Current Position: Chief Claims Officer, Aspen U.S. Insurance
Years in Current Role: 2
Years in Insurance Industry: More than 30
Degrees: BS Administration of Justice, American University; Juris Doctor, University of San Diego School of Law
Originally From: Chatham Township, N.J.
First Insurance Job: Property Field Adjuster for Allstate Insurance
Where did you grow up?
When I was two years old, my family moved from Union City, N.J. to Chatham Township in northern New Jersey. Although my parents were of modest means, growing up in an “upscale” suburb inspired me to get a good education in order to achieve a higher socioeconomic status for my family. My wife and I raised our family in Basking Ridge, N.J.
What did your parents do?
My father was Swiss and his family immigrated to the United States when he was two years old. His father was the mayor of his canton in Switzerland and farmed during the summer but during the winter subcontracted Swiss embroidery work to many of the townspeople. His family also worked in the embroidery business. When they first moved here, my grandfather bought an orange grove in Florida with the intent of shipping the oranges to the Northeast. The first shipment spoiled and wiped him out financially, so he moved the family to Weehawken, N.J. (embroidery capital of the world) and returned to the Swiss embroidery business which he handed down to my father and his older brother. For years, my father embroidered the stars for the American flag in fine silk with two-headed needles (hole in the middle) so that the embroidered stars were perfect on both sides. My mother would do the mending and ship the finished work to the Annin Flagmakers company where the field of stars were attached to the stripes to complete the production. After my father passed away, the Smithsonian Institute expressed an interest in incorporating my father’s handloom machines, used in the production of the American flag, into their textile collection, which are now catalogued and preserved.
What did you want to do when you grew up?
As an undergraduate, I studied the administration of justice and was not sure what I was going to do with that degree. I considered all kinds of government service—CIA and Secret Service—but decided I may not be suited for that kind of lifestyle, so I decided to go to law school.
How did you find your way to the insurance industry?
While an undergraduate in Washington, D.C., I supervised college interns conducting criminal defense investigations for the Public Defenders Service, which was a good introduction to the importance of a thorough investigation. I then became a property field adjuster for Allstate in San Diego while I went to law school at night. When I finished law school, I passed the bar in New Jersey but had no particular desire to practice law, so I continued my career in insurance with AIG, handling professional liability claims. This allowed me to combine my legal training with my experience in handling insurance claims.
What advice would you give to young claims professionals?
One of the biggest challenges today is getting the training and support they need from their superiors. Individuals who are willing to learn on the job, improve their skills, and have confidence in themselves are able to quickly adapt to a new role and related responsibilities. It helps to have a mentor, ideally a direct supervisor, but it can be someone else in the organization who recognizes a young person’s potential and can help guide their career.
How would you describe your management style?
My style is to focus most of my attention on developing the department heads who report to me in order to increase the scope of their contribution and quality of work over which they are responsible in support of the overall organization. I think too many executives in our industry become “informational networks” for senior management, focusing their energy almost entirely on managing up which limits there contributions to the matters over which they have direct control. While it is important to keep senior management informed, it is also important to develop the next generation of claims executives by achieving a balance of managing both up and down. Claims executives need to be responsive to the needs of the organization as a whole and not just promote their own careers over those of subordinates and their peers. It is important to give your own staff the attention and focus they deserve and need in order to develop into future leaders, thereby providing the entire organization with increased depth and scope.
What are your thoughts on the future of the claims industry?
What seems to be lacking for the younger generation is the sort of training that used to be offered by the big commercial/personal lines carriers to the older generation of claims personnel. That has had, and will have, an impact on the future of the profession. I think the enlightened carriers are introducing more education, both off-site and on-the-job training. However, it is not as intense and focused as in the past, where staff was sent to policy and/or tech school for intense training over the course of one-to-two weeks on a regular basis. Today, we have more informal learning programs—bringing in attorneys for “lunch and learns” or having senior staff conduct mini-training sessions.
Did what you focus on early in your management career differ from what you focus on now?
There were some similarities with my approach to accepting promotions and the expansion of responsibilities. My concern in my first management job was not being prepared for the role, but I quickly learned that as I moved up through the ranks, my confidence grew, and I began to embrace new challenges of each role. Today I face them from a different perspective than I would have when I was younger and less experienced.
How would you describe a top-notch claims professional?
Someone who is highly experienced and motivated and is able to function independently but knows when to seek guidance and also embraces a work environment of continuous improvement. They must be able to work in a team environment within the company and with clients and service providers on the outside.
What makes a company more successful in attracting talent?
The companies that are most successful are those that understand the connection between claims and underwriting and encourage collaboration between those groups. I’ve been successful in attracting talent from companies that don’t fully understand or, if they do, don’t operate as if it is appreciated. The claims department is often viewed as an expense as opposed to a source of enhanced profitability, which it can be when you attract and retain the right claims talent. That staff has to have the right line of business expertise with manageable caseloads so they can engage in proactive claims handling. That, to me, is the most fundamental ingredient of what it takes to be able to attract and retain talented claims personnel. These aren’t just claims people I am referring to; they are business people who understand the bigger (financial) picture and the connection between what they do and profitability.
How do you ensure that good ideas are being presented in your organization?
You have to create an entrepreneurial environment to foster the creation of good ideas. You have to empower employees to have a sense of ownership so they can express themselves for the good of the company. When I hire staff, I always look for people who have an entrepreneurial spirit and a broader perspective of the claims role.
Do you keep your hands in the technical aspects of the business?
I don’t carry an actual caseload, but the most satisfying part of my job is discussing cases, talking about issues, doing the analysis, and coming up with a strategic resolution plan. I am very results oriented, so providing direction on all types of individual files in terms of line of business, complexity, and severity through disposition is very rewarding.
What do you see claims organizations of the future looking like?
I don’t think there will be a monumental shift. There will be new organizations that take a more enlightened approach and old companies that take the same approach. To me, an enlightened approach is taking a look at what works and constantly improving processes, not just doing the same thing year after year because it’s always been done that way.
Are there any industry trends helping to shape the field today?
Definitely in the litigation lines, there are more attorneys being hired to manage litigation and claims. While those attorneys can be good at managing the litigation side, they may not have the skills to manage the insurance and business side of the role, so that combination will continue to be a challenge.
What would you like to see more of in claims organizations?
There needs to be more internal cross-pollination between different disciplines in the company. I think if everyone has a better appreciation for the other disciplines, it is extremely beneficial. The time required to do that is probably not practical, but I do think it would be worthwhile to include this as part of the training and development.
What’s the most rewarding part of your career?
The only thing I like better than talking about a claim is seeing the careers of the people I’ve managed flourish. I like to see them become a part of the executive management group. I feel that’s my contribution to the industry. I appreciate the sincere gratitude I have received from those professionals who have succeeded in this regard and I’m proud of them today.
Tell me about your family.
My wife and I have three daughters who have all graduated from college. My wife is from the West Coast and we’ve lived on both coasts as a family. In fact, two of my daughters live on the West Coast now.
Tell us about your travel bag. What technology do you take with you?
I like to travel light, so I try to keep it to just my Blackberry. I’m a Windows guy, even though in the late 80s I had one of the very first Mac computers, which was a big grey box with a tiny green screen and remember when the Internet was all text with no graphics. I even did online banking back then with Prodigy, so I guess you could say that I’m an early adopter of technology, but I haven’t adopted all of the electronic “toys” that others have.
Taylor Smith is a contributing editor and president of CLM Advisors, which provides consulting and talent acquisition services to the claims and litigation management industry. He may be reached at email@example.com, (224) 212-0134, clmadvisors.org.