Not long after joining Aetna, the health insurance giant, Mark Bertolini almost died. A skiing accident in 2004 left his body broken and his prospects dimmed. He was in his late 40s and considered early retirement.
When conventional Western medicine didn't help him recover, Mr. Bertolini turned to Craniosacral therapy, yoga and meditation. Soon he was back at work, and was made chief executive of the company in 2010.
As C.E.O., Mr. Bertolini has distinguished himself with a series of unconventional decisions. He began offering yoga and meditation to employees; raised the minimum wage (from $12 an hour to $16) and improved benefits; decided to move Aetna out of its longtime home of Hartford, Conn.; and agreed to sell the company to CVS in a $69 billion deal that is expected to close soon.
A Detroit native, Mr. Bertolini grew up in a working-class family and struggled in school until he discovered accounting. He worked at a succession of health insurance companies before joining Aetna in 2003.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted at Aetna's offices in New York City.
What was your childhood like?
My dad was a pattern maker in the auto industry. My mom was a part-time nurse. There were six of us in seven years. We grew up in a 1,000 square foot house with one bathroom. So we got our bath or shower assigned to us, one day a week. My brothers and I all joined sports, so we could take showers at school.
What was your first job?
I went to Catholic grade school. The nuns had me convinced that I was going to be a priest, but I bailed on that. It was not for me. So I worked at my dad's shop. I cleaned the toilets, and washed the floors, and dusted the office, and painted the walls, and cut the lawn, starting at age 13 for a buck and a quarter an hour.
How was it working for your father?
There was this guy named Jerry who was in his 20s, who did the same job I did. We were sitting out back having a cigarette, I was like 14 years old, and he let me know that he was making $4.25 an hour. So I go to my dad and I go, "Dad, I'm making a buck and a quarter, Jerry's making four and a quarter. I want a raise." My dad said, "If I don't give you a raise, what are you going to do?" I said, "I'll quit." He says, "Do you have another job?" I said, "No." He says, "Great, you're fired. Go home." And he sent me home.
Afterward he said to me, "Do you know Jerry's story?" I said, "No." He says, "Well, Jerry's never going to do anything more than he's doing now. He's got a wife and a daughter. I'm helping him support his family. You're 14 years old, you've got a home, you've got food, you're going to get an education, and you're going to do better than Jerry's going to ever do. Do you get it?" I said, "Yeah."
He goes, "And the second thing is, never quit a job unless you have another one to go to. Don't run from. Go to." I said, "I got it." He said, "Do you want your job back?" I said, "Yeah." He goes, "Great, you're a buck an hour." And he cut my salary.
Where did you go to college?
I got accepted to Michigan, but we couldn't afford the tuition. So I went to Wayne State University in 1974. I went into self-study to begin with for pre-med, but I discovered that working full time, going to school full time, and partying full time created a conflict. That's where I learned Transcendental Meditation. I thought I could use Transcendental Meditation to sleep as few hours as possible a night, and maintain that lifestyle, but it didn't work out for me. It took me eight years to get through. I flunked out twice. I had a 1.79 grade point average.
You eventually went to business school. What happened?
I said, "O.K., What's the quickest way out with a degree?" And the quickest way out for me was accounting. I got straight A's. It was easy for me. I have a photographic memory. I took the GMAT, placed in the top percentile in the country. All of a sudden I'm getting offers from business schools. I went to Cornell — beautiful campus, rural environment, deep gorges where you could drink beer, light one up every once in a while, just sort of relax.
After working at few smaller health care companies in Detroit, you joined New York Life in the mid '90s. What was it like having to operate in such a different environment?
It was a big lesson. You had to learn how to operate remotely, you couldn't be there all the time. Whereas in Detroit, I could touch everything every day. You had to hire the right people. At that point in my career, I was pretty stringent about accountability. If you didn't do it, you're out. I was pretty tough. People used to hum the Darth Vader tune when I walked around the office. It was like, "Here he comes."
You eventually got to Aetna. But just a year after starting there, you had a severe skiing accident.
I joined Aetna on February 23, 2003 and on February 18, 2004, I had my accident and broke my neck. During the recovery, I'm on seven different narcotics all at once. Fentanyl patches, Vicodin, OxyContin, Neurontin, Keppra. And liberal use of alcohol when I didn't have to go anywhere. It was a mess.
How did you turn that around?
Somebody suggested Craniosacral therapy. I said, "What the hell is it?" But by the fourth visit I was feeling better, and over a period of five, six months got off all of my drugs. I got hooked on Craniosacral therapy. Then the Craniosacral therapist said to me, "You should try yoga." I said, "Ah, that's for girls." But after I tried it, I couldn't move the next day. I said, "Oh my god. This is amazing, what a workout." I started practicing every day because it made me feel better. And about two months into it I said, there's more to this.
I had left the Catholic church by then, because the whole priest, pedophilia thing. They cut the cross and scapular off my neck and took the rosary out of my pocket. None of those things had ever left my body. We have to find it in our heart to forgive these evil men who put these children in a very bad place. But the institutional churches protected these men, and I don't get why they haven't come forward. I said, "You know what? I'm done with all of you. Finished." So I started reading the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, went to retreats, learned some chanting, studied some Sanskrit, and was like, "This is like amazing."
You eventually introduced yoga and meditation inside Aetna. How was that received?
I had people pushing against it, with our C.F.O. at the time saying, "We're a profit-making entity. This isn't about compassion and collaboration." I said, "Well, I actually think it is. And I'm in charge, so we're going to do it." But eventually the light went on inside the organization. We're different now. Everybody started coming to me with ideas about how we could be better.
What specifically changed?
The yoga teacher who was working with our employees came to me and said, "I'm hearing things about the way people feel in your organization, and you should feel bad about it. You should do something about it." So I said to our HR people, "I want to know who the people on the front line are. I want to know how they live." We got enough information, and people were using Medicaid and food stamps, and all these other sorts of things, and they're incredibly stressed. But here we are, this successful company.
This was about the time that the Thomas Piketty book came out [ "Capital in the Twenty-First Century "] and I bought everybody a copy for Christmas. Some members of my team were getting increasingly nervous as I talked about this. But I said to the team, "We should do something about this." So we raised the minimum wage at the company to $16 an hour and improved benefits.
How did shareholders respond to that?
Our messaging with our shareholders has changed. We stopped giving quarterly guidance. We reduced our guidance metrics. We said, "We're going to invest for the future." We had some investors leave because they wanted more dividend or more share buybacks. We cut our share buyback in half. We didn't increase our dividend until we had a lot of extra cash on hand. You get the shareholders you deserve.
Is this culture going to survive after the sale to CVS?
That's the big question. If there's one thing I worry about, it's that. When we were getting near signing the merger agreement, they wanted to change our benefits immediately. I said, "No. You can do whatever you want to the executives, everybody is going to do really well. But not the front line employees." So I don't know.
Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!