At 22, CSU alum named CEO of rural Colorado health care system

When Aidan Hettler was 22 years old, he graduated from the CSU College of Business. He never expected that within a year, he would be the CEO of a health care system. Nor did he expect to be living in a town of about 1,300 people in rural Colorado.

But Hettler, who grew up in Pittsburgh before moving to Colorado to attend the College of Business, has learned to embrace the unexpected. In September, he became CEO of Sedgwick County Health Center, a county-owned health care system made up of four facilities in northeast Colorado and one just across the state line in Nebraska.

“It’s a small organization, but we are mighty, and the scope of what we do is pretty robust and fun,” said Hettler, 23. “It meets a critical need for people in our rural community.”

On Colorado’s Eastern Plains, health care access can be limited, so residents rely heavily on health care systems like SCHC, Hettler says. Without the local health care system, many residents would have to drive at least 35 to 45 minutes to reach the closest doctor’s office or health care facility. In an emergency, many would have to be flown elsewhere for higher levels of care.

With about 150 employees — more than 10% of the county’s residents — SCHC is the county’s largest employer, which means it also plays a significant role in keeping the region’s economy alive. The health care system has two clinics, two long-term care facilities and a critical-access hospital, which is a Level IV trauma center.

“Sedgwick County Health Center is vital to the community. It really is,” Hettler said. “It’s part of small-town identity; it’s the cornerstone of a community. If you talk to communities that have lost their hospitals, even if it was decades ago, they still mourn that loss. The importance of these small health systems is huge from an economic standpoint and a social standpoint: It’s critical for care, but it’s also critical to the psyche of the region.”

Aidan Hettler, CEO of Sedgwick County Health Center

Rural hospitals face growing economic challenges

Hettler joined SCHC at a challenging time for rural health care in the United States, but as CEO, he’s committed to strengthening the county’s health care system.

Many health care systems in rural communities struggle with recruiting and retaining medical professionals. To cut costs, some are forced to shutter essential units such as labor and delivery wards. Facing financial difficulties, an increasing number are closing down entirely: More than 180 rural hospitals have closed since 2005, including a record 19 hospitals in 2020, according to The New York Times. Although the closure rate dropped sharply in 2021 thanks to federal aid during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 600 rural hospitals — 30% of the total — remain at risk of closing.

At SCHC, Hettler credits the creativity and skill of his medical staff for their success in the face of social, economic and regulatory challenges.

“Rural hospitals, when faced with these seemingly impossible situations, continue to rise to the occasion because they have to, and you just find a way,” Hettler said. “So, there’s a lot of ingenuity that goes on here. The providers and the nurses have to know at least a little bit about absolutely everything because you never know what you’re going to encounter in terms of patient needs.”

An unexpected job opportunity

After graduating from CSU’s College of Business, Hettler was hired to work in corporate contracting for Lockheed Martin. The job was remote, which allowed him to live in Julesburg, Sedgwick County’s largest town.

Hettler had been living in Julesburg for a few months when word began to spread around town that the health care system’s CEO would be stepping down.

“I remember very distinctly that one day, someone asked if I had any interest in the CEO position, because they knew that I had studied supply chain and business,” Hettler said. He was flattered but laughed it off, gently explaining that there must be a misunderstanding. After all, he had graduated from CSU less than a year earlier.

A few months later, it came up again. Hettler learned that the SCHC board wanted to see his résumé. Still skeptical, Hettler ran the situation by a few friends who also graduated from the College of Business. They encouraged him to apply. What did he have to lose?

After he submitted his résumé, a board member called him. They spoke for two hours. Hettler decided to be completely honest.

“I told her, ‘Quite frankly, I have absolutely no right sitting in your CEO chair, let alone applying for it,’” Hettler said. “And she said, ‘I think you’re totally wrong. I think you have everything we need — your ambition and your energy. It’s a godsend that you’re not part of this industry because we need someone to look at it who’s never been in it.’”

Soon afterward, he was invited to for a formal interview with the board. He built a seven-page presentation deck outlining his leadership philosophy and his vision for the health care system’s future.

“People had a lot of questions and were picking my brain, and it was fun,” Hettler said. “You could feel the energy building in the room from the get-go.”

A week later, the board offered him the job. Suddenly, he was moving from an entry-level position at Lockheed Martin to the CEO position at SCHC. Thinking back on the interview, he recalls one of the board members asking whether he would get bored in the CEO role, with no more room to grow at the organization.

“I said, ‘Of course, I’ll always strive for more, but there’s no better job to have.’ When you’re in business school, we train for this — we learn all the techniques for managing teams,” Hettler said. “This is like the Super Bowl of business, at least for me. I love leading a team. This is everything I ever wanted to do and more — and what an amazing challenge. The organization was kind of in a rough spot, but we’re working through things very diligently, and it’s energizing for me to be a leader.”

Going forward, Hettler aims to take the organization from surviving to thriving while elevating its standards of care and expanding its scope. To get there, Hettler is shifting the culture by implementing a servant leadership philosophy, which includes prioritizing engaging with employees and making himself available to them.

“Everybody knows that now, under my leadership, that’s our mission,” Hettler said. “We’re here to fix things and get them on the right track, and we’re going to provide top-notch care to our community.”

Advice for College of Business students

Hettler credits the College of Business for preparing him for this challenging new role. The program produces leaders who are uniquely passionate and engaged, he says.

“We have the Business for a Better World mantra, and I wholeheartedly believe that we live and breathe that mission — at least, I did as a student, and I feel that even more now, as an alum,” said Hettler, who received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with dual concentrations in supply chain management and organization and innovation management.

“I think the way that CSU’s College of Business curated our curriculum is so thoughtful. I have my specializations, but I feel very well rounded in the sense that I know the basics of accounting, finance, computer information systems and human resources.”

He says that his time at the College of Business shaped the way he approaches problems and thinks about leadership.

“The way the professors teach us shifts our mindset,” he said. “Business isn’t a means to an end — it’s a means to truly making a difference in the world. Business is the biggest change agent there has ever been.”

Looking back on the path to his new job, Hettler’s advice for others is that taking risks can pay off.

“Now I’m like, ‘Well, shoot, you know what, go ahead and apply,’” Hettler said. “You never know. You may never get a call, and that’s OK. But if you go after all of these crazy things that you never think would happen and you get even one shot at it, I mean, look at where it can lead. It’s so cool.”

About CSU’s College of Business

The College of Business at Colorado State University is focused on using business to create a better world.

As an AACSB-accredited business school, the College is among the top five percent of business colleges worldwide, providing programs and career support services to more than 2,500 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students. Faculty help students across our top-ranked on-campus and online programs develop the knowledge, skills and values to navigate a rapidly evolving business world and address global challenges with sustainable business solutions. Our students are known for their creativity, work ethic and resilience—resulting in an undergraduate job offer and placement rate of over 90% within 90 days of graduation.

The College’s highly ranked programs include its Online MBA, which has been ranked the No. 1 program in Colorado by U.S. News and World Report for five years running and achieved No. 16 for employability worldwide from QS Quacquarelli Symonds. The College’s Impact MBA is also ranked by Corporate Knights as a Top 20 “Better World MBA” worldwide.