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A NEW ROLE: Max Buetow, executive vice president and chief operating officer at CoxHealth, is poised to become the health system's new president and CEO in June.
Jym Wilson | SBJ
A NEW ROLE: Max Buetow, executive vice president and chief operating officer at CoxHealth, is poised to become the health system's new president and CEO in June.

‘From hot dog buns to CEO’: CoxHealth’s Max Buetow set to assume new leadership role

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Roughly a decade ago, Max Buetow was working as an overnight shift production supervisor for a bakery company. Now, he’s on the verge of assuming the president and CEO role at CoxHealth, Springfield’s largest employer.

Buetow, who is currently executive vice president and chief operating officer for the health system, was announced March 25 as successor to the top position held by Steve Edwards since 2012. The 39-year-old is set to take over in June for the retiring Edwards.

“From a personal perspective, 10 years from hot dog buns to CEO of a health system is a rapid pace,” said Buetow, who started at CoxHealth in 2012 when he was hired as director of clinics for its Springfield Neurological and Spine Institute.

As he acknowledged the quick climb up the leadership ladder, Buetow said CoxHealth leaders, including the man he’s succeeding, have instilled confidence in him since his arrival.

“There’s no doubt I’m appreciative of the way the organization has invested in me. I’m not surprised because that’s CoxHealth’s way,” Buetow said, adding he feels supported by his co-workers. “I feel prepared to do the job because of them.”

Buetow will lead CoxHealth’s six hospitals, more than 80 clinics and five emergency rooms. The 116-year-old health system employs roughly 12,500 and reported 2021 revenue of $5.7 billion.

He received unanimous approval from the CoxHealth Board of Directors to become president and CEO, said Chair Rob Fulp. A four-month search process involved the hiring of national executive talent firm NuBrick Partners LLC and the creation of a nine-member search committee from the board. That resulted in nearly 40 candidates, which were narrowed down to three finalists – all CoxHealth employees, Fulp said.

“We really had three outstanding finalists, but it was a unanimous decision of the search committee,” he said of it recommending Buetow to the CoxHealth board. “He’s an outstanding young leader, and it really shined through the interview process. He was clearly the person to lead CoxHealth.”

New path
Edwards said he was “greatly relieved” when the board selected Buetow as his successor. He listed a few of Buetow’s qualities that will make him an ideal fit: intelligent, strategic thinker, extremely humble, a great listener and very empathetic.

“It took the weight of the world off my shoulders when they announced that because I think so highly of him,” he said. “He exemplifies the best of who we want to be.”

While NuBrick Partners asked for the opinion of CoxHealth internal leaders regarding candidates, Edwards said he was not part of discussions.

“I and the board agreed that the retiring CEO should stay out of the process. That’s a board-level decision,” he said. “I had to sit on my hands; it’s hard.”

A 30-year employee at CoxHealth, Edwards said he won’t completely exit the health system at the end of May. He’s agreed to a board request to remain in a limited capacity to advise ascending CoxHealth leaders.

He said part of that work involves Buetow, whom he’s been working closely with in the COO role.

“Much of the job as CEO resides outside the organization. He’s been very much an inside person – not as well known in the community but very well known inside,” Edwards said of Buetow. “A part of that is to help him be adapted when it comes to state, national, local leaders that he’ll need to work with.”

However, Edwards said he professionally plans to keep a low profile for the next several months as Buetow embarks on his new job.

“I don’t want any second guessing or unclear lines about who our CEO is,” Edwards said.

Career shift
Prior to his promotion last year to COO, Buetow served as vice president of Cox Medical Group, a position through which he led over 750 integrated physicians and providers, and the health care system’s neuroscience service line, according to CoxHealth officials. In recent years, Buetow is credited with pioneering CoxHealth’s so-called super clinics, at which a variety of health care services are provided under one roof.

Embarking on a health care career wasn’t a plan for Buetow, who graduated in 2007 from Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He completed his MBA at Drury University in 2009 and accepted a job the next year in the manufacturing industry with Sara Lee Bakery Group, which took him and his wife, Laura, to Wichita, Kansas. In 2012, he received a phone call from Brian Williams, a vice president at CoxHealth he met while at Drury.

“I thought at the time he was joking when he said he was going to call me up in about two years and bring me here and work at CoxHealth,” Buetow said. “It was just shy of two years when I got that call on a Tuesday morning out of the blue and was offered an opportunity to come interview for a job here working with our Springfield Neurological and Spine Institute.”

Buetow got the director of clinics job, which brought the couple back to Springfield, where Laura had family roots. Buetow, who grew up in Denver, admits the transition was a bit disruptive for his growing family as she was pregnant with their second child. The couple now have four children between the ages of 5 and 11.

“It was a big leap of faith for us, but I definitely felt that this is a story I wanted to be a part of,” he said of CoxHealth.

Faith and family are priorities for Buetow away from the office, noting the household of six frequently spends time outdoors.

“We are doing a lot of family activities all the time and it’s the best part of my life,” he said, adding trails at Busiek State Forest and Wilson’s Creek are among their favorites.

With under two months left until he’s set to assume CoxHealth’s top spot, Buetow said he wants to build on the momentum the organization is experiencing as it looks to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re coming out of two very difficult years battling with COVID and we’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “But we’ve gotten very good at reacting and responding to that crisis. I feel extremely confident in our ability to continue that trajectory in the future.”

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