Keeping a Healthy Outlook

August 15, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — When Humana Inc. decided to stake its health insurance flag in Michigan, it found a leader in an executive with West Michigan roots.

Denise Christy cut her teeth at the organization that eventually became Priority Health.

“Every time I drive by the building I think, hey, you know, I had a little something to do with that,” said Christy, Michigan market president for the Kentucky-based Humana.

Over the past four years, Christy has implemented a strategy to establish Humana with high growth in products for Medicare-qualified seniors while still nurturing group and individual insurance. Christy, who crafted her own communications major at Aquinas College back in 1982, nearly quivers with enthusiasm for a commercial insurance model that emphasizes health management strategies to effect long-term savings.

“If all I’m going to sell is just a commodity, a health insurance product, I’m not going to get anywhere,” Christy said. “And quite frankly, as I told my staff here, you’re out of the insurance-selling business. You’re in the culture-changing business.”

Born in Jackson and raised with five siblings in Kalamazoo and East Lansing, Christy at first thought she’d like to be a physical education teacher. But two summers as a camp counselor changed her mind. Then she thought about public relations or nonprofit management.

She started her career by working for her alma mater.

Denise Christy
Company: Humana Inc.
Title: President, Michigan Market
Age: 47
Birthplace: Jackson
Residence: Rochester Hills
Family: Husband, Russ; sons Ted, 17, and Tom, 12
Community/Business Involvement: Former board member, Aquinas College, Frederik Meijer Garden & Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids Art Museum; member, Junior Achievement and Michigan Metro Girl Scouts.
Biggest career break: Being promoted to vice president of marketing for the fledgling Priority Health.

“I worked for them for about a year as an admissions counselor,” recalled Christy, who eventually became an Aquinas board member. “I recruited in the Chicago area. It was great, I loved it. I would go to these all-boys Catholic schools, and they’d start asking me to go to the prom. I said, ‘You go to Aquinas, I’ll go to the prom.’”

Then a friend tipped her off to an opening at a new kind of health insurance animal, a health maintenance organization, which was being created by the venerable Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

“The advertising agent that Blue Care Network was using for West Michigan was an alum from Aquinas and I knew her. And she said, ‘You know, they’re looking for these sales people, and it’s kind of a lot about what you do when you go out there when you recruit students.’ Hey, I figured, they’re giving me a company car and I was making more than $11,000 a year; it sounded like a good deal, so I took the job. I was 23. I didn’t even know what an HMO was. I thought it was cable TV,” Christy quipped.

Actually, it was a sales job and the people-oriented Christy immediately took to it. It was a time of change in the health insurance industry, which was starting to experiment with managed care.

“I really was a believer — and still am a believer — in the whole concept of primary care and that notion of really building a continuity of service. That was a great learning organization,” Christy said of BCN’s early incarnation. “Three years later, Butterworth (Hospital) was starting its own HMO. They wanted to compete with Blue Cross Blue Shield. They recruited me.

“I showed up and they didn’t even have a brochure. So I had to write a brochure and had to come up with all the collateral. There was only, like, six of us in the office. It was a ball. We just had a ball building that Butterworth HMO.”

With a mixture of youthful enthusiasm and chutzpah, Christy talked her way into the job of vice president of sales and marketing, and relishes sharing the anecdote.

“I remember walking into the CEO’s office, and I said, ‘Look it, I can do this.’ What am I, 26 years old? I said, ‘Make me your director of marketing. I’ll build a team. I can do this thing.’

“And he said, ‘If you write me a marketing plan, I’ll consider it.’ So I thought, OK. I walked away from the office and picked up the phone and I said to my older sister, ‘Do you know what a marketing plan is?’”

Christy figured it out and got the job. She turned again to her contacts from Aquinas College, hiring many of them for her sales staff. Selling an HMO to people who for years relied on traditional health insurance was a painstaking process.

“You’d go into all those smoky cafeterias with your little brochure and wait for people to come in on their lunch breaks, and they could choose to stay with their traditional plan or they could choose to go into an HMO, and you are selling individual-to-individual. I would hear everybody’s health care stories, all about their diseases and what they’ve got, and yet it was very personal. I used to follow up on those people quite a bit. So you kind of got hooked on really providing a service for these people that’s really important and vital for their health and well-being.”

Christy stayed with the HMO that became Priority Health for 11 years before being shooed out of the nest by former Spectrum Health CEO Bill Gonzalez.

“Bill Gonzalez said to me, ‘Denise, I would love nothing more for you to stay and continue to help us here with Priority Health, but if you want to grow, you gotta go.’ He really pushed me out of the nest. I took that advice.”

Christy landed at SelectCare as marketing chief for four years before it was purchased by PPOM. She then went to industry giant United HealthCare in Minneapolis as national vice president for sales operations. “I don’t know what I was doing in Minnesota … except for the fact that I thought it would be really cool working for the largest health insurance company. But it was a corporate job. What was I thinking? I mean, that’s a square peg in a round hole,” she rued.

That’s when the Humana opportunity opened up. As Humana’s leader in Michigan, she has 80 employees, 35 of them in a recently renovated space in Cascade and the remainder in Troy.

Christy, her husband of 22 years, Russ, who is a commercial banker, and their two sons live in Rochester Hills. Their former hometown is East Grand Rapids. She makes no bones that she’d love to return, after her oldest son graduates from high school next year. Christy has had stints on the boards of not only Aquinas College, but Frederik Meijer Garden & Sculpture Park, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Junior Achievement and Michigan Metro Girl Scouts. 

“When you’re in a role of giving back, in a community leadership role, that is the biggest break,” Christy said. “That’s the hidden wealth of your work because it’s all about relationships.”

In recent months, Christy and her family have been focusing on her younger sister, who has been diagnosed with cancer.

“Talk about understanding the health care perspective as a family member with a terminal patient — it’s just phenomenal. I am so grateful for what these insurance companies do because when I see what she’s going through in terms of medical … just the number of MRIs … to preserve her length of life as much as they can because she wants time with her children — it’s just remarkable.

“When you think about it, we aren’t in such an awful industry. We do really good things for people in tough, tough times.”

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