom,’ so I started giving platelets. I try to do it every two-three weeks. That’s my way of giving back. It takes about two hours, including the interview. I often tell them to take two units because I know how desperate they are. That only takes about another half hour.”
Such donors are gold to Roper and others at BBD because, as he says, “the industry is changing.”
“We have a decline in the use of blood nationally, and a decline in the overall pricing of blood and blood products,” he says, attributing it largely to “bloodless surgery.”
“For instance, for a hip replacement you always had blood administered. That’s changed. So demand has gone down.
“This put enormous pressure on all blood organizations,” he says, “to be more cost effective, to do more with less. It places a premium on a clear path and strategy on how we’re going to succeed in an industry, at least according to short-term projections, that is contracting.”
Another challenge facing the BBD, Roper says, is a strong but aging donor pool on the Delmarva Peninsula. “That places a challenge on the organization to recruit younger donors.”
As a result, BBD has invested heavily in social media, such as Facebook, to attract and retain donors. One sign that the investment is paying off: In December, for the third straight year, the University of Delaware won the Colonial Athletic Association Blood Challenge. Blood drives on the campuses of all CAA institutions have been held one day during the fall term for the past 12 years, and UD has won seven times.
Roper has used his business experience and savvy to guide the BBD in the changes it must make to face these challenges. His strategy, he says, is based on five areas: day-to-day operational excellence, people development, innovation, financial analysis and community, “which is at the heart of everything we do.”
By all reports, Roper has made a positive impact on those around him during his three years as CEO and president.
“I like his openness and his vision,” says Dr. Paul Kaplan, BBD board chair. “He is very focused on making the BBD a strong, high-quality organization by running it like a business.”
Bruce Colbourn, a senior vice president at PNC Bank who worked with Roper on the YMCA board, describes him as a quick study. “He has the ability to look at the inner workings of an organization and quickly grasp what’s working and what’s not, and what are the tactical steps that need to be made to make it work. He’s very good at driving efficiencies, he’s not afraid to recommend changes, and he’s a good communicator.”
Lynn Jones also knew Roper from their days on the Y board and is a fellow Rotarian and a neighbor in Sharpley, the North Wilmington development. The president of Christiana Care Home Health & Community Services, Jones calls Roper “a good judge of people who has an open door policy and who has the respect of his staff.”
Jones also speaks of Roper’s vision: “One of his strengths is strategic planning. He’s someone who can look three or four years down the road.”
Roper knows that road could be bumpy, but he is confident that the BBD is prepared.
“When I came into the industry, there were about 82 independent blood organizations,” he says. “We’re now down to 68. But we have a very solid plan that we’ve been executing over the last several years to make sure we’re a well-run organization that will continue to provide for the citizens we serve.”