From Cadet to CEO

Joseph Swedish ’69 leveraged strong work ethic and relationships to lead a Fortune 38 company

During his time at Benedictine, Joe Swedish (Class of '69) may not have given much of an overt indication that he was on his way to major accomplishments. But, hidden beneath an unassuming exterior, burned a passionate flame to make big things happen.

That flame, as well as a well-rooted work ethic, carried Swedish through his undergraduate years at UNC-Charlotte. There he worked his way through college by loading trucks in the wee hours of each morning and working the production line of a tobacco factory each summer, alongside fellow employees that were "the salt of the earth." “I never believed it was a hardship,” said Swedish. “Rather, it was a learning experience that taught me the value of long days and hard work.” Earning stellar grades in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) his dock and factory work, he earned a spot at Duke University, and he graduated with a master’s degree in health administration. Today, he serves as Chairman of the Board of Visitors of Duke's prestigious Fuqua School of Business.

That launched what has turned out to be a 40-plus year run in the health care field, spending most of that time working for Catholic health care organizations. During nearly 30 of those years, he has served as a chief executive officer, including 15 as CEO of Trinity Health, the nation's second largest Catholic health system. That seasoning turned out to be one of the reasons that Anthem, Inc. (then named Wellpoint) turned to Swedish for his leadership. His prior experience, however, had been exclusively on the hospital administration side, a far cry from Anthem’s core business.

The wisdom of this selection soon became apparent. Under Swedish’s leadership, which includes driving the $54 billion acquisition of Cigna, Anthem’s market value has tripled and its stock is trading in the 130's–higher than ever traded prior to Swedish's arrival. Today, he serves as Chairman of the Board, as well as President and CEO of the Fortune 38 company, which provides health benefits to nearly 39 million members through its affiliated health plans.

Serving in such high-powered positions, as he has throughout his career, Swedish looks to his faith for guidance.

"I'd rather change by inspiration than desperation," he shared. "Pope John Paul's favorite saying applies to all we do—'be not afraid'."

With Swedish at the helm, Anthem has consistency grown revenue, membership and earnings per share, with operating revenue increasing 20 percent, to more than $78 billion.

While his numbers are impressive, Swedish has not lost sight of the human side of his business, nor has he forgotten his roots. That humanity is grounded in his parents’ experience as refugees to this country following World War II. “The kindness they were shown by their Catholic sponsor, coupled with the struggles to establish a new life in our society, affirmed their desire to instill Catholic values in me,” Swedish told us. “As Catholics, I am certain they believed core values such as Benedictine’s would help me grow and prosper—both religiously and professionally.”

That spiritual growth continues to bear fruit. “My achievements are because of my Catholic education and my leadership experiences in Catholic health care,” he shared. “I have come to the realization that so much of what is accomplished is in God’s time, but we need to support the journey through the lens of faith with listening skills, patience and seeking the common good in people we serve.”

Part of that process included his Benedictine years. Swedish attained modest grades in the classroom and graduated with the rank of private. Yet, the driving forces of his life’s success were fueled by the opportunities presented to every Cadet, no matter his station at the school. “The rules were tough and the academic expectations were demanding,” he noted. “But the lessons I learned from both the positives and the negatives helped me learn about people and understand their differences. I learned that to accomplish anything meaningful, you need passion and vision about all that is possible coupled with goals that rely on collaborating with people who have a shared vision to co-create success. It began at Benedictine with its demand for discipline; and over the years, I have honed a skill-demanding success that relies on partnerships.”

So, how would he advise current Cadets? “Experience all that Benedictine has to offer academically, religiously, socially and culturally…Take lessons from the overall experience and not just the classroom…Education isn’t just about the outcome of an exam or your rank throughout four years. I wasn’t a star student by any means, but in many ways I worked hard, built on my strengths and rose to the challenges that were thrown at me.”

Speaking of challenges, Swedish faced a significant one recently in testifying before the United States Congress in support of the Anthem-Aetna merger. He drew similarities to that experience with Father Adrian’s Latin class and German with Father Pat. “(Those classes) would have been less intimidating if I had prepared for them the way I did for Congress,” he said. “The key is to arm yourself with information and to practice.”

Then, with a chuckle, he added, “Of course, Father Adrian’s class got a lot less coverage in the media, so that’s definitely a positive difference.” Turning serious, Swedish counselled, "Benedictine will prepare you to set your own path...But it's still up to you to set it, and ultimately to follow it, by never giving up."

Article Written by Mike Forster, Communications Director, BCP