The Turnaround King

Ronald A. Williams is not a CEO driven by power, influence, or celebrity. He makes few gestures when he speaks. His suits are not tailored; his shoes are soft-soled. He grants the press limited access and refuses to give details about his family life or offer any personal insight into what makes him tick. It’s not eccentricity. He’s an ultraprivate man focused on making Aetna bigger and better.

When Williams joined the nation’s largest health insurance provider in 2001, the company was on life support. The Hartford, Connecticut, company had strained relationships with physicians and hospitals and suffered significant losses. Over the last five years, Williams has reconstructed Aetna with surgical precision. He restructured corporate divisions and created an environment that fosters productivity.

Aetna posted revenues of $22.5 billion in 2005, up 25% from $18 billion in 2004. Moreover, Williams’ focus on customer satisfaction through a combination of technological upgrades and back-to-basics values has boosted Aetna’s share price by roughly 600% (see chart).

His performance earned him the nickname “The Turnaround King,” and he is largely viewed as one of the most brilliant corporate strategists in the healthcare industry. In fact, the 57-year-old was recognized as one of BLACK ENTERPRISE’s “75 Most Powerful African Americans in Corporate America” last year. “He’s a better operational leader than anybody I’ve ever seen,” says Jeff Weiss, founder and director of CCI healthcare executive summits. “His memory, command of the details, and understanding the complexity, is amazing.”

These characteristics have earned Williams unwavering loyalty from Aetna employees. “People will walk through walls for him,” offers Weiss. “The amount of work he gets out of people is ungodly. He gets tens of thousands of people to put out 120%, and Ron does it by the quality of his thinking and the integrity of his actions.”

As a result of his efforts, Williams rose quickly: he was named president in 2002; CEO was added to his title in February 2006; and in May the company announced that Williams would replace John “Jack” Rowe as chairman when Rowe retires at the end of this year. Because of his spectacular corporate turnaround and exemplary leadership qualities, BE has named Ronald A. Williams our 2006 Corporate Executive of the Year.

Williams’ star qualities were apparent at his previous employer, WellPoint Inc., the health-benefits giant. Williams joined the company in 1987 and worked in several positions. Within eight years, he was president of the company’s California business and helped pull in $3.1 billion in revenues in 1995. A year later, he was named president of Blue Cross of California, a WellPoint subsidiary. “[WellPoint] went from near bankruptcy to just about being the best managed company in healthcare three or four years in a row,” says Weiss. “And Ron was running most of it.”

Despite his efforts, Williams would never have been named president of the company, according to industry insiders. He began to contemplate his next move. Aetna wanted Williams aboard, but he was being heavily recruited by a venture capital firm.