Michael Neidorff had plans to follow in the footsteps of his father, Dr. A. Harvey Neidorff, a well-known allergist and dermatologist, and become a physician.
After graduating from Altoona High School in 1961, Neidorff headed southwest to attend Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
"I was interested in pre-med and I've always been attracted to the southwest," said Neidorff, whose family moved from 13th Avenue near the Penn Alto Hotel to Fort Roberdeau Avenue before he graduated from high school. "I started in pre-med and decided it was not a good subject for me so I decided to major in political science and minor in economics."
Michael Neidorff speaks at an event for Centene Corp. Under his guidance, the $40 million corporation grew to a publicly-traded, Fortune 500, multi-line enterprise with annual revenues approaching $5 billion.
After graduating from Trinity, Neidorff returned to the area and received his master's degree in industrial relations from then-St. Francis College.
Instead of becoming a doctor, Neidorff went into the health care industry and reached the top of a Fortune 500 company. Today, Neidorff is chairman, president and CEO of St. Louis-based Centene Corp.
After graduating from St. Francis, Neidorff spent 18 years in senior executive international positions at Miles Laboratories/Bayer AG.
In 1985, Neidorff started Physicians Health Plan of Greater St. Louis, a subsidiary of United HealthCare Corp. and served as the president and CEO until 1995.
While there, the plan grew from no members and a small number of providers to 175,000 members and a network of more than 3,000 providers, making it one of United's most successful and profitable health plans in the country.
From 1995-96, Neidorff served as regional vice president of Coventry Corp., a publicly-traded managed care organization.
As the president and CEO of one of its subsidiaries, Group Health Plan Inc. in St. Louis, Neidorff was one of the first health care executives in the country to offer new mothers a 48-hour stay in the hospital with follow-up care in their homes.
In 1996, he accepted the positions of president and CEO of Centene and was named chairman of the board in 2004.
Centene has experienced incredible growth under Neidorff's leadership.
He has led its transformation from a closely-held, $40 million corporation to a publicly-traded Fortune 500, multi-line enterprise with annual revenues approaching $5 billion.
"In my opinion, he is the true founder of Centene. It was a small nonprofit and didn't grow and reach its full potential until he came," said Jennifer Bernier, senior executive assistant, who was with Centene when Neidorff arrived. "We would not be where we are without his outlook and vision on where the company should go."
The modest Neidorff credits others for the company's success.
"I attribute it to the people we have brought in. We have some incredible employees here. We have one of the best teams in the health care industry," Neidorff said. "I give them responsibility and let them do their thing."
Those who have worked with Neidorff call him a visionary.
"I would certainly describe him as a visionary," said Cary Hobbs, senior vice president business management and integration, who worked with Neidorff at Physicians Health Plan before coming to Centene. "He encourages you to be the best you can be. He puts things in front of you that you don't believe you can achieve and then he encourages and gently pushes you until you do it. He then just smiles and puts the next one in front of you."
"He is persistent, he is a visionary and creative. He has kept the company flexible. He is entrepreneurial and also very insightful when it comes to business," said David Steward, chairman and CEO of Worldwide Technologies and a member of Centene's board of directors. "He can anticipate challenges and is able to manage people and business in a unique way."
Neidorff considers himself a straight shooter.
"I would like to think I am candid and straightforward," Neidorff said. "No one has to doubt where I am coming from; they know where I stand."
Neidorff said he has three role models: his father; Robert Hunter, his adviser in college; and George Davy, the president of Miles Laboratories.
"My father was a world-class physician. My father set the example in ethics and quality medicine," Neidorff said. "Bob was very tough; he gave me the right kind of advice when I needed it. George was a brilliant businessman; he never looked at the obvious."
Neidorff dedicates a portion of his time to serving on the boards of directors of several arts and civic organizations and spending time with his family.
"His wife Noemi is the love of his life," Steward said. "His family and children are all very close to him. They are the driving force why he is able to do the things he does."
High school classmate Robert Hunt, a local artist, isn't surprised by Neidorff's success.
"I didn't know him real well but Michael was very intelligent. He worked hard on his studies," Hunt said. "It does not surprise me at all."
Classmate Tim Seymore, one of Neidorff's best friends, remembers spending a lot of time at the Neidorff home.
"They had just built a new home in Columbia Park. I used to go over to their house and the shoes had to come off, I wasn't used to that. They had a pure white carpet in the house," Seymore said. "I was a Catholic boy and Michael was Jewish but we were good friends for a long time."
Neidorff said he remembers going to Taylor Restaurant, Tom and Joe's and Toffy's Steak House on the Buckhorn.
"It was a good safe town to grow up in. I value that today," Neidorff said.
Neidorff hopes to come back in August for the Class of 1961's 50th anniversary reunion.
"It will be interesting to see how many people I recognize or recognize me," Neidorff said.
Neidorff, 68, said he has no immediate plans to retire.
"I said I will stay on for another five years. I am having fun," Neidorff said. "When it is not fun, I am out of here."