The first inkling of what would become one of the biggest and most surprising development deals in recent New Jersey history started innocently enough. And seemingly without much chance for success.
At a social gathering.
Two top officials from what was then Hackensack University Medical Center shared a moment in the spring of 2013:
“Did you hear Roche wants to make sure its campus is used for a health care project?
“Do you think that could be the place for our medical school?”
The Hackensack officials — in the midst of another big moment, their merger with Meridian Health — assumed the cost would be prohibitive. And after so many failed attempts at reaching this goal, had perhaps a bit of apprehension.
But when they found out the inquiry came through the well-respected and highly regarded former head of the state Economic Development Authority, Caren Franzini, they knew they needed to hear a little bit more.
“When Caren Franzini wants to talk, you take the call,” Hackensack CEO Robert C. Garrett said.
Franzini, the head of Franzini Consulting, had been hired as a sub-consultant for the RES Group — the economic development team helping Roche and the towns of Nutley and Clifton find a new purpose for the soon-to-be vacated 119-acre plot on Route 3.
“We reached out to a couple of entities in biotech and pharma and asked them, would they be interested in looking at the site — and asked, 'How would you use this site to make it a health care campus,' ” Franzini said.
She knew Hackensack had been a leader in research, so she had her sister, Paula Crowley — the CEO of Anchor Health Properties, a national health care developer — reach out to one of her old friends, Hackensack CFO Robert L. Glenning.
Soon after, Franzini helped bring the two sides together.
“In the very beginning, it was just about expanding their research,” she said. “But very early on we kept hearing about a medical school. That was soon part of the conversation, and then it kept expanding.”
What followed was a string of fortunate coincidences, a collection of the right people at the right time in the right place that rarely happens in business — let alone when involved in a project of this magnitude.
Garrett had made the addition of a medical school one of his top goals in his vision plan when he took over as CEO in 2009. The hospital had been working on this idea for years leading up to that.
A deal to work with Touro University College of Medicine had fallen through the previous year.
“This has been a dream for eight or 10 years now,” Hackensack's chief medical officer, Ihor S. Sawczuk, said. “We've looked at a lot of possibilities.”
An idea to put a school at the hospital site was ultimately rejected due to size restrictions. And then there was the need for a university partner.
Hackensack's desire to complete the project with a research partner, Georgetown University, did not work out. Neither did its attempts to combine with schools in New York City or Boston.
As it turned out, the true partner was just down the road.
About the same time Garrett was being named CEO, Seton Hall Chief Academic Officer and now President Dr. A. Gabriel Esteban was pitching the idea of bringing a medical school back to Seton Hall, which had closed its previous school three decades earlier.
“We've had our health care programs for years, but we were looking for a way to improve our positioning as a health care leader in the state and improve our university,” he said. “Restarting the medical school was an easy choice.”
The partnership was even easier.
Sawczuk and Brian Shulman, the dean of the School of Health and Medical Sciences at Seton Hall, quickly came together.
“We've known each other for years,” Shulman said. “It's a small circle.”
Knowing people — and working with people — are two different things.
By summer 2013, when the groups started to come together for regular planning meetings, they found they shared common values and a common vision.
That made putting into place plans to create a world-class medical school and research facility on the Roche campus in a little over a year far easier than one might assume.
Garrett gives a lot of credit to Franzini for sparking it all.
“Caren Franzini became the matchmaker in the very beginning,” he said. “She's such a modest women, but she can bring a lot of people together — bring the right people together — and not a lot of people can do that.”
Franzini sidesteps her influence and credits the parties involved.
“You have to have the right time, the right place and the right partners,” she said. “You can't have one without the others.
“This is a use that fits the site, a great current owner, towns that want to make it work and a user who has a great vision.”
Esteban said it was an overnight sensation that was years in the making.
“This is the result of a number of years of hard work by a number of people,” he said. “So while it looks like it moved quickly, we already had a number of pieces in place. I believe in being prepared in case an opportunity presents itself.”
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