Bill Jews rode to the top on lifetime of discipline Planner: William L. Jews' discipline and drive made him a chief executive officer before he was 30 and ultimately the head of the largest health insurer in the region.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bill Jews, the 6-foot-7 freshman basketball star from Cambridge, sat alone on the top row of the upper deck at Memorial Stadium watching the fifth game of the 1970 World Series.

His eyes were riveted on Brooks Robinson and Mike Cuellar, yet he pondered his future, wondering how he could leap from a small school in Cambridge to the academic rigors at the Johns Hopkins University -- and also play basketball.

"I came down out of the stadium, walked over to the gym and told my coach I will play, but not my freshman year," he said. "I went over to my room, opened a book and started working."

It was a telling point in a lifetime of focus, discipline and drive that would make William L. Jews a chief executive officer before he was 30 and ultimately the head of the largest health insurer in the region, CareFirst Inc., formed this month by the combination of the Maryland and District of Columbia Blue Cross plans.

Weeks earlier, he had returned his car to his mother in Cambridge, telling her he didn't want to be distracted from his studies.

"At an early age, he locked in on something that said, 'In order to get to where I want to be, there are the things I need to do,' " said Theo Rodgers, a close friend and president of A&R; Development Corp. "And he said, 'These are the people I need to know, these are the things I need to do to get where I'm going.' "

Ever methodical, Jews plotted roles for himself in business, social, community and government endeavors. "I sat down and did a matrix," he recalled recently in an interview at his Owings Mills office. In subsequent years, he volunteered for boards, sought out chairmanships and endeared himself to political leaders such as William Donald Schaefer, then mayor of Baltimore.

In a city long dominated by an old-boy network, he glided smoothly between the black and white power structures, much the way he moved from 10 years of segregated schools to a previously all-white Cambridge High, where he became student council treasurer in an uncontested election.

In 1993, when he took over Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland, it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and embarrassed by a congressional probe into its free-spending management. By rebuilding the company's reserves and cutting costs, Jews positioned it for the deal with the D.C. Blue Cross that shored up its place in Baltimore while another local institution, insurer USF&G; Corp., was swallowed by an out-of-state competitor.

"Bill is smart, smooth and enormously well-wired in Baltimore," said A. G. Newmyer III, a consumer gadfly who, as head of the Fair Care Foundation, has been critical of Blue Cross' service and the deal Jews put together.

Jews' personal life has been as strategically planned as his work life. He remained a bachelor until 40 so that he could develop his career. Before they married five years ago, Marsha and Bill Jews set up three easels in Jews' home. Working with colored markers, they charted their differences, their common traits and where they wanted the marriage to go.

It was quintessential Bill Jews.

"It was like a retreat," recalled Marsha Jews, an outgoing, impetuous counterpart to her ultra-rational, controlled husband.

For Bill Jews, it seemed a natural thing, a reflection on a lesson about beginnings from his father: "He said, 'Always make sure the nail is started well. If you didn't do that, you're likely to hit the nail and it flies off.' "

Born on Jan. 30, 1952, Bill Jews grew up as an only child in Cambridge, a struggling small town on the Eastern Shore best known to the wider world, at that time, for racial unrest, although Jews was largely insulated from the turmoil.

"He lived in a structured situation, where your family controls you and guides you in how to do things," recalled Edward E. Watkins, a longtime family friend, now 78 and president of the Cambridge City Council.

High expectations

Expectations at home were high: good behavior, academic achievement, community involvement. "My parents were never ever forcing things on me but gave me boundaries subconsciously. They always said you need to be competitive, you need to assimilate in society, you need to not do anything to harm the name."

His father, William L. Jews Sr., who died when Jews was 17, was a well-respected businessman who ran a barbershop. He invested his money wisely, Watkins said, and accumulated some rental property. His mother -- now in a Baltimore County nursing home because of poor health -- was a teacher who kept meticulous files, shaping her son's "organized, logical and strategic" approach to the business world, he said.

"For every vacuum cleaner or air conditioner, she had every manual with the date that she purchased it, the check number that she wrote for it," he recalled. "Every phone bill was organized and logical, and she knew when she paid them."

Racial strife

The stability at home contrasted with the racial strife in Cambridge, one of the first places in the country where civil rights activity turned violent. In 1963, when Jews was 11, the National Guard was called in twice, and he recalls his fear and confusion with a vividness that surprises him.

"I remember sitting on the street watching it happen a block from where I lived," said Jews. "I remember thinking at one point that I could be killed."

Four years later, activist H. Rap Brown stood on a car at Cedar and Pine in Cambridge, and shouted, "Burn, baby, burn."

"I remember being troubled by what we were doing," he said. "We were burning down the corner store, Green's grocery store, a school, the shoeshine shop. I remember thinking, where am I going to go to get ice cream and sodas, because it's all gone," he said.

When Jews first went to an integrated school his junior year, his vision of the world was widened after he was invited to join a study group with white classmates.

"For the first time in my life, I heard kids talking about going to Brown and Harvard and Dartmouth," Jews recalled. "And I'm sitting there wondering where these places are."

Coaches and college recruiters besieged him with athletic scholarship offers, but Jews had decided that was not the path for him.

He recalls at age 15 watching a television post-game interview of a star college football player: "At the end of the interview, the reporter said, 'Tell me what you're going to do in the future.'

"His answers, unfortunately, were, 'Well, um, like, uh. ' He was so inarticulate that I concluded they had used his body and not his mind. Sitting there on the floor, I decided I would not accept an athletic scholarship to go to school.

"That rivets in my mind as something that has probably had an impact on my life as much as anything else," he said.

He accepted an academic scholarship to Hopkins and played basketball his last three years -- so well that he still holds five school records and was chosen for the school's athletic hall of fame. At Hopkins, he considered becoming a doctor until he wandered one day into an administrator's office at nearby Union Memorial Hospital.

"It was late one evening, and everybody else had gone home," recalled Kenneth A. Richmond, then a young manager at Union Memorial. "A large individual appeared at my door and asked if I was an administrator. It was Bill, being inquisitive. I invited him in, we talked for a couple of hours, and the rest is history."

Attracted by challenge

Jews was intrigued by the challenges of running a hospital, and when he graduated from Hopkins, he took a job in administration at University of Maryland Hospital, meanwhile earning a master's degree at Morgan State University.

"Even in those days, he was a quick study, a guy who understands the issues and approaches them in an organized fashion," said Dr. Morton I. Rapoport, then an assistant dean and now chief executive officer of the University of Maryland Medical System.

After four years at University, Jews moved to the No. 2 administrator's job at what was then Lutheran Hospital in West Baltimore. Two years later, Lutheran's CEO left, and Jews inherited the top job at age 29.

"Over the course of time, he's gotten to be more of a big-picture guy, but when he first took over at Lutheran, he could tell you how many mops were in the closet," said David C. Daneker, a Baltimore lawyer who was on the board committee that hired Jews.

Sensitive merger

In 1986, Jews engineered the politically sensitive merger between historically black Provident Hospital, which was bankrupt, and Lutheran to form Liberty Medical Center.

In those negotiations, "he was a good poker player," never revealing his interest in taking over the financially troubled Provident until the crucial moment, said Daneker.

"There was $9 million in state money if a partner was found for Provident by midnight on May 31, and we consummated the deal at 20 minutes to midnight," he said.

In 1990, Jews became president and CEO of Dimensions Health Corp. in Prince George's County, which runs two hospitals, two nursing homes and other health facilities. Three years later, he took over the troubled Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland.

"Their image was down the drain," said Calvin Pierson, president of the Maryland Hospital Association. "Within two years, Bill had restored Blue Cross' reputation and standing in the community, and substantially turned it around financially and administratively. And he personally mended a lot of the torn relationships Blue Cross had with legislators."

He also had to rebuild credibility with employees, who learned the extent of Blue Cross' financial crisis in the newspapers.

"He said at the first meeting, 'I'm going to tell you the truth, although you're not always going to like it.' " said Sharon Vecchioni, senior vice president for human resources.

Blue Cross' reserves rose from $24.9 million in 1992, 13 percent of recommended guidelines for an insurer its size, to $252 million at the end of 1996. The number of employees dropped from 4,400 to 3,200 over that period, but service scores rose.

Critics, including Newmyer, argue that the turnaround came primarily on the backs of the subscribers, as the insurer arbitrarily denied medical claims. Jews discounts that allegation.

2 million subscribers

Today, even with Blue Cross transformed, Jews is still hyper-methodical, extraordinarily demanding of himself and others. There's no reason to think he'll be any different presiding over the combined Maryland and D.C. Blue Cross plans, with 2 million subscribers, $3 million in annual revenue and 5,000 employees.

Even those who have clashed with Jews say he is tough but respectful. "When I sat down to bargain with him, I knew damn well I wasn't going to get all I wanted," said Larry Grosser, director of the Professional Staff Nurses' Association, who negotiated with Jews at both Liberty and Dimensions.

At mid-life, Jews may be entering another phase. He no longer pulls out the cellular phone on every hole when he plays golf at Baltimore Country Club, where he was the first black member. Even his idea of relaxing looks like work. Using his father's tools, Jews recently crafted shelves and constructed a hat rack made of golf tees at his $1 million house off Park Heights Avenue.

"During the last snowstorm, he recaulked his entire house," said close friend Sandy Hillman, a principal with the advertising and public relations firm Trahan, Burden & Charles.

"Bill Jews is not loose even when he's being loose," she said.

More sociable

But he is far more sociable, caught up in a whirlwind of cocktail parties, dinners and receptions, mostly orchestrated by his wife, whom he met at Liberty while he was CEO and she a public relations consultant.

"She's sort of neutralized some of his seriousness," said Paige T. Davis, a friend who is vice president and regional manager of Variable Annuity Life Insurance Co.

Between them, Bill and Marsha Jews are members of more than a dozen community boards. In addition, he sits on a number of corporate boards -- including NationsBank, the Ryland Group and Crown Central Petroleum -- and is chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the area's most prominent business group.

His wife is chief operating officer of Career Communications Group, which produces publications, conferences and television shows on minorities in the professions.

With such a frenetic life, the couple opted not to have children. Marsha Jews has a 23-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

Among a broad swatch of friends that cuts across color lines, he is known as intensely loyal and sensitive.

In the immediate future, Jews said, he is committed to making sure the melded Blue Cross companies work. In the long term, he envisions a high-level government appointment, perhaps, or running a for-profit company.

Undoubtedly his decision will be organized, logical and strategic. Impulsive seems impossible.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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