Rodney Young

Rodney Young

The veteran Delta Dental CEO has increased access to dental care, and he’s leading business efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Delta Dental of Minnesota

Founded | 1969

Headquarters | Minneapolis

Employees | 309

Revenue | $1.39 billion in 2020

Company overview | Nonprofit provider of dental benefits


When Rod Young was a boy growing up near St. Louis, he was intrigued by Star Trek and Captain Kirk’s pledge “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Young’s desire for adventure led him into business, and his acumen for identifying and seizing market opportunities catapulted him into the job of president and CEO of Delta Dental of Minnesota.

He’s responsible for providing high-quality services to 4.3 million Delta Dental members around the nation, but he hasn’t lost the sense of wonder spawned by the classic TV show. Young often signs companywide employee communications as “Starship Commander.”

That self-described moniker captures Young’s past and present. “It’s part of the whole team piece, it’s part of that culture piece that we’ve created,” Young says. Just as Captain Kirk molded his crew into an effective team that could handle whatever challenge thrown their way, Young views his nickname as reinforcing that he’s the commander or captain of the Delta Dental team, with each member playing a key role.

When Young, now 66, took the helm of Delta Dental of Minnesota in 2012, he had considerable knowledge of the nonprofit organization because he had served as a board member since 1998.

Then-board chairman John Somrock recruited Young for the top position at Delta Dental. During his board service, Young says, “I obviously learned quite a bit about the insurance industry, but as importantly, I learned about the importance of oral health as it relates to your overall health.”

“He just has that enormous ability to have people see a vision that he has created and to make them really believe in that vision.”

—Don Wegmiller, former CEO, Allina Health System

Prior to joining Delta Dental, Young successfully led two medical technology companies, LecTec and Angeion. He was attracted to the challenge of entering a new industry and focusing on improving people’s health.

Early in his tenure, he reached out to dentists, doctors, and leaders at the University of Minnesota to spur greater discussion about the connection between oral health and health in other systems in the body. Previously, talks on this correlation had been limited by professional silos. “It was just that M.D.s or medical docs do their magic below the mouth, and the dentists do their magic in the mouth,” Young says. “So we set on a path to have those discussions.”

Young also took a concrete step to ensure that Delta Dental of Minnesota continued to lead on what he saw as a critical topic. He hired a pediatrician, Dr. Eileen Crespo, to work at Delta Dental in medical services. “Her main focus is to promote, teach, and care,” Young says. “She does some teaching at the University of Minnesota medical school as a physician to introduce the connection between oral health and overall health.”

In his position, Young also has pursued a goal of increasing access to dental care in underserved areas. “We identified what we referred to as dental deserts,” he says, places in outstate Minnesota that lacked a dentist within a 50-mile radius. Working through Delta Dental’s foundation, Young says, they were able to grant $200,000 apiece to 10 graduating dentists who agreed to work in rural areas for at least five years.

When Young started his Delta Dental of Minnesota job, the organization was serving about 7,500 employer groups. During Young’s tenure, the number of employer clients has jumped to 9,109 in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Annual revenue for the organization was nearly $1.4 billion in 2020, and some may be surprised that the number of members exceeds 4 million. Big employer clients, including Target, 3M, and Best Buy, have employees scattered across the country, and they carry Delta Dental of Minnesota insurance cards.

Delta Dental employs 309 people. About 160 of them work in a new operations and technology center that opened in Bemidji in December 2019, and the remainder are based in the Minneapolis headquarters. Young says both employee groups quickly transitioned to remote work after the pandemic hit in March 2020.

Young learned to adapt to unexpected circumstances as a teenager when he played on the basketball team for Assumption High School in East St. Louis. “I’m the youngest of three sons,” Young says. “My father worked for a construction equipment company, International Harvester.” His father managed a parts department, and his mother was a licensed practical nurse.

“I am 6-foot-5, and I was a wing or a forward in basketball,” Young says. He played in high school and college, and he still takes part in pick-up games in the Twin Cities.

Don Wegmiller remembers Young’s height and inquisitiveness from when he first met him decades ago when Young was in a sales job for 3M and Wegmiller was CEO of Allina Health System.

Years later, Young persuaded Wegmiller to join the board of LecTec, where Young was CEO. “I was quite impressed with how he handled a very divided board,” Wegmiller recalls. He notes that Young recruited excellent staff and shifted the business model from a manufacturing company to a direct sales business that was much more profitable.

“He just has that enormous ability to have people see a vision that he has created and to make them really believe in that vision,” he says.

Don McNees, president of a St. Louis-based consulting firm, says Young gets buy-in from his employees because “he just cares greatly for people.” McNees, who is working on a strategic plan for Delta Dental, says Young insists on having extensive involvement from his employees during the planning process. “He will do whatever is within his power to support his people,” McNees says.

Mark Sheffert, who leads Minneapolis-based Manchester Cos., and Wegmiller sit on the board of Abova Inc. Young serves as CEO of this Delta Dental affiliate organization, which Wegmiller describes as “a venture capital fund.” 

Abova is involved in multiple health-related enterprises, including specialty product distribution and financial services. Young “likes to be an innovator,” Sheffert says. “Rod is doing a good job of making sure that we’re not just spinning our wheels, but we’re actually looking at potential [business] opportunities geographically and from a product standpoint.”

He’s also taken on a prominent role to ensure that BIPOC residents of the Twin Cities have good job opportunities. As a Black CEO, Young is a rarity in the area, and he was asked last year to chair a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committee for the Minnesota Business Partnership.

Young moved to Minnesota in 1985. “Throughout my time here, I have personally mentored several young men of color, primarily through my basketball.”

More recently, he designated Juneteenth as a PTO day for his employees so they can use it to learn more about racial disparities. He also has hired a Black woman, Kathie Eiland-Madison, to serve as his new vice president of human resources and DEI.

In April, after Daunte Wright was killed by Brooklyn Center police, many people contacted Young to ask how he was doing after the death of another Black man in a police-involved situation. “I am sad, disappointed, bewildered, and concerned for young persons of color driving on our streets, and I am not surprised,” he wrote in an employee communication. Then he added, “I still remain hopeful. I am still optimistic.”


Timeline

1955 Born in St. Louis, Missouri.

1977 Graduates from Truman University, Kirksville, Missouri, with a bachelor’s in business administration.

1977 Joins Upjohn to work in pharmaceutical sales.

1984 Begins eight-year tenure with 3M in sales; later promoted to corporate marketing.

1992 Accepts job with Baxter International and rises to division vice president.

1996 Becomes president, CEO, and chair of LecTec, a medical tech manufacturer.

2004 Becomes president and CEO of Angeion Corp., a medical diagnostic firm.

2012 Becomes president and CEO of Delta Dental of Minnesota.

See the other 2021 Minnesota Business Hall of Fame inductees