Profiles in Business
He’s Leaving the Nation’s Poor Health in His Wake
Peter Straley was talking about the Connecticut River — specifically, a winding stretch in Northampton — and how almost no one knows that it’s an ideal spot for waterskiing.
Or didn’t know.
“Maybe I should keep quiet about this,” he said with a laugh, adding that one of the things that makes this spot perfect is a lack of congestion, which he expects will continue even though he’s effectively blown his cover. Waterskiing isn’t a hugely popular sport in these parts, and it’s not something one enters into easily.
Although maybe they should, said Straley, president and CEO of Health New England, adding that he started with this activity in his youth — his grandparents built a summer camp on a lake in the Adirondacks the year he was born (1954) — and continued through his life. But it became much more than a summer-vacation pursuit when he discovered that stretch of the Connecticut River many years after one of his many career twists and turns (they’ll be chronicled later) brought him to Western Mass.
He considers it perhaps his favorite way to put the pressures of the day aside for an hour or two, and physically and mentally reboot.
“I remember a performance coach telling me, ‘Peter, you’re expected to be on all day, every day — people don’t expect the CEO to ever have a bad day or ever be in a bad mood — and of course, no one can do that,’” he explained. “She said, ‘when you have a 7 a.m. meeting followed by a full day of internal meetings, and then a 7 p.m. event, you have to carve out a time when you can let down and be offstage, because if you don’t, you’re just fooling yourself; no one can sustain that continuously.’
“She told me that, if I was passionate about something, whether it’s waterskiing or running or whatever, I should carve out an hour and just go do it; I’d come back renewed,” he continued. “And so I do try to leave here and go off and do something, and often, it’s waterskiing.”
Before and after he takes this time to relieve stress and stay fit, Straley does a lot of things that, collectively, work to diffuse the notion of the “big, bad insurance company,” as he called it on several occasions. This includes everything from being very visible in the community to inviting guests to his office to take a few minutes on his ‘Bogo Board,’ a contraption designed to help improve one’s balance.
The perception of large health-insurance companies has taken a number of hits over the years, especially as rates continue to climb and companies of all sizes struggle to meet this necessary but often-perplexing cost of doing business. The most recent controversies involved Blue Cross Blue Shield paying $8.6 million to CEO Cleve Killingsworth after he resigned roughly a year ago, and revelations that Blue Cross and other insurers paid their board members five-figure stipends at a time when relatively few nonprofits did so (the practice has since been halted at Blue Cross, and the others are considering a similar tack).
“When these people [at Blue Cross] look at the scope of their company — it’s a multi-billion-dollar corporation — and compare themselves to the for-profit world … there’s lots of people making that kind of money,” Straley said of Killingsworth’s departure package. “So when they do objective compensation analysis, which everyone does, from that truly rational perspective, with rational meaning objective, you get there. But then, when you say, ‘how does that play out in the environment we’re in today, in the state we’re in today, with the increased levels of scrutiny they have?’ — it just doesn’t work.”
Straley had much more to say about the reasons why he believes health care costs, and especially insurance, continue to soar. Chief among them, he said, is a propensity among many Americans to simply make bad decisions when it comes to their overall health and well-being. And as he said this, he referenced his father, who died the day he turned 51.
“While I don’t know this for a fact, I believe that he could have lived a much longer, more productive life, and I would have known him much better had he made different choices in his life,” said Straley, noting that his father was a heavy smoker, drank more than he should have, didn’t have a good diet, and didn’t do enough to avoid or deflect the stress that came with a high-pressure job in the insurance business.
His father’s death at a young age — and the causes of it — have prompted Straley to take words and advice from his mother and compose them into a white paper he drafted last fall called “My Mother’s Health Plan — Everything I Need to Know About Good Health I Learned from My Mother.”
“Health care is extremely complex, and therefore you may believe that the solutions to decreasing health care costs are also complex,” he writes. “However, my mother’s health plan offers a simple solution to bending the cost curve in the right direction.
“When you take a moment to think about it, you can summarize the important components of good health into three categories: 1) physical activity/exercise, 2) good nutrition, and 3) practicing prevention,” he continued. “These are all things your mother told you do to. It most likely sounded like ‘turn off the TV and go out an play,’ ‘eat your vegetables,’ and ‘wash your hands and brush your teeth!’ Thinking back, this message was about taking responsibility for my own health and well-being.”
Fruits of His Labor
As Straley talks about this responsibility, one can clearly see that he is passionate, if not obsessed, with his desire to see individuals make smarter choices, become healthier — and, perhaps most importantly, have the workplace become a real force for helping people down this road.
His father’s early death has something to do with this, obviously, but he says an equally impactful catalyst came with the events of 9/11, or, to be more specific, with an exercise Health New England, headquartered on floors 15-17 in Monarch Place, had undertaken just a few days after the terrorist attacks.
“That’s when I realized you could change things from work,” he explained. “I heard all these stories about people who couldn’t be rescued [from the Twin Towers] because they couldn’t make it down the stairs. Shortly thereafter, we decided we should have a fire drill here, because we’d never had one.
“Well, we did — and it was scary,” he continued. “People just couldn’t make it down the 15, 16, or 17 flights of stairs. I realized that, if this was real and all 25 floors of this building emptied out at once, people would have been trampled just like they were in New York.
“That’s when I decided that we just had to do more,” he went on, adding that HNE already had programs in place to promote healthier living, but they weren’t “grabbing people,” as he put it. “So we set off on a journey back then, thinking, ‘if what we’re doing isn’t really affecting everyone, then we have to try more, we have to do different things, and we have to take some harder positions.”
Thus began an initiative that goes well beyond walking programs, reimbursements for gym memberships, and participation in Weight Watchers.
Referencing his father one more time, Straley tapped the side of his head a few times as he talked again about choices, responsibility, and doing the right things.
“He knew up here that all those things were not good for him,” he explained. “But knowing something isn’t enough to motivate behavioral change. I believe — and I’m wrong in a lot of my beliefs, so I may be wrong about this one, too — that the workplace is the best place to motivate change. And this is a radical idea for a lot of people.
“They think, ‘I go to work, I do my job, I’m myself, you can’t change me, and I go home and I live my life,’” he continued. “I believe the workplace is where you can make these kinds of changes; you’re there eight, nine, 10 hours a day … it’s a pretty self-contained biosphere, and, generally speaking, it’s a supportive environment.”
How Straley arrived at the corner office at HNE and eventually led the company to its current leadership role in health and fitness is an intriguing career-development story, one he says has no “rhyme or reason,” and starts at Vermont’s Middlebury College, where he majored in a subject far removed from both health care and insurance — geology.
Stone’s Throw Away
“It really worked well for me, because it was a blend of outdoor work and intellectual work — this was the early ’70s, when tectonic plates were first discovered,” he recalled. “So the science was going through a revolution, and this is a recurring thing for me; I’ve always been attracted to things where you don’t have to be an expert to have a contribution. In most aspects of science, you had to have a Ph.D. and 30 years of research before you could actually contribute something new. But this was new — the research didn’t matter anymore; as an undergraduate student working with an inspired professor, you could contribute something.”
But job opportunities in this field were limited, he said, adding that, fortunately, he was also making strides in another field coming its own — computer science. He took every computer course Middlebury offered (two), eventually landed a job in a computer lab on campus, and took his first career step as a systems analyst for Squibb in New Jersey.
Later, he held several positions, including vice president of R&D for Amherst Associates, a Amherst-based firm that developed software for the health care industry. While there, he earned an MBA at UMass, and eventually went into management-consulting work at the Northampton office of a firm called Jennings, Ryan & Kolb.
“It was fast-paced, exciting work, and I really enjoyed it,” he recalled. “You’re sitting in this room with the board of directors, and you’re a 30-year-old kid. And you had to be right. You couldn’t be saying, ‘I think you do this — you had to prove that this is what they should be doing. It was a great experience.”
In the course of that work, Straley worked with a number of hospitals, including Baystate Medical Center, where the assignment was to form Bay Care Health Partners, a three-hospital, 720-physician managed-care contract organization serving Western Mass. “I had actually developed an expertise in building these things,” he said. “Why? Because no one else was doing it; it was a new thing, you could jump in really quickly and be an expert on it. I wrote the book on it — actually, I edited the book on it.”
After he set it up, Baystate asked him to run it, which he did for three years, essentially following the advice that he had been giving to others as a consultant. And when there was an opening at Health New England in 1997, he said he was brash enough to aggressively pursue the position.
“I didn’t know coming here what the challenges were going to be,” he continued. “I didn’t know that health care was going to implode and there would be all this national stuff. But I did know that I had enough faith in my ability to run a business, I knew a lot about health care, and I could figure out the parts I didn’t know.
“And it’s a job that’s allowed be to use all my skills,” he continued. “We’re a big IT company here, and we‘re trying to figure out how to redesign the health care system, so that consulting background is helpful, and we’re a service organization, and we’re about health. It was not my plan to come here, but it’s turned out to be a great place for me personally, and I think the company’s done pretty well under my tenure.”
The Shape of Things to Come
Straley told BusinessWest that he’d lived in Western Mass. for many years before waterskiing suddenly became a much bigger part of his life.
“Through my kids, I met a guy who had a boat on the river, and it turned out that he was an avid waterskier; I’d never even heard of anyone waterskiing on that river,” he said gesturing out his office window to the Connecticut. “Our kids played soccer together, and I remember asking him if I could invite myself to go waterskiing some day; I wasn’t shy about it.
“We’ve been skiing together ever since,” he continued, adding that, unbeknownst to most in this region, a section of the river near the Oxbow provides ideal conditions for this sport.
“What you want is glass,” he explained, referring to calm conditions and little traffic from other boats. “You don’t want other people around — you want it all to yourself. The other thing that makes it good is that this river is long and narrow and it curves; if there’s a wind out of the west, the river curves, and you can find a place where you’re not into the wind and there’s no chop. No matter which direction the wind is coming from, you can find a place that’s calm.”
Several years ago, Straley bought his own boat, one he says is good for one thing and one thing only, and that’s pulling waterskiers in a straight line. “You have to get people out of the water quickly and without a lot of effort, so you need a powerful engine,” he explained. “The second thing you have to do is not create a wake, because a wake is disruptive, and the third thing is that it has to be highly maneuverable so you can go where you want to go.”
The waterskiing is part of Straley’s work to alleviate the stress and burnout that claimed his father more than 30 years ago and threaten many business owners and managers today as they try to pack work and life into what always seems like too few hours.
“Sometimes I’ll leave at 4:30, go ski for an hour, put my suit back on, and go to a 7 o’clock event,” he said. “I’ve been off having a complete release of mind, body, and soul, and I’m really happy when I come back; I’m a lot happier than anyone else in the room because I got away.”
He finds other ways to find these releases, such as jogging and biking. The common denominator is putting the pressures of the day aside for a while, knowing that they’ll be there when you get back, but you’ve managed to spend at least an hour away from it all.
“The most important thing is relaxing your mind,” he told BusinessWest. “When your body is moving, and when your body is engaged in doing what it knows how to do, your mind is then free to think and to imagine, and I get more good ideas by not trying to think about good ideas. If you occupy your body in a fun, productive, challenging thing, your mind is free to imagine.”
One of these good ideas, he believes, is “My Mother’s Health Plan,” co-authored by Lynn Ostrowski, director of brand and corporate relations at HNE, and distributed at various events in recent months, including the Affiliated Chambers’ Outlook luncheon, attended by roughly 1,000 people. As he talked about it, Straley summoned a term most Baby Boomers would be familiar with, although it hasn’t been used much lately.
“The boob tube — your mother was always telling you to turn it off and go outside and play,” he recalled. “That was pretty good advice that people have gotten away from. People of all ages need to get outside and play more. And they need to eat their vegetables — something else their mother told them to do — and brush their teeth.”
All this brings him back to the high cost of health care, and how doing all these things can move the needle in the right direction. It can be done, he told BusinessWest, but it won’t be easy, because changing individuals’ behavioral patterns is quite challenging.
“We try everything,” he said of HNE’s efforts to promote health and well-being. “And each thing grabs one more person and brings them along, but no one thing grabs everybody, so you have to be committed to meeting people where they are right now and just get them to take the first step.
“The reason I think people don’t sustain the change is that they actually know up here that they should do it,” he continued, tapping his temple again for effect, “but the task is so daunting, there are so many moving parts, and their lives are so complex and fast-paced right now, they can’t figure out the first step. If we can help them with that first step, and they have success, then it’s easier to take that second step.”
The Bottom Line
Straley’s white paper, dated November 2010, is identified as “Volume 1, Number 1,” a strong hint that there are more of these to come.
The next installment may involve thoughts on personal responsibility and how to assume some, he said, adding that this assignment involves people of all ages and social strata — and employers as well.
And it is one of the foundations of a multi-pronged approach that he firmly believes will bring down the cost of health care in this country.
“I don’t expect the 15th floor of Monarch Place to be the epicenter of change,” he said, “but we do expect to have an impact, and we do expect that we’ll export that impact to any place else that will listen.”
He seems quite willing to do everything in his power — and that of his company’s — to make a real difference in this matter.
And that includes letting everyone in on his favorite spot for waterskiing.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]