Bill Jews rode to the top on lifetime of discipline Planner: William L. Jews' discipline and drive made him a chief executive officer before he was 30 and ultimately the head of the largest health insurer in the region.

January 25, 1998|By M. William Salganik and Suzanne Wooton | M. William Salganik and Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

Bill Jews, the 6-foot-7 freshman basketball star from Cambridge, sat alone on the top row of the upper deck at Memorial Stadium watching the fifth game of the 1970 World Series.

His eyes were riveted on Brooks Robinson and Mike Cuellar, yet he pondered his future, wondering how he could leap from a small school in Cambridge to the academic rigors at the Johns Hopkins University -- and also play basketball.

"I came down out of the stadium, walked over to the gym and told my coach I will play, but not my freshman year," he said. "I went over to my room, opened a book and started working."

It was a telling point in a lifetime of focus, discipline and drive that would make William L. Jews a chief executive officer before he was 30 and ultimately the head of the largest health insurer in the region, CareFirst Inc., formed this month by the combination of the Maryland and District of Columbia Blue Cross plans.

Weeks earlier, he had returned his car to his mother in Cambridge, telling her he didn't want to be distracted from his studies.

"At an early age, he locked in on something that said, 'In order to get to where I want to be, there are the things I need to do,' " said Theo Rodgers, a close friend and president of A&R Development Corp. "And he said, 'These are the people I need to know, these are the things I need to do to get where I'm going.' "

Ever methodical, Jews plotted roles for himself in business, social, community and government endeavors. "I sat down and did a matrix," he recalled recently in an interview at his Owings Mills office. In subsequent years, he volunteered for boards, sought out chairmanships and endeared himself to political leaders such as William Donald Schaefer, then mayor of Baltimore.

In a city long dominated by an old-boy network, he glided smoothly between the black and white power structures, much the way he moved from 10 years of segregated schools to a previously all-white Cambridge High, where he became student council treasurer in an uncontested election.

In 1993, when he took over Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland, it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and embarrassed by a congressional probe into its free-spending management. By rebuilding the company's reserves and cutting costs, Jews positioned it for the deal with the D.C. Blue Cross that shored up its place in Baltimore while another local institution, insurer USF&G Corp., was swallowed by an out-of-state competitor.

"Bill is smart, smooth and enormously well-wired in Baltimore," said A. G. Newmyer III, a consumer gadfly who, as head of the Fair Care Foundation, has been critical of Blue Cross' service and the deal Jews put together.

Jews' personal life has been as strategically planned as his work life. He remained a bachelor until 40 so that he could develop his career. Before they married five years ago, Marsha and Bill Jews set up three easels in Jews' home. Working with colored markers, they charted their differences, their common traits and where they wanted the marriage to go.

It was quintessential Bill Jews.

"It was like a retreat," recalled Marsha Jews, an outgoing, impetuous counterpart to her ultra-rational, controlled husband.

For Bill Jews, it seemed a natural thing, a reflection on a lesson about beginnings from his father: "He said, 'Always make sure the nail is started well. If you didn't do that, you're likely to hit the nail and it flies off.' "

Born on Jan. 30, 1952, Bill Jews grew up as an only child in Cambridge, a struggling small town on the Eastern Shore best known to the wider world, at that time, for racial unrest, although Jews was largely insulated from the turmoil.

"He lived in a structured situation, where your family controls you and guides you in how to do things," recalled Edward E. Watkins, a longtime family friend, now 78 and president of the Cambridge City Council.

High expectations

Expectations at home were high: good behavior, academic achievement, community involvement. "My parents were never ever forcing things on me but gave me boundaries subconsciously. They always said you need to be competitive, you need to assimilate in society, you need to not do anything to harm the name."

His father, William L. Jews Sr., who died when Jews was 17, was a well-respected businessman who ran a barbershop. He invested his money wisely, Watkins said, and accumulated some rental property. His mother -- now in a Baltimore County nursing home because of poor health -- was a teacher who kept meticulous files, shaping her son's "organized, logical and strategic" approach to the business world, he said.

"For every vacuum cleaner or air conditioner, she had every manual with the date that she purchased it, the check number that she wrote for it," he recalled. "Every phone bill was organized and logical, and she knew when she paid them."

Racial strife

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