Bernard Tyson, the CEO of Kaiser Permanente, a major healthcare provider, has died unexpectedly in his sleep, and the company and others are remembering him as an outstanding leader and visionary. He was 60 years old.
“We can make progress with social challenges, even when they seem overwhelming,” Tyson wrote on his Twitter page on November 8. On October 31, he wrote, “the future of health is bright.”
Tyson was a trailblazer; the first African-American chairman in the company’s history, he was the son of a pastor father and homemaker mother who started out as an intern at the company he eventually ran. “God Bless America,” was his favorite quote. Over the years, he also spoke out about racial discrimination.
Kaiser Permanente confirmed the death of Tyson, the company’s chairman and CEO, in a statement sent to Heavy. The November 10, 2019 statement says: “It is with profound sadness that we announce that Bernard J. Tyson, Chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, unexpectedly passed away early today in his sleep. On behalf of our Board of Directors, employees and physicians, we extend our deepest sympathies to Bernard’s family during this very difficult time.”
The cause of death was not revealed. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, he is survived by his wife, Denise Bradley-Tyson, and three sons; Bernard J. Tyson Jr., Alexander and Charles.
The Kaiser statement called Tyson “an outstanding leader, visionary and champion for high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans.” Tyson, who was based in Oakland, California, was “a tireless advocate for Kaiser Permanente, our members and the communities we serve. Most importantly, Bernard was a devoted husband, father and friend. We all will miss his tremendous presence in our lives,” Kaiser’s statement reads.
Effective immediately, the board of directors named Gregory A. Adams, Executive Vice President and Group President, as interim Chairman and CEO.
“Bernard Tyson’s rise carried with it a ripple effect of diversity in senior roles across Kaiser Permanente. A momentous loss,” wrote Esther Choo, in one of the many tributes on social media.
Ellen McGirt, a senior editor at Fortune Magazine, wrote, “Deeply saddened by the unexpected death of Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson. He was an extraordinary person, a health equity visionary — he also helped me establish the race beat @FortuneMagazine. Sending love to his family and gratitude for his contributions.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Tyson Had Just Spoken at a Conference on Health Equity, Wrote About Race Relations & Was Remembered as a Passionate, Honorable Leader
Tyson’s last tweet is dated November 9, 2019. “@aboutKP we believe that #healthcare is high-tech and high-touch. Thanks, @AfroTech, for the chance to speak about how to build a better future. The road to health equity includes Oakland,” he wrote.
On November 7, he wrote on Twitter, “This Saturday I’ll be discussing technology and equity in #healthcare at @AfroTech alongside @MorganDeBaun. I think it’s amazing that we have something like this in @aboutKP’s hometown. Hope to see you there.”
Tyson’s Twitter profile reads, “Passionate about life and #healthcare.”
“Bernard was an exceptional colleague, a passionate leader, and an honorable man. We will greatly miss him,” said board member Edward Pei, Chair of the Executive Committee and the Governance Accountability and Nominating Committee for Kaiser. “The board has full confidence in Greg Adams’ ability to lead Kaiser Permanente through this unexpected transition.”
“Terrible news! Praying for my family back home after the loss of my cousin Bernard Tyson. He was not only the CEO of Kaiser Permanente but the first black person to hold the position. Sad day today ?,” Devon Pouncey wrote on Twitter.
“Pray for the The Tyson Family,” wrote Bernice Webb Bates in a Facebook post. “They have suffered a great and unexpected loss. Bernard Tyson their brother and Kaiser Permanente’s CEO passed away last night in his sleep. I and my husband was at Scott’s this past weekend and spoke with him. He was leaving the restaurant and as he left began to walk around and speak to friends and acquaintances. Such a noble and kind man- gone to soon!!! We are praying for The Tyson Family, especially his wife and children that God strengthen them during their hour of bereavement. Family keep them in your prayers.”
Tyson weighed in on race issues. In 2014, he wrote an article on LinkedIn on the topic.
“As Americans, we must deal with behavior that is unacceptable in today’s global world. The first step in changing negative behavior is to understand the underlying imagery of the black male, which doesn’t represent reality,” he wrote.
“Whether it’s Michael Brown in Ferguson, Trayvon Martin with his Skittles®, Eric Garner who died after a chokehold, or the 12-year old killed because he was waving a toy gun, when you see a black man killed, the imagery is more complicated than one might think. For example, words used by the white police officer to describe Michael Brown included adjectives such as hulking and demonic — words that bring up images going back to the days of slavery.”
In that article, Tyson wrote about discrimination he had faced because of his race. “Sometimes I observe two or three white customers ahead of me and after me pay by credit card — and I am the only one singled out to provide proof of who I am before I can make my purchase,” was one of the examples he provided.
“Even as a CEO, the black male experience is my reality,” he wrote. “…The pursuit of life, liberty and happiness can become a reality for everyone if we eliminate issues standing in the way of improved race relations. I love this country and we’ve made so much progress, but we’re not there yet.”
2. Tyson Watched Doctors Care for His Diabetic Mother as a Child & Was Inspired to Have a Career in Healthcare; His Wife Is an Influential CEO of ‘Wearable Art Forms’
According to a biography for him on the website of his alma mater, Golden Gate University, Tyson’s “passion for health care started at an early age.”
He was raised in Vallejo, California “in a house built by his carpenter and pastor father.” The bio reports that Tyson “could see how much his parents relied upon the doctors who cared for his diabetic mother and he admired those doctors immensely.” His mother was named Billie Tyson, and his father was named Moses Tyson.
He was one of seven siblings, and his mother stayed home to raise them. Tyson initially wanted to be a doctor. When his grandfather died, he chose a career in health care management instead.
“His ambition would take him from business school intern to the top levels of management. He currently serves as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Kaiser Permanente,” the bio reads.
He went to Golden Gate after high school. He took a semester off to get married after getting a bachelor’s degree in 1982 but then returned to get his MBA, completing it in 1985.
Tyson’s wife Denise Bradley-Tyson is the founder and CEO of Inspire Luxe. Her bio on that website says she hopes to establish the brand as “a key online shopping destination for wearable art forms.”
The site continues that “The Inspired Luxe mission is to debut treasures created by the many unknown artisans Denise finds throughout the world. The result is what she calls impact shopping: empowering the mostly women entrepreneurs around the globe to improve their own lives financially.” She has been named one of the Bay Area’s Most Influential Women.
She previously worked in the television and movie industries.
3. Tyson Served as the Company’s CEO Since 2013, Starting Out as an Intern
Tyson’s career at Kaiser Permanente was the prototypical success story of a person who starts out at a low level and works their way up to the top with talent and determination. He started out as an intern at Kaiser. “I still owe Kaiser Permanente three months of free labor,” he joked, according to his Golden Gate University biography. He was hired three months into the six-month internship.
According to his Kaiser biography, Tyson “assumed the role of chairman in January 2014 and has served as CEO since 2013. His career at Kaiser Permanente has spanned more than 34 years, and he has successfully managed all major aspects of the organization during this time, serving in roles from hospital administrator and division president to chief operating officer of the Oakland, California-based national health care organization.”
The bio reported that Bernard J. Tyson was “the chairman and CEO of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc. and Hospitals — known as Kaiser Permanente, one of America’s leading integrated health care providers and nonprofit health plans.”
The company describes itself as “committed to helping shape the future of health care. We are recognized as one of America’s leading health care providers and not-for-profit health plans. Founded in 1945, Kaiser Permanente has a mission to provide high-quality, affordable health care services and to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve. We currently serve 12.3 million members in eight states and the District of Columbia. Care for members and patients is focused on their total health and guided by their personal Permanente Medical Group physicians, specialists and team of caregivers.”
4. Tyson Started Out as a Hospital Administrator & Said That ‘Never in my Wildest Imagination’ Did He Expect to Become CEO
On his LinkedIn page, Tyson described how he served “Kaiser Permanente for over 29 years and have successfully managed all major aspects of the organization, from serving as a hospital administrator to Division President, leading Kaiser Permanente’s business in the organization’s regions beyond its California stronghold, particularly building Kaiser Permanente’s presence in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.”
Of his time as a hospital administrator, he told Golden Gate University, “It’s funny. In my career at Kaiser Permanente, I finally got promoted to hospital administrator in Santa Rosa, California. I was technically in the job less than a year, and they moved me into a regional role to help reorganize Northern California. That was when I started up the health-plan track. It was that process that exposed me to the broader workings of Kaiser. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d be doing what I’m doing today.”
He had an advanced leadership certificate from Harvard. In 2016, Modern Healthcare reported that Tyson “made about $10 million in total compensation in 2016.”
5. Tyson Received Many Accolades & Sat on Many Boards
Bernard Tyson received many honors and awards over the years. According to The History Makers, Tyson “served as co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Health Governors Community. He also served on the boards of the American Heart Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, and the International Federation of Health Plans. He was an American Heart Association CEO Roundtable Member and past chairman of the Executive Leadership Council.”
He was a recipient of such awards as: the NAACP Freedom Act Award in 2001; Golden Gate University’s Alumnus of the Year in 2007; Most Influential Healthcare Leaders in both 2014 and 2015; NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s 2014 and National Equal Justice Award.
He was also named among the Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare and Top 25 Most Influential African Americans, according to The History Makers.