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February 1998

Frank Colantuono’s
Recipe For Success

by Jodi Hollander CORREA

Frank Colantuono is recognized throughout the area as one of the founders of, and driving forces behind, managed care in Western New York. His vision as president and CEO of Independent Health has helped guide the Buffalo-based health maintenance organization (HMO) to its current position as one of the top HMOs in the country, serving more than 600,000 members statewide. Frank is also one of the architects of the planned merger between Independent Health, HealthCarePlan of Buffalo and PHP of Syracuse.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Pittsburgh, Frank is the oldest son and third-oldest child in a family of 11—six girls and five boys. His father Carl, an Italian immigrant, and his mother Catherine, of Irish decent, were both raised in orphanages in the City of Brotherly Love. The two met at a high school dance.

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Frank Colantuono at age 2 with his mother Catherine.

“Life in our house was phenomenal; very exciting and never a dull moment,” Frank said fondly in looking back. “We had two dinner tables—one for my parents and the older kids, the other for the younger children. All food portions were prepared in the kitchen in advance and presented at the table. There was no hope of having meals work out if served family style.”

Frank got an early lesson in resourcefulness and creativity from his mother. “Mom did the majority of the cooking. She made the most out of an extremely limited food budget and the need to satisfy the varying tastes of 13 people. She was amazing. I don’t know if it was a matter of convenience or sophistication but we always ate our salad last. And we always had salad; very seldom dessert.”

Evenings in the Colantuono household taught young Frank the value of teamwork. “After dinner,” Frank explained, “we all had jobs to do. Whether getting the younger kids ready for bed, clearing the table, doing the dishes, sweeping the floor or doing homework, we learned to work together as a unit. While all of this was going on, one person’s job was to lead the rosary, which we said out loud as a family every single night. My father would sit off to the side where he’d study or pay the bills and he’d pray with the rest of us.”

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The entire Colantuono family gathered outside their Pittsburgh home in 1962.  That’s Frank, standing second from left.

Frank’s father was an engineer. “He wanted to become a doctor, having earned a full academic scholarship to LaSalle University,” Frank said. “He couldn’t afford the living expenses, though, and ended up getting a job in the Navy yard as a time keeper. He later became a draftsman and worked his way up in the engineering field.

“My father spent more than 14 years juggling night courses at Drexel University and later at the University of Pittsburgh, along with the responsibilities of making a living and raising 11 children, in the hopes of someday earning a graduate degree,” Frank explained. He eventually gave up his dream, but he did take and pass the professional engineers’ licensing exam.”

Having witnessed the battles his father fought, a young Frank became convinced that he needed to graduate from college. He struggled his first two years at Gannon College in Erie, Pa., due in part to a lack of maturity, as well as financial pressures. “I finally got through it, although I temporarily lost my father’s favor by refusing his financial support under his terms,” Frank pointed out.

Often lacking the money for a cup of coffee or a sandwich, Frank became driven, “some might say obsessed,” to become financially secure. Frank’s grades improved dramatically his junior and senior years, despite the fact he was working 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shifts as a machinist at the nearby General Electric plant to help fund his college education. In 1971, he received his bachelor’s degree in business administration/finance.

Frank married his college sweetheart soon after graduation and shortly thereafter had a son, James. During this same period Frank took a job with General Nutrition Centers—starting in Erie as the store manager. Within two years Frank was responsible for eight stores stretching from Rochester to Niagara Falls to Dubois, Pa. The long hours and frequent travel began to take their toll. “I was on the road constantly,” Frank said. “I hated it.”

Having changed jobs, he spent the next two years with Ross Laboratories, a division of Abbott, selling infant feedings and pediatric and adult pharmaceuticals. In 1975 he decided to pursue a masters degree in business administration, with a focus in Health Systems Management, at the University of Buffalo.

While at UB, Frank joined a research team conducting a study to determine the feasibility of creating an HMO to serve the Audubon community of Amherst. When the study determined that the entire Western New York community could benefit from such an organization, the team developed federal grant proposals that led to the development of Western New York Group Health Plan, Inc., which later became independent Health.

It was at this time his marriage began to fall apart. “I was working very long hours and not investing fully in our relationship,” Frank said. Often leaving the office at 3 or 4 a.m., it wasn’t unusual for Frank to pass his wife, who was working nights in a restaurant, at the front door as she was just arriving home. “Typically, when I was leaving, there would be a party in my living room with my wife and her friends who had just gotten in. It was obvious that our priorities were heading in different directions.”

The marriage didn’t survive, with Frank and his wife separating when their son was five. “I was determined to stay connected with Jim,” Frank said. “I had him on weekends, holidays and summer vacations despite the fact he and his mom moved to Chicago and later Phoenix.” During Jim’s sophomore year in high school he came to Buffalo to live with his father, where he overcame learning problems related to dyslexia. Frank is proud of the special relationship he shares with his son, who today at the age of 24, lives and works in the Buffalo area.

A founding member of Western New York Group Health Plan, Frank moved up from staff assistant to executive assistant and later to assistant director. In 1979, when the company was renamed Independent Health, Frank became vice president of finance and planning. He was named President and CEO in 1984.

“I was so focused on my own job in finance and planning I didn’t immediately consider myself a candidate for the position of president when it first opened up,” Frank said. “The board appointed a search committee and slowly this tunnel vision I had began to break. I came to realize that I knew the business better than any of the individuals being interviewed and that I had a responsibility to the organization and myself to put my hat in the ring.” The rest, as they say, is history.

During his tenure at Independent Health, Frank has helped the organization grow from an implementation plan to among the top 30 HMOs in the country, as rated by Newsweek magazine. Under Frank’s direction Independent Health has initiated new product development, including Medicare managed care and has expanded its services across the state.

Frank attributes much of his success to his ability to work well with people. He says that growing up in such a large family helped him develop profound values and social skills that enable him to be tolerant and nonjudgmental. He also cites the quality of the people with whom he works as another reason for his success as well as the success of the company. In fact, he feels that human resources are the company’s greatest asset. One of the mottoes that he and his staff adhere to on a daily basis is “nothing happens at Independent Health unless the people here make it happen.”

In addition to his professional achievements Frank also takes an active role in numerous civic and cultural activities. In 1994 he received the Distinguished Alumni Award from UB in recognition of his many outstanding contributions to the Western New York community.

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UB President William Greiner presents Frank with 1994 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Frank who enjoys cooking, skiing and playing ice hockey resides in Youngstown. He is an avid sailor and is fascinated by the many parallels between running a business and sailing a boat. “In doing both you have to make difficult decisions,” Frank explained. “You have to delegate; you have to cultivate relationships and you have to rely on others in order to get the job done.”

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Frank and his son Jim on a 1996 skiing trip to Utah.

Frank said he recently changed his approach to competitive sailing however. After competing very successfully for more than 10 years in a medium-sized class he decided to move up a level. This step required a larger crew with job descriptions, more defined processes and so forth.

“Racing the boat became more and more like what I was doing at work every day,” he said with a laugh. Realizing that he still had many more races to win at Independent Health, Frank opted to back off competitive sailing in favor of just “cruising the boat for relaxation.”

Competitive sailing’s loss—at least for now—is the Western New York health care consumer’s gain.

Jodi Hollander Correa is corporate director of communications at Independent Health.

Photos courtesy of Frank Colantuono and UB Publications Department.

 

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