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Alumni Profile

Ronald A. Williams, SF ’84

Ronald A. Williams, SF ’84

Retired Chairman & CEO, Aetna

  • During his tenure at Aetna, FORTUNE magazine named the company the most admired in the insurance and managed care industry.
  • Appointed in March 2011 to serve on President Obama’s Management Advisory Board.
  • Serves on the boards of Save the Children and the National Academy Foundation.

Although Ronald A. Williams retired from Aetna after a successful nine-year run—as president beginning in 2002, as chairman and CEO from 2006 to 2010, and as chairman from 2010 to 2011—he is quick to add that he has not “retired from life.”

“There’s great confusion about that,” said Williams with a laugh. “I retired from Aetna … but I am actively involved in the business community in a variety of ways. I serve on the boards of American Express, Boeing, and Johnson & Johnson, and I’m also working with a private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, as an operating advisor to them. I also chair a company called Emergency Medical Services Corporation, a staffing outsourcing business that places physicians in emergency rooms, anesthesiologists in operating rooms, and there’s another division that makes them the largest provider of emergency transportation in the country.”

Williams arrived at Aetna, one of the nation’s leading providers of health care-based insurance and employee benefits, in 2001 at a time of financial challenge. The company had just realized a loss of $365 million, and a period of corporate diagnosis was needed to determine how to fix the problems. Chief among them? Aetna was compiling data, but was not effectively using it to diagnose and then treat the issues identified as impacting business.

“We had to begin using IT as a competitive strategy,” said Williams. “We spent a great deal of time and effort doing that, and it served the company very well. It paved the way for the company to be an industry leader and to operate in today’s world, and the minute we began to get the data we began to understand what we needed to do. It probably took us about two years to break out of our old patterns and, in my last full year, Aetna earned $1.6 billion.”

Williams has also been focused on health care reform, writing numerous pieces for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Financial Times, and others.

“The health care system has some very substantial challenges, one of which was we did not have a way for all of our citizens to get access to health care, with the exception of Massachusetts,” said Williams. “But beyond access, we have to address the fundamental issue of affordability of health care services. I tried to focus the debate on the need to reform the broader health care system … but I think we missed an opportunity to have a more meaningful impact by addressing the quality of health care and the affordability of health care. Some of the things I would have suggested, and did suggest, were to really focus on having a public multi-stakeholder dialog on how we reform our health care payment system so it pays for value and outcomes versus level of activity. When we pay for activity, we get activity. I would have focused on the systems much more and on how do we focus systems, and make sure institutions are rewarded for improving health care.”

“It’s all about prevention,” said Williams, “but physicians are paid to treat you after you are sick versus keeping people healthy.”

Last March, Williams was appointed by President Obama to one of 11 spots on the Management Advisory Board, which meets monthly to develop workable strategies for the Senior Executive Service (SES) corps of the federal government.

“I see excellent opportunity and leverage,” said Williams. “It’s all about bringing best practices from the business community in to the government; and while there are a lot of differences, I have been impressed by the people at the senior-most levels who have significant experience in the private sector.”