Max Buetow. (Photo: Cox Health)

About five weeks ago, Dan Elliott was in a CoxHealth hospital bed surrounded by his wife, Dawn, his pastor and two nurses. Elliott, who survived a near-fatal heart attack in November of 2020, was scheduled to undergo open-heart surgery. As Elliott readied himself for the operation with his wife and pastor at his bedside, the future CEO of CoxHealth entered the room and joined the family in prayer. 

“Here I am in my pre-op room, and here comes walking in Max Buetow,” Dan Elliott said. “Well, you know that at that time, he’s the COO of Cox and is still in the (CEO search) process. And everybody goes, ‘Why is Max down here?’ Well, he came to see me.”

Last week, after CoxHealth announced that a nine-member search committee unanimously selected Buetow, Dan Elliott texted Buetow to offer congratulations. In response, he said Buetow wrote, “A big part of this is just because of you and Dawn.”

The mentors that brought Buetow along

In his first interview with the Daily Citizen as CoxHealth CEO, Buetow, 39, talked about his vision for the future of Springfield’s largest employer, and how his faith and past experiences prepared him to succeed Steve Edwards, whose final day as CoxHealth’s leader will be May 31. And he mentioned the Elliotts and others by name when asked about the importance of mentors on his path to becoming CEO of CoxHealth.

“Dan and Dawn Elliott, he and his wife really took my brother and I in when I was 19, 20 years old,” Buetow said. “My brother was 15, 16. We were playing hockey here in town. And they took us in, and now I’m a part of his nonprofit board at Skyword Sports. And so you watch that mentorship and what led to that, and they’re still a huge part of my family life.”

He also mentioned a Denver attorney, Kris Kostolansky, who coached one of his first hockey teams, saying, “he is the first person, outside of my dad or my family, that made me believe in myself and the capabilities and the quality of character I had, and is still a very close and dear friend to me now.

“At every critical stage in my life, God put an excellent mentor in my path to come alongside me and help prop me up.” 

Dan and Dawn Elliott were among the first to do so in Springfield. They have considered Max Buetow and his younger brother Luke family since the siblings first came to Springfield to play for the North American Hockey League’s Springfield Spirit during the 2001-2002 season, Dan Elliott said.

The Elliotts hosted young Spirit players who relocated to Springfield from all over the place to play for the city’s old junior hockey team. The Buetow brothers rented their own place — Max was 19 during the 01-02 season; Luke was high school age — but they spent enough time at the Elliott’s house that they sometimes considered themselves the Buetows’ unofficial host family. 

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.

A lifetime of training for leadership

Back then, Dan Elliott also noted how Max Buetow took care of his younger brother, making sure he got to school and practices in a town far from the Denver area where they grew up.

While Elliott couldn’t have predicted Buetow would go on to lead Springfield’s largest employer, he said he saw leadership qualities in him immediately, both as a goalie for the Springfield Spirit and as an older brother caring for Luke. So did Craig Lowther, the attorney who rented the apartment to Buetow. Lowther, whose family hosted the Spirit’s other goalie, had met Buetow through hockey circles, and his first impression of him was so positive that he didn’t ask the teenager to get a co-signer before signing the lease. 

“Moved out, it was probably cleaner than when he moved in,” Lowther said. “Max is one of those guys that you could tell at 18 years old was smart, savvy and knew how all the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle fit together when you dump the box out.”

Buetow said he has received support from CoxHealth leadership since 2012, when he was working in Wichita as a Sara Lee bakery second shift supervisor and was encouraged to interview to be the director of CoxHealth’s neurological group. He’d learned about the position from a mentor he met at Drury University, where he had completed his MBA program in 2009 after graduating from Canisius College in 2007.

“It was a Drury colleague who was a vice president of CoxHealth that then took a chance on a guy that made hot dog buns for a living and said, ‘I want you to come work with neurosurgeons,'” Buetow said. “And said, ‘But we’re going to do that together. I’ll invest in you. So in my early stages in health care, I had someone telling me, ‘You are good enough to do this.'”

Now Buetow is mentoring a 19-year-old Missouri State University student through the Student African American Brotherhood (SAAB) program. 

“When I heard Dr. Tyrone Bledsoe speak for the first time about what SAAB is all about, and how they invest in young men and help them grow into themselves, I said I have to be part of this,” he said. “The way I’ve had individuals invest in me over the course of time is a huge part of the reason I feel like I’m sitting here today, and I want to be a part of other people’s stories in the same way.” 

‘I feel like I’m being called to this work

Around 7:30 p.m. on March 24, after the CoxHealth board of directors met to approve a nine-member search committee’s unanimous decision to offer the position to Buetow, Rob Fulp, chair of the board and of the search committee, walked into the current COO and executive vice president’s office. Fulp shared the news with Buetow, while also remarking on the importance of the decision and the trust that the board was putting into Buetow. And then, Buetow said, they hugged it out. 

“It was honestly an emotional time for both of us and so it just was very natural to get a great man hug in there to celebrate that moment together,” Buetow said. 

Buetow said he considered his path to that moment to have been shaped by divine intervention. 

“I remember making a phone call to my wife on the way back from interviewing all day with a group of neurosurgeons at CoxHealth (in 2012) and saying, ‘I feel like I’m being called to this work,’” he said. “These are some of the smartest, most talented people on the planet. And when you look across the table at someone like that, and they see you as a true partner, and they value the skills that you’re bringing to the table and the way that you can help them help others, there’s no greater high than that.” 

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. 

The search was conducted over 126 days, and included both external and internal candidates. “We found our best candidates inside our own walls,” a March 25 CoxHealth news release stated. 

Larry Lipscomb, a search committee member, pointed to Buetow’s vision, honesty and transparency as traits that stood out throughout the process. 

“He sees things differently than other people, and I think that’s a real gift,” Lipscomb said. 

Buetow said that he will seek out community input, board input, physician input and employee input in shaping his vision of the future CoxHealth, which 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. But he said two key focus areas will be workforce development and becoming more consumer-friendly. 

“And the intersection of those two things, to me, looks like a single word and it’s ‘frictionless,’” Buetow said. “We’ve got to make this the easiest place for our consumers — our patients — to connect with the expertise of our entire team. But we also have to make it the easiest place for those experts to utilize their top talents and to pursue their passions.”

No pressure, right? 

In becoming CEO, Buetow is stepping into the spotlight. Edwards, the CEO he is replacing, built an audience of over 14,000 on Twitter by sharing revealing data and anecdotes from inside the CoxHealth system throughout the pandemic. Buetow said he’s grateful that Springfield is an inviting community, and that he’ll continue to participate on local boards and in other public-facing roles. But he’s not sure if he’ll log on to Twitter yet. 

“I admire the way Steve put himself out there and created an unprecedented amount of transparency with what was happening in health care, and that is something we as an organization will absolutely work to continue going forward,” he said. “What the right mechanism is for that, we’re still having discussions on as an organization, but I know that that will be a priority. That amount of transparency, internally and externally, is going to be a priority for CoxHealth going forward.” 

Buetow said that he understands the significance of the position, and said that the other members of CoxHealth’s team are a calming factor. 

“This isn’t a job that’s dependent on the success of one individual,” he said. “This is about maximizing the talents of the incredible team we have.”

But he also welcomes the pressure of it. It’s a trait that he said comes with being a goalie, and one that he said is part of God’s plan for his life, down to his resting heart rate of 52 beats per minute.

“I think they’re so closely related,” Buetow said of the roles of CEO and goaltender. “My dad was a hockey player, grew up in Minnesota. And when I decided to be a goalie, I thought he was going to disown me because it was not the path he wanted me to follow. I wanted to be the guy under pressure. And as a goalie, what I will tell people is, you make three mistakes as a hockey goalie, and your team will likely lose. And if you don’t make those mistakes, you’re going to probably win. It’s always going to be a team sport, and I think that’s one thing great about being a CEO. It’s always going to be a team sport. But I like the little additional pressure of having to perform at a high level.”

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