Through the glass ceiling — Charisma, tenacity push Angela Braly to helm of largest U.S. commercial insurer
Angela Braly got a crash course on just how hectic life can be for the leader of the state’s largest publicly traded company on the day before she became chief executive of WellPoint.
Early Thursday morning, WellPoint abruptly announced it had asked its No. 2 executive to resign over unspecified conduct violations.
Braly seemed to take it in stride.
“We have a very strong and very deep management team,” she said calmly during a conference call with surprised analysts.
Building her own team is just one of the many challenges she faces as CEO of the nation’s largest commercial insurer.
Health care and the means to pay for it are some of the nation’s biggest domestic challenges. And WellPoint is in the middle — between consumers who are feeling squeezed by higher costs, governments looking for better care and greater efficiency, and health-care providers who want to be paid more for their services.
Braly, a 45-year-old mother of three, is a good juggler. She’s moved up through the ranks of a big law firm and two large insurers, deftly navigating the politics of government and the boardroom. She spent two years as WellPoint‘s general counsel before taking over as CEO.
“I feel really well-prepared for this job,” Braly said during an interview at WellPoint‘s Downtown Indianapolis headquarters. “Over the last three months, I have felt so encouraged. I have had so many associates reach out to me and say, ‘You go, girl.’ ”
WellPoint is now the nation’s largest public company with a woman as its CEO. It’s the only such public company in Indiana.
Braly doesn’t dwell on it, and she isn’t taking credit for breaking through any glass ceilings.
“The shards are on the ground, and we’re just going right through,” she said.
She’s careful to give credit to her husband, Douglas, for taking the lead role in recent years in raising their three children, who are in their elementary through high school years.
Braly said she tries to arrange her schedule to carve out time with her family, such as moving a meeting to attend a school play or taking a day off for a graduation ceremony.
To make it home for dinner with the family, she relies on her BlackBerry and late-night e-mailing sessions to stay connected with work.
“Balance doesn’t happen every day,” Braly said. “I may be out of town two, three days in a week. That weekend, I’m really going to focus on spending time with the kids.”
As CEO, she said, she’ll rely on WellPoint‘s senior management team.
“I feel very supported in this position,” she said.
But those who know her, even by reputation, say Braly can more than hold her own.
“That’s one tough cookie. That’s why she got that job,” said John Christy, a competitive power lifter who helps Braly keep fit at his Total Fitness gym in Indianapolis.
“The type of workouts she goes through are very physically demanding,” he said. “She actually grits her teeth and digs right in.”
Not exactly the image you get from a woman who says one of the most valuable skills she learned from her predecessor, Larry Glasscock, was that you can be both successful and nice.
“On one hand, she’s this approachable, pleasant person,” said Thomas Carroll, analyst with Stifel Nicolaus and Co. “On the other hand, she’s this Type A kind of aggressive female attorney.”
The combination of charisma and a competitive streak will be valuable in winning over Wall Street analysts who were big fans of Glasscock, now chairman, and David Colby, the chief financial officer who resigned Thursday and who was passed over for the top job in February.
Wall Street is just one of the constituencies Braly must serve. Since WellPoint announced her promotion, she’s been to 14 states to meet with more than 3,000 company managers.
To many inside and outside the company, Glasscock was the face and the force behind WellPoint‘s ascent from $6 billion to $57 billion in annual revenue during his tenure.
She’s also met with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and other governmental leaders.
Braly’s political chops will be tested in her new job. She earned them leading WellPoint‘s government-affairs efforts as well as its National Government Services, which acts as a Medicare contractor in several regions across the country.
On the political front, 2008 presidential hopefuls are floating proposals and states passing legislation in attempts to reform a complex health-care system in which costs and the ranks of uninsured both are rising.
“The race is on,” said Daniels, who says he has met with Braly several times and says he’s been impressed.
Daniels said he favors a private health insurance system but said that insurers are under pressure to reduce overhead and help improve the efficiency and quality of care.
“If that isn’t done by leaders like WellPoint,” he said, “one day the people who want government in charge of the whole shebang will get their way.”
Braly says WellPoint is taking the lead, listening to consumers and giving them better tools to evaluate their health-care choices, in hopes of improving quality and keeping costs in check.
“We’re in a unique place in health care to address the affordability and quality issues,” she said. “You’re going to see more tools and information that you as a member can use when you’re accessing health care. There’s going to be more available on the Internet.”
Jerry Flanagan, health-care policy director for the California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said such efforts don’t go far enough.
“They appear to be little more than window dressing from companies that are worried about scrutiny in Congress,” said Flanagan, whose group often has accused WellPoint of putting profits ahead of patients.
When asked about such criticism, Braly deftly sidesteps picking a fight, instead saying that people are rightly focused on health care because it is such an important national debate.
“The most valuable thing you can have is health-care security, knowing that if you need to access the health-care system, that you can do that,” Braly said. “It’s a very emotional issue.”