Max Buetow was named Friday as new president and CEO of CoxHealth, effective in June.

Springfield’s largest employer has a new president and chief executive officer. On Friday, CoxHealth announced that Max Buetow, the current chief operating officer and executive vice president of CoxHealth, will lead the private not-for-profit health-care system.

Buetow, 39, will replace Steven Edwards, who held the role of CEO for the past decade. The news was announced in a series of meetings and messages to employees on Friday morning, and then a press release was shared with community leaders before 10 a.m.

“I am grateful to our board for their selection of Max,” Edwards said in a news release announcing the decision. “He is incredibly smart and kind, and he leads with great humility. He thinks about what we may become in the next 20 or 30 years, not just what we may be next year. I deeply admire his virtues, and I am confident he will continue to advance our culture whereby we expect leaders to take care of staff, and staff to take care of each other and our community. He treats people as if they are what they can become, which causes us to rise to meet his faith in each of us.”

CoxHealth employs more than 12,500 people across a health-care system that includes six hospitals, more than 85 clinics, an insurance provider and other endeavors. Along with being Springfield’s largest employer, it is among the largest employers in the state of Missouri. 

“I am committed to leading with integrity, humility and compassion, putting the interests of our patients and organization before my own,” Buetow said in the release. “I will seek the wisdom of others and encourage open debate. I will focus on creating clear expectations and a culture of accountability, always holding myself and our team to the highest standard. Ultimately, we will bring together our individual talents and energies to produce exceptional results for those who need us the most.”

Buetow lives in Springfield with his wife, Laura, and their four children.

Current Cox CEO Steve Edwards, incoming CEO Max Buetow and CoxHealth Board Chairman Rob Fulp paused Friday morning in the lobby of the Cox South Hospital with a backdrop of the statue of Lester E. Cox, the philanthropist for whom the hospital is named.

Before moving from Wichita to join the CoxHealth leadership team, Buetow had built several Springfield connections. He first came to Springfield in 2001 to play junior hockey. The future CEO was a goalie for the Springfield Spirit, and was named the team’s MVP in 2002-03, according to a profile during his college hockey career at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.

He later returned to finish his MBA at Drury University, according to a 2021 CoxHealth profile of him that was published when he was promoted to COO. While at Drury, he began flipping houses, but struggled to make a living from it during the Great Recession. After a grueling job search at a time of high unemployment, he found a position in Wichita as a Sara Lee bakery second shift supervisor. 

He and his family moved for the job, which he has said in several interviews led to a formative experience. It involved a faulty conveyor belt, which slowed the speed of hot dog buns through an oven, leading them to burn. Buetow said he and the foreman would manually remove trays of buns when the belt stalled, and place them back on it once the belt started moving at full speed. They thought they were problem-solvers, until his supervisor visited. 

“My plant manager strolls in one night,” Buetow told Biz417 in a 2017 interview. “He sits across from me and says, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean what am I doing?’ He said, ‘All you’re doing is firefighting. Your job is to make sure the conveyor belt never goes down again.’”

Buetow has said he brought the proactive approach to management after he was hired by CoxHealth to be the director of the system’s neurological group, a position he learned about from a mentor at Drury. 

“I think in health care we tend to get stuck in ‘reactive,’” Buetow said in his CoxHealth profile. “We work incredibly hard and we expend a lot of energy and talent, but if we would just step back and pre-plan and say, ‘Let’s understand what to do so it never goes down again,’ people’s lives get a lot easier.”

Since first becoming the director of the neurological group, Buetow has been promoted to the role of Cox Medical Group vice president, in which he oversaw the system’s health clinics. He was once again promoted in 2021 to his current role as COO. He will take over as CEO in June. 

Edwards said he will spend May 31, the final day of his career at CoxHealth, where it started, as a member of the grounds crew. After he retires, he said he will continue on in a limited advisory capacity to help with leadership changes and with coaching future leaders of the health-care system. 

“It’s easy to become rigid, recalcitrant and inadvertently thwart progress, which are things I never want to do,” Edwards wrote in a letter last November announcing his decision to step down. “It has been my most important priority to develop our future leaders. Our team is loaded with talented people, tested and forged into amazing leaders through the pandemic. It is time to let them lead.”

Edwards, who stepped into his first leadership role at CoxHealth in 1992, has led the health-care system since 2012. In his November letter, he wrote that he had been receiving treatment for cancer over the past year from CoxHealth and the Siteman Cancer Center. 

“After successful surgery, I am recovering well and I feel strong,” Edwards wrote. “However, in this cancer journey I was blessed to gain perspective, which affirmed my decision to retire.”

Rob Fulp

The national search for a new leader for CoxHealth began immediately after Edwards made his announcement last November. A search committee was led by Rob Fulp, chairman of the CoxHealth Board of Directors.

“In Max Buetow, we found the right person to continue CoxHealth’s high-level focus on patient care,” Fulp said in a news release. “He has demonstrated his passion for this organization, for our patients and for our 12,500 CoxHealth team members. We are excited for all he will bring to the table as we embark on CoxHealth’s next chapter. We wouldn’t be where we are today without Steve’s leadership and Max will continue to expand on the great work Steve has done.”

Buetow is the latest in a line of internal candidates to be promoted to CEO. The position has been filled from within since 1965, according to the news release. His selection was unanimously approved by the CoxHealth board of directors’ nine-member search committee, which commissioned executive talent firm NuBrick Partners to help with the evaluation of several internal and external candidates.

“We found our best candidates inside our own walls,” the news release states.

He is credited with the development of CoxHealth’s “super clinics,” which are located across the region and offer general practitioner and specialty services in each location. Before becoming COO, Buetow led more than 750 physicians and providers as the Cox Medical Group vice president.

Cox has a proud history as a community hospital, beginning in 1906 in a house on Jefferson Avenue that became the Burge Deaconess Hospital. In 1948, Lester E. Cox, a businessman and philanthropist, led efforts to save the hospital from closing. Cox served 20 years as chairman of the board. After his death in 1968, the hospital was renamed in his honor.

Edwards used Twitter to educate public, applaud health-care workers during pandemic

Steve Edwards, retiring president and CEO of CoxHealth. (CoxHealth photo)

During the pandemic, Edwards used Twitter — where he has nearly 14,000 followers — to share empirical data and anecdotal stories from health-care workers that showed how COVID-19 was, at many times, overwhelming the CoxHealth system.

“Covid+ census around 200, record levels, (6 more lives lost in last 24 hrs),” he wrote on Feb. 2, as the Omicron variant surged locally, and nationally. “To our staff: We know you are weary, we see your sad eyes and resolve, your fear and courage, your grace and compassion, your light in the darkness. You matter so much to our community. Thank you.”

Edwards also strongly advocated for community members to get vaccinated, arguing that it is “a civic duty in my mind.” In recent weeks, with COVID cases at a minimum, he has celebrated the closure of the COVID-19 ICU, cautioned about the looming surge of the BA-2 Omicron subvariant and taken shots at the three major manufacturers of insulin

According to the most recent CoxHealth Form 990 IRS filing available on GuideStar, Edwards drew a salary of $1.5 million as CEO in 2018. He also totaled more than $295,000 in other compensation.

In his retirement letter to friends and co-workers, Edwards wrote that, “I plan to spend most of my time with my family, who have stood by me even though the demands of the pandemic tried to pull me away from them.” He said he’s looking forward to biking, fishing and kayaking. Edwards wrote that his father, Charlie, also a former CoxHealth CEO, died shortly after he retired, and that he wanted to turn attention to loved ones after spending a decade in the top position, one that he described as a 24/7 role that takes a toll on the person who holds it. 

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson