Current Position: Vice President and Chief Claims Officer, Accident Fund Holdings
Years in Insurance Industry: 26
Years in Current Role: 18 months
Size of claims organization: 400 people
Originally From: Lakewood, Ohio
First Claims Job: Claims Rep Trainee for Kemper
Education: University of Akron, Degree in Organizational Communications
Where did you grow up?
Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. It is a very Irish Catholic community, the kind where if you didn’t have five or more kids, they wondered what was wrong with you. My identical twin brother and I are the youngest of six children.
What did your father do?
My father was a Marine during World War II but spent his professional life in the trade publishing world. He had the best “lines,” many of which I still use today. When I was growing up, my friends would say, “Let’s go to Walsh’s house. His dad says the best stuff!” He was a thoughtful, clever guy who ran a tight ship. Growing up in a Marine household gave me the discipline that really served me well in my early career at Kemper.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I really hoped I was going to be on television in some capacity. Unfortunately, I have a face for radio and a voice for print.
How did you find your first claims job?
I went to the University of Akron and studied organizational communications. The school had a very robust placement program, and the placement counselor took a liking to my brother and me and got me several interviews for which I wasn’t originally selected.
One day, she called me and said she wanted me to interview with Kemper Insurance. I told her I didn’t want to work in insurance, and she responded that I owed her. She needed to send some good candidates and wanted me to interview. I went to the interview, and the interviewer told a very compelling story about a guy who worked at Kemper and happened to be from my hometown, Dan Herdman. He was about 10 to 15 years older and had gone very far, very fast at Kemper. The manager at Kemper sold me on working there because of Dan’s story and the opportunity that represented.
I later got to know Dan, and today I consider him a friend and one of my mentors. He definitely had a hand in guiding my career at Kemper and gave me tremendous opportunities very early in my career. I was tremendously lucky to have a number of mentors at Kemper who supported my development including my first claim manager, Michael Sarcia, along with Steve Robinson, Keith Sievers, and Patricia Drago.
When did you decide to stay in claims?
I’ve been lucky enough to have been recruited a few times, both internally and externally, for non-claims roles. Each time, I asked myself if I wanted to move out of claims, and each time, I decided that I wanted to stay. One of the reasons I like claims so much is because of the diversity and fast-paced nature of the work. Front-line claims, front-line management, and executive management allow you to change your focus very frequently, and that suits me very well. I love the diversity of issues and prefer dealing with multiple issues as opposed to focusing on a single issue or project. The dynamics of a claims job, at any level really, require that you manage multiple issues at any given time and throughout the day.
How long were you with Kemper?
Seventeen years. Then, for a brief time, I was part of the original executive team that developed Broadspire. I then was recruited to run claims for Sentry Insurance in Stevens Point, Wis. After that, I went to The Hartford to run their field claims organization. I was there for about three years. Then I came to United Heartland, a division of Accident Fund Holdings. Shortly after joining United Heartland, I was asked to transition to a newly created role of chief claims officer within our holding company structure. I was looking to move to Milwaukee and was fortunate to have those needs met by this great opportunity.
How has your management style evolved over the years?
I’ve always had a healthy dose of fear and respect for my job and any new opportunity into which I’m about to walk. When I was first a manager, I had only been in claims for two years and was concerned that I wasn’t prepared for management. As my career has progressed, I have developed more confidence in my technical ability, and now I enjoy focusing more on leading and the interpersonal component of managing. When I was younger, I didn’t recognize the importance of finding the balance between leading and managing. Now I have a better appreciation for that. I think situational leadership might best describe how I manage and lead now as I try to make sure I find the right style to work with the organization’s culture, the people who are here, and the opportunities and challenges that are currently in our sights.
What advice would you give new managers?
There are two expressions I always share with new managers and employees in general. The first is that life is 10 percent what happens and 90 percent how you react. As a manager, you need to spend your time focused not on what happened but on how and what you are going to do to deal with it.
The second thing I tell everyone is to go home and look at their second grade report card and check the line that says, “Plays well with others.” In our business 20 years ago, you could get away with not playing well with others. But in today’s environment, you have to understand how to work with your colleagues, stakeholders, claimants, and policyholders. In claims, someone is almost always upset with you, so it is crucial to work well others to be successful and effective.
How do you feel about people working remotely? Does it affect people’s ability to work well together?
I love the concept of remote work for the right roles and the right people. I think it would be very easy to say you can’t develop people who are working remotely, but technology does make that possible. Some people say that with remote work you miss out on the “water cooler conversation,” but I think you just need to redefine what the water cooler is. People may not see each other as much, but they can video chat, instant message, and speak on the phone to keep that camaraderie and group dynamic alive. It requires a different kind of effort.
Would you advise a younger claims professional to specialize?
First and foremost, do your current job and do it really, really well. It’s amazing how you can stand out by simply doing what you are asked to do. I think early on in your career, it’s critical to vary your experience, especially if you want to elevate into an executive role. There should be an ebb and flow throughout your career where you are specializing, then getting more general, then specializing again. The best executives I have encountered have had that mile wide, inch deep experience but have one or two specialized areas in which they are a mile deep.
Are there any other skills you think are critical for success?
Learn to write a letter and learn to communicate with your words effectively. I’m shocked at the number of people who come out of college who cannot write a simple letter or cannot communicate over the phone how a process works, what to expect, etc. There has been a definite decline in those communication skills over the years. The best claim reps today have those communication skills, the technical skills, and the ability to work well together.
Do you believe there’s a talent crisis in claims today?
I wouldn’t use the word “crisis.” I’d say there’s a drought. I think that the industry has not done a good job of trying to attract people by talking about the benefits of having a career in insurance. Also, the industry has done a huge disservice to itself by pulling back on training. When you look at the complexity of claims over the past 25 years, it has risen at a rate much faster than the skill development of the industry. As an industry, we need to continue to invest in claims professionals to ensure we are delivering on the promises we make to policyholders.
How do you think claims fits with the rest of the business model of an insurance company?
I’ve worked for multiple leaders and CEOs, and I’ve always been fascinated that before I came to Accident Fund, I found it very rare to work with a CEO who took the time to understand what claims brings to the table. I’ve even worked for one CEO who called the claims department the “preventer of profits.” CEOs who refuse to understand the value that claims can and should have on the bottom line are missing a huge opportunity. Claims is not a necessary evil but rather a critical part of the broader business proposition that allows you to generate an appropriate return to shareholders. That’s the beauty of the AFHI model where claims is valued and a part of the discussion.
Tell us a little about your personal life.
I’m married and have three children. My oldest is in college at Marquette playing soccer, my middle child is a senior in high school, and my youngest is entering kindergarten— there’s a book in there somewhere that might be called, “What Was I Thinking?” subtitled with “Perhaps I Wasn’t.” My wife and I have been actively involved with Make-A-Wish Foundation in Wisconsin for 10 years as wish granters, and I’m a member of the organization’s board of directors. I love to spend time with my family, and I love to cook.
Any other interesting life experiences?
For about 20 years, I was the public-address announcer for Northwestern University football and basketball games. I did a lot of theater and public speaking in college. When I moved to Chicago, I became friends with a woman who worked in the athletic department at Northwestern. She knew I had announcing experience, so when their announcer retired, she asked me if I’d be interested in filling in.
What technology do you carry with you when you travel?
Anything I can get my hands on. I take my iPhone, iPad, and laptop everywhere. I’m a user of both Mac and PC products, but really love the Mac products. Luckily, we have a great IT department that enables us to use either platform.
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, www.clmadvisors.org.