How a harrowing, near-death experience led Aetna's CEO to introduce yoga and meditation for the company's employees

Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesAetna chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini speaks during the Fortune Global Forum on November 3, 2015
  • In a recent New York Times interview, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini looks back at his ski accident and his upbringing.
  • He examines how this journey he’s been through led him to Aetna, and how he wants to change the company for the better.
  • He wants to start by improving his employees’ quality of life by raising wages, adding benefits, and introducing yoga and meditation classes in the company.

Health giant Aetna’s current CEO, Mark Bertolini, nearly died in a serious ski accident shortly after joining the company back in 2004.

None of the conventional Western medicine helped him get back on his feet. Neither did the seven different narcotics he was on. So he tried out Eastern therapies like craniosacral therapy, yoga, and meditation. His health progressed and he was back at work. And by 2010, he became CEO of the nation’s third largest insurer.

As CEO, he ran things around Aetna differently – offering yoga and meditation classes, raising the minimum wage, improving benefit, and merging with CVS are just some of the changes that have caught the public eye. In an interview with the New York Times, Bertolini dives into his childhood and his near-death experience that gave him a new outlook on life and on the workings of a successful company.

Bertolini grew up in a Catholic, working-class family in Detroit, and started working in his dad’s auto-shop at the age of 13. He went Wayne State University in 1974. At college, he tried to do everything – working, partying, studying – and found that lifestyle unsustainable.

In the end, it took him eight years to get through college and he ended with a 1.79 GPA.

Because of his photographic memory, he did well on the GMATs and was accepted to business school at Cornell. He then worked in several small healthcare companies in Detroit, and he ran a tight ship. Oftentimes, his employees would hum the Darth Vader tune when he walked around the office.

After his accident and his long and unconventional road to recovery, Bertolini started looking at things differently. He stopped going to church and started reading up on Hinduism literature. He wanted to make things in the company better. He wanted to improve the quality of life of his employees.

The changes he made he didn’t do to appease shareholders, he said. And as the company’s merger with CVS comes to a close, he’s ensuring that he’s doing all he can to keep the changes he made (the benefits and the wage increase) intact.

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