Joseph Frick, President and CEO, Independence Blue Cross

Keeping It in Perspective

Joseph Frick, President and CEO, Independence Blue Cross

ibx 167“We’ve always been a mission driven organization,” Joe Frick told me. “From our creation 71 years ago, we were the insurer of last resort for many people. We’re not a national company, so we’ve always had community roots. We’re not a publicly traded stock company, so it was never about making big margins. It was always about touching as many people as possible and making a small margin that could be reinvested in the community.”

Independence Blue Cross and its subsidiaries are the Philadelphia region’s largest health insurers, with more than 2.6 million members locally and 3.3 million overall. The company employs nearly 5,500 people, annually processes more than 26 million claims, and responds to more than 5 million customer inquiries. Joe, who joined the company in 1993, has been CEO since January 2005.

As part of its commitment to the community, Independence Blue Cross conducts a variety of programs and activities to help address the health needs of the uninsured. In 2009, IBC supported 36 private, non-profit health clinics that annually provide free care to more than 110,000 uninsured adults and children in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and invested more than $40 million to help hold down the cost of providing health insurance to low-income adults and children.

“I’m having a tough time with the healthcare reform debate,” Joe told me. “I know the current model is not sustainable and I’m as pro-reform as it gets, but when it went from healthcare reform to health insurance reform, all of us in the business, even if we’re non-profit, got painted with a broad brush. We’re seen as doing bad things to raise profits, when that’s not the case. That’s been tough on our employees.

“Being people-centered is at my core,” Joe went on. “Maybe to a fault. It’s probably tougher for me, given my background in human resources positions, to make tough decisions regarding people, because I spent my whole career investing in them.”

One of his most difficult days occurred when a large number of employees took voluntary early retirement in the fall of 2009.

“We were saying goodbye to 531 people, representing 11,350 years of service to our company. Gut wrenching. Especially because I knew all these people, and had worked with them. So that morning, people were crying. They were pleased that our company had a progressive way to right size. They felt good about their decision, but it was tough to leave.”

When I asked Frick if he was a natural leader as a kid, he cited the importance of education as a formative experience in his life.

“My mom and dad were both from Philly. They were not college-educated, but they did everything they could to make sure that their three boys got a top-flight education. We all attended Catholic schools in Baltimore, even though my mom had to go to work to enable us to do that. I was the first in my family to go to college.”

Frick then attended Notre Dame, which he considers “a very special place.”

“It was incredibly values-laden,” he said. “It was a tremendous environment to learn and grow. I developed an extraordinary sense of purpose and mission.

“But when you say natural leader, I’ve never viewed myself as that. Rather, I’ve viewed myself as kind of a galvanizing force, an energizing influence. I’ve always had the ability to get groups of folks enthusiastic about things. People have always gravitated to me as an organizer or facilitator. So I’ve never taken myself seriously and it’s never been about me. It’s always been about the cause or the institution or the organization.”

When Frick once took a career aptitude test, he was “off the charts” to be a funeral director.

“When I talked to a group at Wharton last week, I said how about that? Funeral director? But I told them that when I look back on it now, it makes sense. I have the ability to help people feel a sense of calm, stability, and reassurance during times of anxiety and turbulence. That’s important for a leader.”

After executive positions with Westinghouse and the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Frick joined Independence Blue Cross at a time of major expansion for the company.

“That first year was a whirlwind. My role was to help Fred DiBona move this organization forward, to perhaps develop a different operating model, while retaining the same philosophy and values, and that’s what we did. For the first five years we were experiencing phenomenal growth. In the mid-1990s we almost doubled our size and scope.”

A large part of Joe’s story involves his personal health crisis. At age 55 in 2007, he was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer.

“It was like, ‘Oh my God, what are you saying to me, Lord?’ But you know what? It ended up being a kind of gift. It was just another challenge to deal with, but one that gave me an incredible perspective. It enabled me to see my company and the healthcare system through the eyes of the patient.

“When you’re faced with your own mortality, it changes everything,” Joe went on. “I went down to pick up my daughter after her first year of college, expecting to give her a hug and say I’m proud of you, and instead I had to say, ‘Kate, I have cancer and it’s pretty serious.’

“I remember those two hours. Then she and I had to get in the car and drive to my parents to tell them. She sobbed the whole way back to Philadelphia. So many things were going through my mind. Am I going to see her get married? Am I going to see my kids graduate?”

Frick underwent surgery and very aggressive chemotherapy.

“My chemo was pretty debilitating. I lost 55 pounds in 90 days. I had 24 weeks of hell, but the health care staff who supported me were terrific. So far I’ve been healthy for 2 1/2 years. So far, so good.

“I’m healthier from a physical, emotional, and spiritual standpoint. I’m a pretty emotional guy, so it’s helped me to stay a little more even keeled. I still have a port in my chest, so when I’m having a bad meeting or bad day, I put my hand on my port. It gives me perspective and keeps me where I need to be.”

Joe has since joined an organization called the CEO Roundtable on Cancer.

“It’s made up of CEOs from all around the country, many who have been touched by cancer in some way, and who are doing everything they can within their organizations to prevent cancer and support people who are dealing with it.”

In closing, Joe said the following:

“I’m more and more convinced that we have a responsibility, as leaders, to have a personal brand that’s impeccable because people want to feel good about their companies and their leaders, particularly when you read about inappropriate business or personal conduct that taints our whole profession.

“The day we all take ourselves too seriously is the day that we shouldn’t be leading anymore. Our job is to create an environment where people can achieve their personal and professional potential, by being part of a mission-driven organization.”