Advocate For Health

September 17, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — At the tender age of 8, Jeff Connolly knew he wanted to become a certified public accountant.

“I had a very favorable experience with algebra,” Connolly said. “I just kind of clicked with numbers.”

So without much ado, Connolly left his childhood home in Traverse City after high school for Central Michigan University and a world of financial statements and audits, balance sheets and cash flows.

“Once I became a CPA and worked with numbers, I realized that I needed something else, which is to work with people and relationships.”

Now Connolly is a vice president with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and president of West Michigan operations for the state’s largest health insurer, with more than 4.6 million members. About 990,000 of them are in the 56-county West Michigan/Upper Peninsula market that Connolly covers.

“I have learned from my experience and believe that health insurance should be delivered in a nonprofit environment,” he said. “It’s very clear that Blue Cross is committed to the state of Michigan and is able to adapt and address the community needs because we are focused on one state … we don’t have 47 other states to worry about.”

And the Great Lakes state has been Connolly’s only home. When he was an infant in the late 1960s, his parents moved their family from the Detroit area to Traverse City, and he considers the town on the bay to be his hometown.

“My childhood, everything I remember, is Traverse City,” he said, and he lives there today with his wife, Caroline, and their four children. “When we talk about the West Side (of Michigan) and understanding the West Side, part of the driver behind hiring the right executive over here is an individual that has been raised on the West Side and understands the needs of its smaller communities.”

Behind his everyday business demeanor, Connolly harbors a wry sense of humor. He described his early calling to accounting as “sad” and declined to call his beloved CMU Chippewas by their nickname “Chips.”

Name: Jeffrey L. Connolly
Company: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan
Title: President, West Michigan Operations
Age: 39
Birthplace: Grosse Pointe Farms
Residence: Traverse City
Family: Wife, Caroline; four children, ages 5 to 12
Community Involvement: Alliance for Health Governance Board
Biggest Career Break: Returning to BCBSM for his current position.

“It’s not a chip, it’s a Chippewa,” he insisted. “I refuse to acknowledge a wood chip.”

In Traverse City, Connolly graduated from St. Francis High School, as did a more famous woodworker: TV carpenter Carter Oosterhouse, who shot to fame via cable television in 2003 on TLC’s “Trading Spaces” and was featured in People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” issue the same year.

“His older brother’s name is Todd; he’s one of my best friends. I graduated high school and went to college with him,” Connolly said. “I used to baby sit Carter and tortured him mercilessly. Yeah, they used to be our next door neighbors. And he’s still there, I still see him quite a bit. He’s a nice guy. Great family. We still give him a hard time.”

While Oosterhouse was learning to wield a hammer, Connolly returned to his family’s roots in the Detroit area to pursue his accounting dream.

“I started off as a young CPA with Deloitte & Touche,” he said. “Health care was my focus. I picked up this small start-up company by the name of PPOM as a client. So I took the risk of going to an entrepreneurial start-up company as their CFO, and grew from there.”

Starting in the financial area, including mergers and acquisitions, Connolly then worked with sales, agents and providers.

“Within about five years, I was running most of the components of that company as a senior executive. When I was 33, I was promoted to CEO. At this point, we were owned by Blue Cross. In 2004, I purchased PPOM away from Blue Cross with private equity investors. In 2005, I sold PPOM to Aetna. And then in 2006, I came back to Blue Cross.

“We have great employees here,” said Connolly, whose staff numbers 500. “It’s almost like a family environment here on the West Side. They’re really long-term, loyal people, and they’re a joy to work with.

“I love and appreciate working with providers. They’re obviously out there doing something they believe in, and they truly want to help others.”

Connolly said he spends his free time with his family in Traverse City.

“This is a pretty demanding job, so when I’m not working here, I help my wife out as much as possible with my kids,” he said. “We love to be outdoors … skiing, boating. Personally, I am an exercise nut. I exercise six to seven days a week. I love to run outside. I want to be a good example for my kids.

“I think if you want to be employed in health care, you’d better practice what you preach. I would like people — when they see me and meet me, they see what we’re offering. I want to be able to live that lifestyle.”     

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