11 highest-paid healthcare CEOs: Their paths to the top

Pay is one perk of becoming a healthcare CEO, but it takes time and dedication to reap. 

Chief executives of pharmaceutical and health insurance companies were among the highest-paid of the largest U.S. companies in 2022, according to the Equilar 100. Some worked at the same company their whole lives, moving through the ranks. Others hopped from place to place. One began his career as a salesman, while another never obtained a college degree. Only one holds the highest seat at a company they founded themselves. 

However, there were a few common threads throughout their origin stories: roles at Aetna, Eli Lilly and the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand, and degrees from Columbia University. 

Here are the career paths those 11 CEOs took to reach the pinnacle of their pay grade: 

Albert Bourla, PhD. Chair and CEO, Pfizer
Total compensation: $30,543,706

  • Received his doctorate in the biotechnology of reproduction at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki's Veterinary School, in the same Grecian city where he was born.

  • Joined Pfizer within eight years of graduating, serving as a doctor of veterinary medicine and technical director for its animal health division in Greece.

  • Immigrated to the U.S. in 2001 and held multiple executive roles at Zoetis — then known as Animal Health, Pfizer's pet and livestock drug manufacturing division — eventually overseeing its Europe, Asia and Asia Pacific division.

  • Transitioned from animal sciences and became president and general manager of Pfizer's Established Product Business Unit in 2010. Was promoted to group president of global vaccines, oncology and consumer business in 2014; group president of Pfizer Innovative Health in 2016; and chief operating officer of Pfizer in January 2018. 

  • After one year in the COO role, he was elevated to CEO. 

Richard Gonzalez. Chair and CEO, AbbVie
Total compensation: $25,847,971

  • Attended the University of Houston from 1972 to 1973, but was not granted a degree for his program in biochemistry. He was also a research biochemist at the University of Miami School of Medicine. 

  • Served Abbott Laboratories for 30 years — holding multiple top leadership roles in its medical products businesses — before the company separated from Abbvie in January 2013.

  • Between 2002 and 2007, his credentials were misstated on Abbott Laboratories regulatory filings; he is not known to hold a university degree. In 2007, he briefly retired from his role as chief operating officer of Abbott Laboratories. 

  • Assumed the top role at Abbvie in 2013. 

Joseph Zubretsky. President and CEO, Molina Healthcare
Total compensation: $22,131,256

  • Earned his bachelor's in business administration from the University of Hartford (Conn.). 

  • Began his career at Coopers & Lybrand, eventually becoming a partner of its national insurance practice. 

  • Moved on to hold two executive vice presidencies with separate insurance companies and become a partner of a global private equity firm. 

  • Joined Aetna as chief financial officer and held the role for six years. He was promoted to other positions within the enterprise, including CEO of its Healthagen Holdings subsidiary and senior executive vice president of its largest flagship business unit. 

  • Served as president and CEO of the Hanover Insurance Group.

  • Took the top role at Molina Healthcare with 35 years of experience under his belt. 

Daniel O'Day. Chair and CEO, Gilead Sciences
Total compensation: $21,621,253

  • Received a bachelor's degree in biology from Washington, D.C.-based Georgetown University and a Master of Business Administration from New York City-based Columbia University, one decade apart. 

  • Began his career as a commercial salesman for the Swiss biotech research company Roche. After eight years in sales, he was promoted to director of human resources. 

  • Moved through the ranks at Roche over 32 years, ultimately becoming chief operating officer of the diagnostics division, chief operating officer of the pharma division, then CEO of Roche Pharmaceuticals. 

  • Left Roche Pharmaceuticals after three years at the helm to lead Gilead Sciences. 

Robert Ford. Chair and CEO, Abbott Laboratories
Total compensation: $21,452,566

  • Received a bachelor's from Boston College and an MBA from UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. 

  • Joined Abbott's diabetes care business. Eventually became executive vice president of medical devices and led the company's diabetes care, cardiovascular and neuromodulation businesses. 

  • Led Abbott's integration of St. Jude Medical in 2017, the company's largest acquisition at the time. 

  • Was promoted to president and COO of Abbott in 2018, then CEO in March 2020. 

  • Was named chair of the board in addition to the CEO title in December 2021. 

David Ricks. Chair and CEO, Eli Lilly
Total compensation: $21,398,135

  • Earned a Bachelor of Science from West Lafayette, Ind.-based Purdue University and an MBA from Indianapolis-based Indiana University. 

  • Joined Eli Lilly as a business development associate and moved into management positions in U.S. marketing and sales. 

  • Was promoted to general manager of Lilly's operations in Canada and China, then returned as president of the company's largest affiliate, Lilly USA. 

  • Became president of Lilly Bio-Medicines, the company's largest business unit at the time, in 2012.

  • Was named CEO of Eli Lilly in January 2017 and elected chair of its board of directors in June 2017. 

David Cordani. Chair, president and CEO, the Cigna Group
Total compensation: $20,965,504

  • Received a Bachelor of Business Administration from College Station-based Texas A&M University and MBA from the University of Hartford. 

  • Became a senior auditor for Coopers & Lybrand. 

  • Transitioned to the Cigna Group in 1991, holding various regional leadership positions including president of Cigna Healthcare and controller for Cigna Corp. 

  • Was named president and chief operating officer of the Cigna Group in June 2008.

  • Assumed the top role, chair and CEO, in June 2009. 

Gail Boudreaux. President and CEO, Elevance Health
Total compensation: $20,931,081

  • Earned a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Hanover, N.H.-based Dartmouth College and an MBA from Columbia University. 

  • Served Aetna for 20 years, eventually becoming senior vice president of group insurance. 

  • Spent six years with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois as executive vice president for external operations, then president. 

  • Transitioned to the presidency at UnitedHealthcare in 2008, and was named CEO in 2011. 

  • Became president and CEO of Elevance Health in 2017.

Giovanni Caforio, MD. Chair and CEO, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.
Total compensation: $20,053,032

  • Got his MD at the University of Rome in Italy. 

  • Began his career as a clinical research associate for Abbott Laboratories in Rome — then moved up the ranks for 12 years, eventually becoming the company's general manager, Portugal. 

  • Joined Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2000 as vice president and general manager, Italy. Ascended to senior vice president of Europe marketing and brand commercialization in 2004, then held a variety of SVP roles in U.S. and global oncology. 

  • Was named president of U.S. pharmaceuticals in 2011, and became chief commercial officer in 2013. 

  • Assumed the chief operating officer position in 2014 and was promoted to CEO one year later. 

  • Was named chair of Bristol-Myers Squibb in May 2017 in addition to his CEO title. 

Stéphane Bancel. CEO, Moderna
Total compensation: $19,363,648

  • Obtained master's degrees in chemical and biomolecular engineering from the Minneapolis-based University of Minnesota and CentraleSupélec in France. Earned an MBA from Harvard Business School. 

  • Served as a sales and marketing director for in vitro diagnostics company bioMerieux. 

  • Joined Eli Lilly as a supply chain manager and ascended the ranks for five years, eventually becoming country manager of Belgium. 

  • Returned to bioMerieux for a four-year term as CEO. 

  • Founded Moderna in 2011. 

Kevin Lobo. Chair and CEO, Stryker
Total compensation: $18,563,214

  • Earned a bachelor's degree in communication from McGill University in Quebec, Canada, and got his CPA license. Later received an MBA from the University of Toronto. 

  • Worked as an auditor for various firms, including Unilever, from 1986 to 1992. 

  • Held finance positions with Kraft Foods Group, Johnson & Johnson, and Belgian chemical manufacturing company Solvay from 1992 to 2011. 

  • Became director of Parker Hannifin, an industrial machinery manufacturer in Cleveland, in 2013. 

  • Joined Styker as group president in 2011 and was promoted to president and CEO in 2012. 

  • Became chair in addition to CEO in 2014.

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