The Record, August 2006 -- IN THE 1980s, Alphonso O'Neil-White '72 was working in Washington, D.C., directing public policy and legislative affairs for America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the pre-eminent trade association for the health insurance industry. One day, his boss told him, "You would do better if you were running your own health plan."
Now, he's the president and CEO of HealthNow New York Inc., a $2-billion company that encompasses BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York and BlueShield of Northeastern New York.
He laughs as he recalls the remark. "I thought that meant I should leave right now!" His laugh is hearty and just loud enough to be honest. "I saw her six months ago in Washington and reminded her about that comment, and she said, 'I was right.'"
In 2003, O'Neil-White was placed at the helm of HealthNow, having been promoted from his position of executive vice president and general counsel; he had joined the company in 1997. During his tenure as CEO, the company has had three years of historic profitability and recently acquired Brokerage Concepts, Inc., one of the largest privately held group and brokerage agencies in the U.S. The acquisition is a major expansion for HealthNow.
In the turbulent world of health insurance, where profit margins are very thin, O'Neil-White is a highly respected leader, locally and nationally. He is quick to credit Hampden-Sydney for helping him develop the skills required to lead a large healthcare company in a dynamic marketplace.
No stranger to a challenge, O'Neil-White took a strategic approach to competing for the CEO job. "The Board of Directors was conducting a national search. I went to our board chair and said, 'I can run this company and should be considered.' To his credit, he said, 'Why don't you wait and let the search process play out.'" Eventually, O'Neil-White was named interim CEO. Meanwhile, the CEO search continued. "Near the end of the process," he continues, "I asked, again to be considered." His patience paid off. He was allowed to enter the formal search process, competing with candidates from across the country, and finally was appointed president and CEO.
O'Neil-White is no stranger to the power of timing and patience. In 1968, he earned the distinction of being Hampden-Sydney's first African-American student. Four years later, he would become our first African-American graduate. While this distinction is important, O'Neil-White, who joined names with his wife Marcia when they married, plays down his role. His calm, pragmatic personality shows as he explains the circumstances: the College offered him a financial aid package which he desperately needed, and the administration was ready to integrate the school and to support him through the process.
O'Neil-White grew up in Suffolk. The son of a Baptist pastor, he was a good student, but his family struggled. In high school, he worked the night shift at Planter's Peanuts. "I took all the money I earned and used it for college application fees. Big schools were on my list: University of Virginia, Michigan, Princeton, Morehouse, and others. I was accepted to most of them, and they all included financial support. But they all had a financial gap, and for me any gap was huge. Hampden-Sydney, on the other hand, presented a package with loans and scholarships that covered everything. When I got the acceptance letter and, more importantly, the financial details, I said, 'This means I can go to college!'" He was the first in his family to do so.
"Hampden-Sydney was willing to invest in me. They obviously wanted me to come. That's why I selected it," he said.
Like most Hampden-Sydney men, he immediately fell in love with the campus and its liberal arts philosophy, which suited him well. "Believe it or not, when I was in high school, being well-rounded was very important to me and that was one of the things that Hampden-Sydney emphasized."
Contrary to what some people might think, O'Neil-White says being the only non-white student on campus in 1968 was not a bad experience. "I developed many friendships and fond memories. There were a couple of crazies and things I didn't know about. For instance, a student who lived down the hall in my dorm admitted to me later, 'I came in, saw you here, and told my parents I was leaving.' He actually packed his bags. His parents said, 'Why don't you give it a chance?' Not only did he stay, but we became pretty good friends."
O'Neil-White gives then-President W. Taylor Reveley III '39 and his administration credit for establishing the proper attitude to facilitate integration. He says, "They decided they were going to diversify the campus, take this risk, and then support it. This positive attitude was sent to the faculty, the staff and, ultimately, the students."
The year 1968 was a year full of significant events; O'Neil-White believes, to this day, that Hampden-Sydney was a good place to be. "Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. There were riots in the streets of many cities, campuses in an uproar, and demonstrations for African American Studies departments. War protestors were in the streets, and the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago resulted in what was later called a 'police riot.' These were heady times for the country." Rather than erupt, Hampden-Sydney students and faculty worked together and organized a symposium to discuss civil rights and feminism and other important issues.
While a student at Hampden-Sydney, O'Neil-White contacted the national office of the Red Cross to complain when African-American children in Prince Edward County were not allowed to register for swimming classes at the town pool. "We didn't do anything," he recalls. "We just said we are going to keep coming back until you let us in. Remember, Martin Luther King was saying, 'It's not whether it's worth dying for, it's whether it's worth living for' and 'The worst thing you can do is be silent.' So, the question for me was, 'Was I going to stand up and say this was wrong?' "
Following graduation and the advice of his good friend, the Rev. Dr. Spencer Simrill '70, O'Neil-White started dual graduate degrees in seminary and law at the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and the University of Louisville. He completed his law degree and began working with a labor law firm in Kentucky.
"We were regional counsel for the Steel Workers, the Mine Workers, the Auto Workers, the teachers, the Louisville Philharmonic, and firefighters. I traveled around the country representing labor unions, standing on the picket lines, going into court, and getting them out of jail. Labor law is a people-oriented practice of law and that's why I gravitated to it. As a CEO, I am grateful for that background, because two-thirds of my job is managing people issues."
Eventually, O'Neil-White turned to healthcare and began working for a then-small company, Humana, helping it expand its business from hospitals to health insurance. Next, he went to Washington, first working for Group Health Association, Inc., one of the country's oldest HMOs, and then AHIP. "That was a great experience. I was on Capitol Hill almost every day, sometimes all day and night," he says with a fond grin. He greatly expanded his health care knowledge while developing relationships with CEOs from leading companies. Besides testifying before Congress, he traveled to many cities as AHIP's spokesman for state and national health care policy issues.
In the mid-1990s, he was recruited by HealthNow and moved to Buffalo, New York, where he was named senior vice president and general counsel. "What I have learned is that you can't be an in-house attorney and not know the business, so I have made it a point-going back to my Humana days-always to know what is going on and why. It's a complex business. Not complicated, but complex."
Active in the community, O'Neil-White received a gubernatorial appointment to the College Council for the State University of New York's College at Buffalo, the largest State College in New York's system. His concern for social justice is shown by his chairmanship of the National Conference for Community and Justice, an organization that fights bigotry and racism. He is a director of the BlueCross BlueShield Association, an organization that insures 90 million people; a former chair-elect of the American Bar Association's Health Law Section; and chair of the Buffalo Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
O'Neil-White has always enjoyed working with people and developing relationships. He says, "One of the things I liked about Hampden-Sydney was that I knew all my professors-beyond the classroom. I knew where they lived. I knew their families. I liked the fact that I knew them and they knew me."
From the coalfields of Kentucky to Capitol Hill and upstate New York, O'Neil-White has built a reputation on relationships. Now he is building relationships between himself as an executive and the employees of his company, as well as between his company and its hundreds of thousands of members.