Former BJC HealthCare Group President Sandra Van Trease touts value of ethics in business

by | Apr 12, 2024

Van Trease was the featured speaker in the latest installment of “Ethics: A Foundation for Success,” the six-part alumni conversations series.
Sandra Van Trease

Former BJC HealthCare Group President Sandra Van Trease delivers a TEDx-style talk about the importance of ethics Tuesday morning in the E. Desmond and Mary Ann Lee Theater. (Photos by Derik Holtmann)

Since retiring as group president of BJC HealthCare in 2020, University of Missouri–St. Louis alum Sandra Van Trease has been keeping busy serving on corporate, public and private boards and advising several health care innovation firms.

Van Trease is also spending time trying to pay it forward to the alma mater that helped shape her personal and professional development.

She was the featured speaker in the latest installment of “Ethics: A Foundation for Success,” the six-part alumni conversations series started in 2022 by fellow graduate Joseph Stieven and his wife, Mary, in collaboration with UMSL’s College of Business Administration and University Advancement.

“I owe a lot to this university,” she said, addressing an audience of more than 200 people Tuesday morning in the E. Desmond and Mary Ann Lee Theater in the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. “It gave me a great start, and I love the opportunity to share some stories and experiences and to learn and listen and compare notes with people just like all of you.”

In a TEDx-style talk, Van Trease shared advice as well as the wisdom she’s gathered during a long career in the accounting, insurance and health care industries with audience members – the majority of them UMSL students.

Van Trease began her presentation with a little personal history. She grew up in Manchester, Missouri, in a family that didn’t have much.

“Money was always tight, and often, my mom could not pay the bills on time,” she recalled. “So, we did not have many niceties.”

Despite those hardships, Van Trease found a sense of purpose in academics. She excelled in the classroom throughout high school and subsequently earned a Curators’ Scholarship to UMSL. The opportunity to attend the university was a “game changer.”

As Van Trease worked toward her bachelor’s degree in accounting, she also picked up life lessons that would serve her well in the future.

Sandra Van Trease talks with students

Sandra Van Trease speaks with students after her talk.

“Here’s what I learned, I learned a bit about how to be an adult here on this campus,” she said. “I observed the things that people around me did – the things they did really well, the good things they did. But I also learned about the bad things they did – the things they did not do so well. I took these learnings with me past my time at the institution.”

After graduating in 1982, Van Trease spent 12 years at PwC, a leading public accounting firm, working directly with clients. During that period, she also became certified as a CPA and CMA and earned an MBA. From there, she served in several leadership positions with RightCHOICE Managed Care before going on to lead BJC HealthCare as group president for more than a decade.

“Sandra’s characteristics absolutely remind me of Elliot Stein,” Stieven said, referring to the late Stifel executive who was Stieven’s mentor and the inspiration for the series. “She’s very kind. She’s wise. I’ve seen her in board meetings. She asked great questions. When she enters a room, she’s unassuming, quiet. She glides in, just nice and quietly. To me, that is the most sincere compliment that I could give.”

Van Trease underscored the importance of ethics in her career. For her, a key ethical value has always been respect. It plays a vital role in successful communication and interactions with everyone from family to friends to colleagues.

“It’s important, right?” she said. “It’s important that you have this respect whether or not these people with whom you are interacting share your viewpoint or not.”

Van Trease then invited the crowd to share their opinion on the matter during an interactive portion of the talk. She asked audience members what word or phrase came to mind when they thought of ethical behavior. After a scanning a QR code projected on the screen behind her, they submitted their answers, creating a word cloud that updated in real time. Popular answers included honesty, integrity, morality and respect.

“When I think of ethics, I think about choices – right and wrong, good, bad, moral, immoral,” Van Trease said, gesturing to the screen. “We see a lot of those coming up here, and ethics helps us make decisions and to choose actions that are consistent with our values and our principles and the rights and the dignity of other people. Me, I don’t believe that ethics is merely a matter of personal opinion or personal preference. I think it’s much more than that.”

The discussion next turned to ethical dilemmas – situations where two or more moral principles conflict. Van Trease noted that many business decisions she encountered during her career were also ethical decisions. While those situations can be challenging, she cautioned against seeking easy answers or abandoning one’s principles. The audience had the chance to weigh in again after hearing hypothetical dilemmas, selecting potential courses of action.

“I shared with you earlier, I don’t believe that ethics is simply a matter of personal opinion or personal preference,” Van Trease said. “So, if that’s true, how can there be more than one answer? Maybe there isn’t. Maybe after really understanding the facts and the circumstances involved, someone can have an intellectually honest evaluation and make an intellectually honest argument for a specific course of action or an alternative approach.”

At the end of Tuesday’s talk, students had the opportunity to ask questions of Van Trease and also speak to her and other alumni who are part of the Ethics series.

Orv Kimbrough, the chairman and CEO of Midwest BankCentre, will be the featured speaker in the next installment of the series in October.

Share
Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe

Eye on UMSL: Taking the oath
Eye on UMSL: Taking the oath

Members of the College of Optometry’s 2026 graduating class recite the Optometric Oath during the 25th annual White Coat Ceremony on May 17.

Eye on UMSL: Taking the oath

Members of the College of Optometry’s 2026 graduating class recite the Optometric Oath during the 25th annual White Coat Ceremony on May 17.

Eye on UMSL: Taking the oath

Members of the College of Optometry’s 2026 graduating class recite the Optometric Oath during the 25th annual White Coat Ceremony on May 17.

UMSL Tritons weekly rewind

Sophomore Wilma Zanderau earned All-American honors for the second straight year after tying for 10th at the NCAA Division II Women’s Golf Championship.