OKLAHOMA CITY -- Lois Quam's decision to leave UnitedHealth (UNH) - Get Report for a new career at Piper Jaffray (PJC) - Get Report doesn't seem to make much sense -- except, perhaps, to Quam herself.
Over the past 18 years, Quam has played a critical role in transforming UnitedHealth into a heavyweight managed care company that ranks as the largest Medicare player in the country. Thus, when Quam
decided to resign as president of UnitedHealth's huge government division last month, investors immediately asked, "Why?"
By then, however, Quam had already started asking, "Why not?"
In the end, Quam saw a unique opportunity to repeat -- and even expand upon -- the success she had already achieved. As a new managing director at Piper Jaffray, Quam will seek improvements in not only health care but the environment as well.
"This will give me the opportunity to work on what I see as two of the most pressing social challenges we face today," Quam explains. "To be able to do that -- and still be based in Minnesota -- makes me absolutely delighted."
By now, Quam has already forged big changes in the health care arena. She has built a Medicare empire at UnitedHealth, winning over millions of seniors with promises of quality health care coverage. Still, she senses that she could have accomplished even more.
"There is such an opportunity for UnitedHealth in the Medicare space," Quam says. "I could have continued to be engaged in very important and exciting things here for the rest of my career. But I felt motivated to work in a new area in addition to health care."
Some fear that Quam could be running away from massive problems instead. She has spent more than a year weathering the fallout of a huge compensation scandal that cost her longtime boss, UnitedHealth founder William McGuire, his job and her company its good reputation. Her husband, forced to bow out of the race for Minnesota attorney general last year, seemed to pay a steep price as well. Quam, who is politically active herself, could have faced similar backlash if she remained with the company.
For her part, however, Quam feels that she has made her motives quite clear.
"My focus now is on building this new business at Piper," she insists. "I hope that I can achieve the same kind of results there, helping it to grow and diversify, as I have at UnitedHealth."
Quam remembers people questioning her decision to join UnitedHealth -- then a small and challenged company -- nearly two decades ago. Back then, Quam welcomed the chance to enter UnitedHealth on the ground floor and build the company to significant scale. While some would simply choose to rule the empire they had built, Quam likes the idea of starting all over again.
She feels excited about helping the environment, by financing companies in the alternative-energy space, in particular.
"I have become more and more concerned about environmental climate changes," Quam explains. "Over time, it has become clearer and clearer to me that we have a significant opportunity -- and obligation -- to address this problem."
Quam feels similarly passionate about the health insurance crisis. Quam has already spearheaded health care reforms in her home state that have resulted in one of the lowest uninsured rates in the country. But with 47 million Americans lacking health coverage -- and millions more finding that coverage increasingly unaffordable -- Quam sees plenty of work still ahead.
Quam says that "a country this great can absolutely" find a cure, and she hopes to do her part to help.
"It will take (the assistance) of some forward-looking and capable companies," she says. "I will be looking for ways to identify and get capital to those companies. ... It is incumbent on all of us who are leaders in this country to find a way to address the problem of the uninsured."
Even without her direct guidance, Quam sees UnitedHealth playing a big role in that revolution.
"I feel so confident about the people I have recruited over the past many years," she says. "I know the company is in good hands. It has a very strong leadership team and a very bright future.
"I look forward to its success."