To say Karen Bowling has had an eclectic career is an understatement. And she’s about ready to add a new layer.
Bowling was the only female newscaster at Channel 17 in the late 1970s, where she also had a talk show that served as a lead-in for Robin Williams.
She worked alongside Rick Scott at Columbia/HCA and later as they built the Solantic urgent care chain.
And she was part of the health network that set a record for Internet viewers when it aired a live birth in 1998.
For more than three years she’s been Mayor Alvin Brown’s chief administrative officer, becoming well-known as the person called upon to handle problems when the arose.
Now, she’s moving on to try something new — and completely different.
Bowling will work in the public affairs practice group for Foley & Lardner, where she’ll be reunited with friend and former colleague, Kevin Hyde.
She describes her extensive career as “when luck meets preparation or preparation meets opportunity.”
“One thing has led to the next to the next to the next,” she said.
Those moves have taken her out of Jacksonville several times — to Nashville, Orlando, Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale.
But every time she moved, there was always a picture of Jacksonville on her office wall.
It’s where she moved with her mother and Army father when she was 12. It’s where she attended middle and high school and college. It’s where her heart is.
“I always said, ‘I’ll be back. I promise, I’ll be back,’” Bowling said. “Let me sow my oats and I’ll be back.”
That love for Jacksonville was something Hyde knew was critical when recruiting Bowling to the law firm.
Bowling learned lessons early on that would form the drive and work ethic that shaped her career.
While at Terry Parker High School, she never made any team the first time she tried out. “Ever,” Bowling stressed.
She tried out for softball. Cut. Tried out for cheerleading. Cut.
What she learned, she said, was if you practice and you want to do it, you can pick up your skills and make the team
“Then I was captain,” said Bowling, who also ran track and played volleyball and basketball.
As a babysitter, Bowling didn’t just relax and watch television after the children went to bed. She did laundry, washed the dishes and ran the vacuum. She was still being paid and, to her, that meant she should be working for the money.
The next day, the children’s mother came over with “a wad of cash,” Bowling recalled, insisting she pay her for the extra work.
“But she was already paying me,” Bowling said.
Ultimately, the woman forced Bowling to take the extra money, but she continues to feel the need to work at a faster pace.
Many stops along the way
While attending Florida Junior College (now Florida State College at Jacksonville), Bowling worked in the pro shop at a tennis club, where she met a sportscaster from WTLV TV-12, who suggested she intern at the station.
“That’s a job?” she asked.
After the internship, she joined Channel 17’s small newsroom where she was one of seven, and the only woman. Her boss suggested she start out in news, Bowling said, and “maybe in another 50 years they’ll be ready for a woman in sports.”
During her seven years there, Bowling did everything from the weather to anchoring the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts to hosting a show about upcoming events before Williams’ “Mork & Mindy” aired.
“It was the only time we got ratings,” Bowling laughed.
She covered a lot of health care stories while there, which eventually led to a public relations job at Memorial Hospital. After a year of merger discussions with Baptist Hospital fell apart, Memorial made a pitch to buy Orange Park Medical Center from Columbia and its leader, Rick Scott.
Ultimately, Scott’s company bought Memorial, which Bowling’s boss at the time described as “the gobbler became the ‘gobblee.’”
She moved to Nashville to work for Columbia/HCA, which was the beginning of a relationship between Bowling and Scott that continued even after the future governor was forced to leave the health-care company.
A live birth on Internet
That relationship included America’s Health Network in Orlando, which was housed in a 27,000-square-foot station next to Nickelodeon in Universal Studios.
“During lunch we could go ride the Dueling Dragon after Island of Adventure was built,” she said.
In the late 1990s, cable networks were not as diverse as they are now, so selling a health channel was practically impossible. They brainstormed how to prove that people liked the information the network could provide. That’s where the idea for the live birth on the Internet was born.
Bowling said the live birth held the record for Internet viewers for a short period of time until a Victoria’s Secret broadcast surpassed it.
America’s Health Network merged with Fit TV, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network. Bowling spent time in Los Angeles with Fox during
She later worked a short period of time at CyberGuard, an Internet security company partially owned by Scott in Fort Lauderdale.
But she wanted to get back home to Jacksonville and back into health care. The urgent care business proved to be the way to accomplish both.
The beginning of Solantic
Bowling said she and Scott wanted to provide “more patient-centric” urgent care.
She read countless business books, including ones about Home Depot, Walmart and McDonald’s, to see how successful companies were built. She spent a few months writing a business plan for what became Solantic.
Her former Memorial Hospital boss got her in touch with a Tampa executive who was running urgent care centers there. The executive was extremely open about his business model, including what worked, what the company would do differently if it could and the staffing mix. As a result of that openness, Solantic never expanded into Tampa.
Bowling also went to 20-25 emergency rooms in the Southeast, where she asked patients a series of questions. If there was another facility, would they go there? What would it take to build credibility? What should it look like? How much would they pay?
The first four Solantic centers opened in Jacksonville in February 2002.
Developing that business plan was one of the “best experiences of my life,” Bowling said.
Along the way, she and Scott became close friends and they got to know each other well.
She credits him with always challenging her and always raising the bar. “If you want to coast, he’s not the boss for you,” she said of Scott.
She considered working in his administration after he won the governor’s race in November 2010. But she wanted to be back home in Jacksonville with her aging mother.
As she was driving back one night in June 2011, she had to talk herself into going to an event hosted by former Mayor John Peyton for people he had appointed to boards. (She was named to the JEA board by Peyton.)
As it turns out, her future boss was there.
Time for new challenge
When she got to the event, Mayor-elect Brown asked what she was going to do now that she wasn’t with Solantic. He asked for her number so he could call about her joining his team.
“I thought, ‘I’ll never hear from him again,’” she said.
He called the next day.
After being interviewed by the transition team, she was named deputy chief administrative officer where she would work for Hyde, who was temporarily volunteering as CAO while still working at Foley & Lardner.
Hyde said it was “certainly my hope and intention” she would be promoted when he left after about eight months. He and Bowling stayed in touch, having lunch about every three months.
Around Thanksgiving, Hyde said, the discussion turned to what was next for Bowling. He said she told him she was discussing lobbying/public affairs jobs with Tallahassee firms.
He asked for the chance to talk to her about a job at the firm.
Hyde said Bowling’s experience in city government and her “very deep relationships with state government,” particularly Scott, make her a strong hire for the firm.
He said she has “great enthusiasm and is full of big ideas.”
In a statement, Brown called Bowling a “gifted administrator who brought a passion for excellence to the job of managing the day-to-day operations of the city.”
The mayor credited her with helping implement his major reorganization to streamline operations and provide greater efficiency.
Bowling said the timing to leave is ideal because she’s been told the several months before the city elections in the spring bring a slower pace. She and Hyde hope the transition from her city job to the firm will be complete around the first of the year.
As Bowling and Hyde were talking about the job at the firm, Hyde told her he could provide something the Tallahassee firms couldn’t: The opportunity to stay in Jacksonville and still work in Tallahassee.
No photo on the wall of Jacksonville required.