Eugene Woods, the chief executive of St. Joseph Health System, is leaving to join a larger Catholic health group based in Texas, officials said Tuesday.
Woods, 46, will become executive vice president and chief operating officer of Christus Health in Dallas starting June 1.
St. Joseph spokesman Jeff Murphy said interim leadership would be named for the seven-hospital St. Joseph system within two to three weeks.
"Lexington has been an idyllic place to raise our family," said Woods, who has been at St. Joseph since 2005. "It's always with mixed feelings that you leave in situations like this."
However, he said, Christus would give him a chance to stay in faith-based health care and manage a 50-hospital system on a more national level.
Christus Health services range across 60 cities in Texas, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Georgia and New Mexico, and several cities in Mexico. The system has 30,000 employees, including 8,000 doctors.
"It's the same deep level of mission, which is what attracted me," he said. "It's the next right step for me."
Woods leaves St. Joseph Health System in the middle of negotiations for a merger with two Louisville hospitals — Jewish and the University of Louisville.
Woods said the merger discussions were going well.
"We're creating something very exciting for the state of Kentucky," he said.
Murphy said St. Joseph's parent company, Catholic Health Initiatives, has been highly involved in the merger talks, so "we won't miss a beat. But Gene was very involved as well, and that's why it's critical we name an interim leader as soon as possible."
Woods has overseen the growth of St. Joseph Health System, which started with four hospitals and now has seven across Kentucky, with 1,012 beds, 5,000 employees and 1,300 physicians.
He led an $85 million expansion and renovation of St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington, and the building of a women's hospital at St. Joseph East, and an ambulatory care center in Jessamine County.
"I think he's been very successful," said Michael Karpf, executive vice president for health affairs at the University of Kentucky. "Their strategy in this part of the state has been coherent."
Woods came to Kentucky from Washington Hospital Center, a 926-bed teaching hospital in Washington, D.C.
He spent his early years in his mother's hometown of Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, and he said his fluent Spanish will be a help at Christus, which has a presence in Mexico and is looking to expand internationally.
His childhood is one reason he felt so at home in Lexington, Woods said. Jerez de la Frontera, which also hosted the World Equestrian Games, is famous for its Andalusian horses and its sherry.
"There was an immediate connection," he said.
Woods has been an energetic and highly engaged business leader in Lexington, said Tom Martin, editor of Business Lexington and a bandmate of Woods in The City, an R&B group that plays mostly for charity events.
"It's a big loss," Martin said of Woods' departure as the leader of the largest private employer in Fayette County and as an enthusiastic supporter of education and other initiatives, such as the rebuilt Lyric Theatre. "People like him don't come by very often. He's going to leave some pretty big shoes to fill."
Woods also served on the board of Commerce Lexington.
"I'm sure I speak for many people within this community and our organization when I say that we will miss Gene Woods immensely," said Bob Quick, Commerce Lexington's president and chief executive officer. "He was always ready to roll up his sleeves and look for solutions when issues related to the business community and health care arose. We wish him well in his new endeavor."
Woods also was able to show that a high-level businessman could let loose and play in a band, Martin said.
"He showed that it's OK to follow the muse and in the process support non-profit organizations," Martin said. "Beyond that, he's a great guitar player and a terrific songwriter."
Martin said he hopes to find a replacement for Woods so the band can continue.
Woods said he wanted Lexington to know that St. Joseph would continue to thrive.
"The quarterback gets a disproportionate amount of credit, but we have a team of all-stars there," he said.