Tim Vines is president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama. He graduated from the Harbert College of Business in 1988 with a degree in finance, and delivered the university’s commencement address in August 2018. Vines recently answered a series of questions from Harbert Magazine about his time at Auburn and how that student experience prepared him for his business career.
Harbert Magazine: Please tell us about your responsibilities at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama.
Tim Vines: As president, my responsibility is to provide strategic guidance, direction, and support that allows us to serve and take care of our customers and to ensure we do so in a manner that is caring and compassionate. When we are successful, we have the opportunity to grow and serve additional customers and provide them with access to quality, affordable healthcare because we care about our members’ health, financial security, and peace of mind. This is our mission as The Caring Company.
How did your business education at Auburn prepare you for these high-level responsibilities?
Vines: The education I received at Auburn was comprehensive and well-rounded. More specifically, the education I received through the business school provided an excellent foundation, with real-world application, for the career opportunities I have experienced since college. I was prepared to tackle a broad range of business challenges early on in my career, but recognized pretty quickly that every day is an opportunity to learn something new and that continual learning never ends.
Did you come to Auburn intending to be a finance major? What attracted you to that field?
Vines: My initial declared major at Auburn was electrical engineering. I had gone through a summer pre-engineering program while in high school and thought that was the direction I wanted to take. After exploring more about the engineering program and determining that was not my passion, I quickly pivoted to the business school and specifically to finance. I have always had a love for math and to be able to apply the principles of math and economics in a business setting was quite appealing to me. Once I changed to the business school, I never looked back.
Who were some professors who particularly influenced you as a student?
Vines: My marketing professor, Dr. Ford Laumer, was an excellent professor. He taught an auditorium full of students, but he had a special way of making each individual student feel like they were important. Dr. Laumer’s teaching was excellent, and the way he connected with the students was great. Likewise, my Economics 101 professor was outstanding. She made learning fun and exciting and even gave great advice on how to study and prepare for class and tests. The principles I learned in Economics 101, I still use today.
When you left Auburn and entered the working world, did you imagine one day leading one of Alabama’s most prominent companies? What were your aspirations as you began your career?
Vines: After graduating from Auburn, I worked in banking for almost six years. My goal then, and now, in working for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama for 25 years, is to simply work hard and to do the best job I possibly can to serve our company, our customers, and in representation of God and my family. I have been blessed to have served in several leadership roles during my career and recognize the importance of working together as a team to accomplish goals and objectives. I greatly appreciate the time invested by others to help me improve overall as a person. I also recognize I am where I am today because of the grace of God and the sacrifice of others.
Of the classes you took in your student days, which ones have you found most useful over the course of your business career, and how has that background of knowledge helped you?
Vines: I took a broad array of classes at Auburn that truly helped me over my business career, including economics, finance, accounting, marketing, and even public speaking. There are principles I learned in those classes and others that are still applicable today in my business decision-making process.
You graduated from the College of Business in 1988. How have you seen business education change since then? What do you think is most important for colleges of business to do to prepare graduates for today’s workplace?
Vines: Since graduating from college over 30 years ago, business education has certainly evolved. More business application is being taught through firsthand experience such as internships, business process simulations, and direct market investment opportunities. These experiences will help students be more prepared for what they are going to face once they graduate and join the workforce.
What is your impression of the Harbert College graduates you see? What sets them apart?
Vines: I have been very impressed with the Harbert College of Business graduates I have spent time with. They exemplify a strong work ethic, are dedicated to learning new things, and have a high level of business knowledge. These graduates are ready to serve, and the Harbert College of Business should be very proud of the graduates they are producing.
What do you find most exciting about the direction of the Harbert College of Business today?
Vines: For the Harbert College of Business, being recognized on the national level as one of the best business schools in the country is quite impressive. The school’s leadership, academic programs, faculty and staff, along with innovative new programs and flexible learning opportunities, all make for an exciting time at Harbert. I am proud to be a graduate of the business school at Auburn University. I am equally proud today for the reputation
of the Harbert College of Business, the exceptional graduates being produced, and for the impact being made in our state and nationally.
You’ve been with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama for 25 years, rising through the executive ranks to the top job in the company. What are the biggest changes you have seen in your business over that time? How did your Auburn education prepare you to deal with those changes?
Vines: Within the past 10 years, I have seen more change in our industry than at any time before. With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, along with associated healthcare reform changes, our industry has had some pretty substantial shifts.
However, the education I received at Auburn and past business experiences helped prepare me to handle change. The ability to adapt and adjust to different market conditions is just a part of business. You have to be flexible in your thought process and willing to explore new opportunities. Even in an industry that is constantly changing, we have to make sure we stay on the cutting edge in providing our customers the best products and services at the most affordable price possible.
How important do you think mentoring is for graduates moving from college into the business world? Are there individuals who stand out in your memory as mentors who helped you? Please tell us about them.
Vines: Mentors are very important for graduates moving from college into the business world. Having someone with firsthand business knowledge willing to invest time and share wisdom in helping you develop your skills is invaluable. Personally, throughout my career, I’ve had several mentors who spent time and energy in helping me become a better employee and a better leader. I am eternally grateful for those individuals who invested time in me, and I try diligently to pay it forward by investing time in others.
The topic of this edition of Harbert Magazine is analytics. How have you seen the influence of analytics change in the course of your career? What particular impact has the expansion of business analytics had on your company?
Vines: Business analytics has made a tremendous impact on our company. We use data every day to help us make informed decisions so that we can better serve our customers. As a data-driven company, we have a team of business analytics professionals dedicated to providing in-depth analysis of local, state, and national trends, which in return allows us to develop products and services that best meet the needs of our customers.
Do you think it is important for business students to have at least some familiarity with analytics, even if they don’t plan to work in that field? How would that help them in advancing their careers?
Vines: Without question. I encourage any student considering a career in business to have a familiarity with business analytics. At Blue Cross, we value the ability to analyze data and evaluate trends to determine the best course of action regarding a business process or decision. This is a continuing area of focus for our company and for many other businesses—whether in healthcare or otherwise.
What advice would you give Harbert students as they prepare to work in an increasingly competitive and complex marketplace?
Vines: My advice is to work hard and learn as much as you can while in school. Take advantage of opportunities to gain hands-on business experience, whether through internships or business application programs. The business environment changes every day, so be flexible in the knowledge and skills you learn. Once you graduate from college, this will allow you to apply those skills in almost any industry and prepare you for a successful career. There is no substitute for hard work. So be willing to do the small things well, so that you can be trusted with bigger things.
What do you know now—after many years of business success—that you wish you had known when you were a student at Auburn?
Vines: There is always a tendency to look back and say, “If only I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently.” It has been an interesting journey to learn new and different things throughout my career. We are so quick, at times, to want to do the next thing that often we miss the opportunity to learn and grow where we are in our current role. Whether it’s in college, in your business career, or just in life, don’t be so quick to want to get to the next thing. Learn as much as you can where you are so that you will be ready for opportunities that lie ahead. Likewise, enjoy the journey. Don’t miss a blessing or being a blessing to someone else today by wondering what is coming tomorrow. Enjoy the day, because, frankly, that’s all that’s promised to us.