Observers called Louisiana's governor crazy when he made 24-year-old Bobby Jindal secretary of the state's troubled Department of Health and Hospitals.
But Jindal, now 26, has done the job. The state's largest agency, with a budget of more than $4 billion, faced a multimillion-dollar deficit when Jindal took charge in January 1996. An even larger deficit-$1 billion-was projected for the following year.
Instead, the agency came out ahead by millions of dollars (this year's surplus is expected to exceed $170 million), after Jindal streamlined the department and launched a high-profile crackdown on Medicaid fraud.
It was more than some observers initially expected. After Jindal's appointment, "I thought the governor had lost his mind," recalls state Sen. Donald Hines, M.D., chairman of the Senate's Health and Welfare Committee.
But newly elected Republican Gov. Mike Foster thought Jindal, a Louisiana native and Rhodes Scholar, would be a good gamble.
"I knew I'd be criticized for picking somebody that young," Foster says. "I really didn't care. It became very obvious to me very quickly this guy is a genius."
At the time, Jindal had been handling large projects for the international management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in Washington.
But he came to the attention of Foster's transition team because of some healthcare reform proposals he had drafted, one while still in college. Jindal also had political connections, having worked for two Louisiana Republicans, U.S. Reps. Jim McCrery and Bob Livingston.
According to published reports, Jindal beat out three more experienced candidates. He accepted the job immediately.
"I wasn't really looking for a job," Jindal says. "(But) here was an opportunity to do something really important for the state."
Jindal also was impressed by Foster's commitment to reform. "I like the fact he was willing to give me an opportunity to do all the things I think needed to be done," he says.
The son of immigrants who moved to Baton Rouge from India, Jindal graduated from Brown University, then turned down admissions to law and medical schools at Harvard and Yale universities.
He says two goals guide his career: helping people and making an impact on a large scale. Public service lets him do both.
Since his hiring, Jindal's salary has been raised to almost $100,000 from $75,000. During that time, he's cut his department's staff to 12,000 people from 13,000 and reduced its budget to $3 billion.
His department also has announced a crackdown on Medicaid fraud and collected $185 million owed to the state by the federal government for Medicaid services.
"He's a very remarkable person," Foster says. "He's the kind of guy no matter what he tackles, he's going to succeed."
Hines says Jindal is learning to pass more work to other people, instead of trying to do too much on his own. He praises Jindal for his emphasis on fighting fraud. "I think there has been a turnaround," Hines says.
Rick Edmunds, a colleague from McKinsey, says Jindal has a remarkable ability to make things happen.
"It's a passion for getting things done the right way," Edmunds says. "He keeps the big picture in mind, and he thinks about the little things that can stop it from happening."
Jindal says his work at McKinsey, where he worked with large companies and watched how they cut costs, helped prepare him for heading the department of health.
So what does a whiz kid like Jindal do next?
"I couldn't have predicted this job," he says. "So I don't think I can predict my next job."