This year’s Women in Insurance Leadership award winners are not big on standing still.

Diverse in the roles they play, the contributions they have made and the lines of business that their companies pursue, they nonetheless share a laser-like focus on sustainable growth and profitability — achieved in large measure through technology innovation.

As Nancy Mueller, COO at Zurich North America Commercial and one of 2014’s WIL award recipients, puts it: “We are transforming operations to be focused on the customer, using big data and other technologies. The pace of change is very rapid.”

This year’s 10 honorees aren’t prone to placing undue emphasis on their gender, either. While they acknowledge that being among the first woman executives in a male-dominated industry impeded their careers at times, they are far more inclined to discuss the business challenges they have overcome — and the rich new opportunities for women that the insurance industry is creating.

But if our ten 2014 winners are short on laurel resting and male bashing, they are very long on teamwork and collaboration. Katherine Mabe, president of Allstate Business to Business, captures the spirit of the group when she says, “For me personally, nothing can be more satisfying than having your whole team be successful. It’s really about are we a success as a company and as a business ... I’m keenly focused on helping those leaders who report to me to be successful.”

And the insurance industry is keenly aware that leaders like Mabe are helping it break new ground. Each of this year’s winners was strongly endorsed by her management as richly deserving of INN’s Women in Insurance Leadership Award. Their stories and sweeping record of accomplishments are detailed in the profiles that follow.

— Elliot Kass

Making Reinsurance Personal

Reinsurance: Isn’t that all about technical factors — risk transfer, income smoothing, arbitrage, that sort of thing?

Not for Victoria Carter. Instead, the 35-year reinsurance veteran says her industry sector is all about people: relationships, contacts and reputations. “The fundamentals of this industry are trust and relationships,” she says. “Even now, with so much technology in the sector, it’s still very much a people business.”

And oh, the places Carter’s personal relation- ships have taken her. After growing up in the countryside south of London and originally studying to be a physician, Carter followed her father’s example and went to work in the City, London’s financial district. “During school,” she recalls, “if anybody had told me I’d spend at least 35 years in the insurance industry, I probably would have jumped out of the window!”

But work in insurance Carter did, and she liked it — a lot. Her first job was with a small reinsurance “broking” (that’s British for “brokerage”) company. But Carter traveled to South Africa to visit a brother who worked there; upon returning to London, she met an insurance executive at a party who helped her get a job offer with Willis Faber (now Willis Group Holdings) in Johannesburg. Carter took the offer, moved to South Africa and had a blast. “It was brilliant,” she says. “Very social and great fun.”

About a year and a half later, in 1982, a homesick Carter returned to the U.K. Personal contacts again led her to a succession of jobs in reinsurance. By 1992 she was ready, along with a former boss, to cofound her own reinsurance brokerage, Dunn & Carter. In the process, she gained the distinction of becoming the first woman to establish a Lloyd’s registered broker. “It was an amazing experience, a thrill,” Carter says. “I was only 30, so I thought, what have I got to lose?”

Not much, it turned out. Though Dunn & Carter stayed small with just 12 employees, the firm quickly built up what Carter now describes as “the best client list in London.”

And what of being the sole woman in a very male business? Carter says that was never a problem. “I look at being a woman as a positive, an opportunity to be different,” she says. “I’m a great believer in being different. I don’t want to be like the pack.”

She wasn’t. Five years later, in 1997, Carter was offered a new job by Ted Blanch, founder and chairman of E.W. Blanch (since acquired by Benfield). She recalls telling him, “If you want me, you’ve got to buy my company.” Blanch promptly did, and Carter was put in charge of the combined firm’s reinsurance business across the U.K. and the rest of Europe.

In 2003, Carter moved again, this time to join Towers Perrin (now Towers Watson). Seven years later, in 2010, Carter was contacted by Peter Zaffino, then CEO of Guy Carpenter & Co., the reinsurance subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan (he’s now Marsh’s president and CEO). Although Marsh is a very big company, with annual sales of $12.26 billion, Guy Carpenter is no slouch: Its 50 offices worldwide house some 2,300 risk and reinsurance professionals. Carter was given responsibility for driving the firm’s overall business development.

Today, still at Guy Carpenter and now a senior member of the industry, Carter is using her “people business” perspective to help the next generation. She’s formed the Young Professional Employee Resource Group, which has a charter to “engage, educate and empower” younger reinsurance professionals.

—   Peter Krass

A Mentor Supreme

Not everyone can parlay a part-time job during high school into a lifelong career, but that’s exactly what Judy Copechal did.

Starting in the files department of Allstate Insurance, Copechal worked her way up the corporate food chain, with stops along the way as a claims adjuster and an agent. You name it — sales, underwriting, product management, product development − if it’s a role in the insurance business, she’s done it.

“I think one of the reasons I’ve stayed in insurance my whole career is that there was always something new for me to take on and learn every day,” Copechal says. “I gained a lot of knowledge of how the insurance industry works, and I think that knowledge has enabled me to be an especially effective mentor to others.” The proof is up and down the career ladder: Numerous employees in her department began as customer service representatives only to move into roles as underwriting assistants, analysts, commercial underwriters and product managers.

Supporting others’ career advancement is a hallmark of Copechal’s management style. “I try to support my staff and their career growth,” she says. “I’m very candid and open in the way I work with others. I like to think that we are all equal partners.”

So much so that when she left her job as head of product management at Bankers Insurance Group last August to become chief underwriting officer at United Property & Casualty Insurance in St. Petersburg, Fla., she made a special effort to mentor her successor, also a woman. “I groomed my right-hand person at my former job as my successor, and when I left she was promoted into my old job. I’m very proud of that. It’s good to hear that I made a difference in someone’s life.”

At Bankers, where Copechal managed the company’s property exposures in catastrophe-prone areas, she became the company’s public face, justifying rate increases at public hearings when necessary. In one instance, “The people producing the hurricane models estimated higher probable maximum losses,” she recounts. “As a result, we went from a $200 million PML to $300 million. We had to react to that with our rates, because we had to buy more reinsurance in the event of a catastrophe.” It fell to her to explain the reasoning behind rate hikes to regulators and the general public.

At United Property & Casualty, where Copechal is responsible for both underwriting and commercial product management, she is working to develop a top-flight underwriting team and to expand the insurer’s reach by offering its products in more than double the number of states in which it currently operates. She also is in the early stages of implementing a new policy administration system. “My goal is to build out an underwriting team and get our product in all the states where we have a certificate to operate in,” she says.

In the chief underwriter’s view, the insurance industry would be better able to respond to customer needs with new products if it were deregulated at the state level. “Different state agencies have different regulatory requirements, and that makes it more difficult to bring out new products in different markets. We had one new product at my former job that took three years to get approval. Deregulating the industry would spawn a lot more competition, and companies would be able to react more quickly to the needs of the market.”

Copechal says the insurance business is placing a greater emphasis on customer satisfaction. “The customer experience you provide is going to set you apart from everyone else,” she maintains. “We also are seeing the shift to- ward everything becoming more data-driven, such as with the use of data analytics.” This will allow insurers to micro-segment their markets and respond more proactively to customer expectations.

As for the role of women, Copechal expects them to continue to play an expanding role within the industry: “I think the gender thing will become nonexistent.”

—   Doug Bartholomew

Crossing the Chasm

Melissa Crawford says fortune smiled when she landed her first job right out of college at Physicians Mutual in Omaha, Neb. After that, she never looked back. “I got lucky to find a great company right out of college,” she says. Because “once insurance finds you — hang on.”

Today, Crawford, senior vice president of markets, products and technology at Physicians Mutual, works at the juncture where the insurance business meets IT. “Being given the opportunity to head our enterprise technology group and still being able to keep my business-side responsibilities has been great,” she acknowledges.

But along with opportunities come challenges. For Crawford, a big one has been bridging the gulf between IT and Physicians Mutual’s business units. “We had a pretty big gap between business and technology,” she admits.

To cross the chasm, Crawford organized delivery teams to support individual business groups. Each team consisted of technical experts, subject matter experts and executive business stakeholders.

“We were able to move things forward so that the technology people understood the business people and vice versa,” Crawford recounts. “But there definitely was a learning curve.”

The delivery team’s success is partly attributable to Crawford’s leadership style, which she describes as “based on open communication and being inclusive. People are willing to follow you, and it builds trust.” She’s also big on sharing the kudos. “When we have a success with the business, the team deserves all the credit,” she avers. “And when we do poorly at something, I deserve all the blame.”

Currently, much of Crawford’s attention is taken up by an effort to consolidate Physicians Mutual’s policy administration systems — there are four in use today. The insurer also operates a legacy health system and two legacy life systems, as well as InsPro, a newer policy admin system implemented a few years ago. Her goal, she says, is to reduce the total number of systems to two within two years, and to one integrated system over the next six years.

Toward that end, Crawford has pushed the enterprise technology group to leverage agile development techniques for faster software development. “This approach enables us to develop solutions for the business much more quickly and to bring out more rapid iterations of software,” she explains.

In terms of her own career, Crawford says she never faced a stigma because she was a woman. “I’ve never felt that gender was a factor in the opportunities that I’ve been given at Physicians Mutual,” she recounts. “I know that back in the late 1980s, there were times when I was the only woman in the room, but I’ve never felt disadvantaged in any way.”

Yet Crawford believes strongly in promoting the role of women, as well as other minorities, within the industry. “I think continued diversity is important,” she says. “People see problems and opportunities differently. A diverse leadership team enables us to look at situations from a variety of perspectives and leads to better decision-making.”

Earlier this year, Crawford established Women in IT, a mentoring group for women IT professionals at Physicians Mutual. The group meets monthly to discuss common issues and provide support for its members. Crawford mentors some members herself, and they all have access to the group’s network of knowledge, experience and skills. A big believer in cross-mentoring, Crawford maintains that by exposing the group’s members to multiple perspectives, everyone’s horizon is broadened.

Crawford is confident that going forward the insurance industry will continue to expand opportunities for women at all levels. “We are seeing more and more female agents, as well as women in the IT field,” she observes. “Women will definitely continue to play a very significant role in the industry.”

—   Doug Bartholomew

From High School Internship to CEO

Paula Downey got hooked in high school.

Hooked on the insurance business, that is, when she started working part-time as an intern for AAA insurance in her home state of Michigan. “They placed me in claims where I took claims reports, and that was the beginning of my career in insurance,” says Downey, president and CEO at CSAA Insurance Group in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Downey continued to work at AAA throughout her college years at the University of Michigan, while earning a degree in accounting and an M.B.A. Those degrees from one of America’s top business schools would have opened the door to any business career she wanted, but she chose to stick with insurance. “I loved working with customers,” Downey says. “Having an auto accident is not your happiest moment. But I found helping people in a time of need was very attractive to me, so I kept working at AAA.”

Her experience and education, combined with an unflagging optimism and a desire to help others, led Downey to become one of the industry’s first woman CEOs. “I’ve never considered any of the hurdles I’ve faced along the way in relation to my being a woman,” she says. “I think the key to my success is that I always focus on doing the best possible job I can — that and the fact that I have always felt supported and encouraged in my work. I am very forward-looking and don’t focus on challenges as barriers, but as opportunities.”

Downey’s leadership style, in her own words, is “leading from the ‘and.’ By that, I mean that people usually frame a challenge as either going with choice A or choice B. My approach is, how can we do A and B. In other words, how do we accomplish the goals of both parties? It’s not quite the same as compromise, which suggests the least troublesome decision. It’s more, how do you optimize?”

Among her many achievements, Downey is proudest of her successful push to establish CSAA as separate operating entity from its then-affiliated AAA club, AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah. Downey championed the 2011 separation, which has allowed both companies to grow and focus on their core lines of business.

“During a time when the overall insurance business was not growing very rapidly, we’ve grown from a small regional company to a coast-to-coast, 23-state organization. I’m enormously proud of that growth.”

She continues to focus on growth, as she steers the auto insurer toward a bevy of new opportunities stemming from the advent of big data, digital consumer platforms and new ways to deliver the customer experience. “It’s a very exciting time in the industry,” she says. “We are able to use big data to better understand customers. This fits nicely with our whole focus on the customer and having the customer lead the business.”

One of Downey’s goals over the next one to five years is to increase the number of AAA-member households that are CSAA Insurance customers. She also wants to boost CSAA’s penetration in all of the market segments served by the company. “We’re trying to replicate the success we’ve had in Northern California in these other markets,” she says. “In many markets, we often find that AAA members are not aware of our insurance offerings.”

In her view, the insurance industry is heading into an era of significant product innovation, much of it enabled by new digital technologies. “We are seeing the beginning of usage-based insurance products that are based on individual behaviors,” she points out.

Owing to these new technologies, Downey observes that there is a blurring of the lines between personal and commercial insurance coverage. As an example, she cites ride-sharing services such as Uber, noting that it’s not clear whether such services fall under the personal insurance or the commercial carrier umbrella. Her answer? “We need to develop products that are more responsive to this sharing economy.”

Downey firmly believes that women will continue to play an ever-greater role in the industry. “Women play a very large role now, representing at least half of the employees in the insurance labor force,” she points out. “And there is great progress being made there, with a significant pipeline filled with female talent through the industry.”

—   Doug Bartholomew

Global Coverage

For Kathleen Ellis, the world is her office. She’s worked at Chubb for all of her 34 years in the insurance industry. Yet far from limiting her, a lifetime of employment with the same company has exposed Ellis to a far broader horizon that she might have otherwise known. As worldwide manager and senior VP of Chubb Multinational Solutions, Ellis deals with customers and colleagues in Asia, South America and Europe, and she travels frequently to China, Brazil, Australia and beyond — as far and as often, she says, “as our budget allows.”

And as Ellis goes, so goes Chubb. The company, founded in 1882 as a marine underwriter in New York City’s seaport district, is today among the largest P&C insurers in the world.

For Chubb’s most recent fiscal year, a quarter of its business — some $3.1 billion in net written premiums — came from outside the U.S. And to hear Ellis tell it, that will only increase. “To be successful,” she says, “we have to be global.”

It wasn’t always this way for Ellis. She studied in the Fine Arts department of Marymount College with a specialty in architecture and historic preservation — and what turned out to be a useful minor in business and economics.

Her introduction to insurance came from her father and a brother, who worked as independent agents. “I loved insurance and I wanted to get experience, but I wanted to work for a larger company,” she says. “So I went to Chubb right after graduation.”

The year was 1980. Ellis started as a marine insurance trainee, though her work also included construction, transportation, even her old major of fine arts. Ellis moved on to several other positions, mainly in property and casualty underwriting. “I think I’ve had 17 different jobs or assignments over the years,” she says. “I’ve built on what I’ve learned and then moved on to the next thing. I feel very privileged.”

Today, Ellis manages a multinational solutions team of 40, but unlike many other insurers, Chubb doesn’t have a big international unit. Instead, the company’s underwriters are essentially global underwriters. To serve them, Ellis’ multinational solutions group is free to work across business units. “We’re the network that supports the multi-country business Chubb writes, whether it’s produced in the U.S., Brazil, Europe or anywhere else,” Ellis says.

That’s a marked difference from many of Ellis’ past roles, which involved direct profit-and-loss lines and what she calls “command and control” management. “You were responsible for something that was clearly and crisply defined,” she explains. By contrast, her current role is far more collaborative. “I have to motivate others to try to focus on this type of business and encourage them to engage in this,” Ellis says. “And that isn’t necessarily the simplest task.”

Yet it’s one that’s vital for Chubb’s future as its business clients become increasingly global. “Let’s say you’re a manufacturer in Cincinnati,” Ellis offers. “Thirty years ago, you made everything in the U.S., and you sold only in the U.S. But today, you might go to China for cheaper materials and labor. So as a broker, how do you do that? How do you protect your risk?”

Demonstrating success under this model is far more complex too. With no direct P&L responsibility, Ellis instead strives to deliver local policies in a way that’s both efficient and compliant. “The model is challenging,” she says. “It’s squishy in the sense that it’s more influence-based. But as you move up higher in the organization, that’s the way the roles are.”

Her globetrotting has also given Ellis a greater appreciation for the role of women in insurance. “Now I travel to countries where women don’t have a prominent role. When I show up at one of my branches, I feel like a rock star. I tell the women, ‘Don’t let the differences stop you. Instead, look for the ways in which you’re similar.’ There’s so much we have in common.”

—   Peter Krass

The Natural

What began as a summer job in the mailroom for a young woman fresh out of high school led Katherine Mabe to a lifelong career in insurance. Even after earning her undergraduate degree in communications and an M.B.A. from Ohio State University — when she could have chosen a career in almost any field of business — it was the insurance industry that beckoned. “It was a natural for me,” she says. “I found success there and it was a good fit.”

Mabe began her career at Nationwide, which she considers her “alma mater.” Among her accomplishments, she directed a turnaround team for Nationwide’s commercial insurance arm, which was unprofitable at the time. Today, she says, “It’s a big part of that company’s profitable operations.”

While at Nationwide, Mabe encountered and quickly overcame some outmoded attitudes owing to her gender, when she was asked to relocate on five separate occasions to five different regional offices. “I think at the time, some people made assumptions that because I was a woman and had a family, I would not want to move my family around. They were wrong.”

Today, Mabe is president of Allstate Business to Business and responsible for leading half a dozen strategic businesses with annual revenues of $5 billion. Her responsibilities include:

• Allstate Benefits, the third largest voluntary benefits provider in the U.S. with more than three million customers

• Encompass, the company’s $1.2 billion, fast-growing independent agency distribution channel

• Allstate Business Insurance, which provides policies for the small-business owner

• Allstate Roadside Services

• Ivantage, which provides brokerage solutions for insurance products provided by other carriers

• Allstate Dealer Services

One notable achievement: Mabe led Allstate’s West Territory team to sustainable and profitable growth by focusing on expanding distribution and marketing to new distribution channels. “We were struggling with growth, but we assembled a great team and after several years, the West is now profitable and growing,” she says. “That was very satisfying and rewarding to me. I tend to thrive on those kinds of assignments where we need real improvement.

“For me personally, nothing can be more satisfying than having your whole team be successful. It’s really about are we a success as a company and as a business.”

Mabe’s management style is collaborative to a fault. “I try to bring the team together to work collaboratively. I’m keenly focused on helping those leaders who report to me to be successful.”

As the leader of a large business unit with 2,400 employees, her goals are numerous, but one of her foremost challenges is growing the lines of business under her umbrella. “I want to find new opportunities to expand the market for all six companies, as well as to create new synergies among them,” she says.

Mabe believes carriers could do a better job of simplifying their offerings. “Insurance is a complex product for consumers,” she notes. “A lot of consumers struggle with this complexity. Companies could do more to simplify and be more customer-focused in the way they present their products.”

In the same vein, Mabe believes insurance representatives could play a key role “as trusted advisors” and help consumers by providing advice and assistance.

Concerning the role played by women in insurance leadership, Mabe sees the industry offering expanded career opportunities to women as time goes on. “When I first started out, there was one other woman in management,” Mabe recalls. “Today, there are so many bright and talented women coming up in the ranks. For example, my sister and my stepdaughter both are in the insurance business. I’m excited about what that means for their careers and the opportunities available to them.”

—   Doug Bartholomew

Fact-based and People-oriented

Some people are more goal-oriented than others. Some are more successful than others. Nancy Mueller ranks near the top of both lists.

Mueller, who went to Drake University with the primary goal of working in the insurance industry, majored in actuarial science. “I went to college to be in the insurance industry because I was good at math, and I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher,” she says. “I found actuarial science interesting, and I stuck with it. I’ve always enjoyed what I was doing.”

The insurance business, of course, wasn’t always viewed as a place where a woman could successfully pursue a career. “My first big hurdle in school was in actuarial science,” Mueller recalls. “There were about 70 people in the room, half men and half women. Looking around the room, the professor predicted that only 15 of us would graduate with this degree, and that only one woman would be among the 15 who completed the program.”

Defying expectations, Mueller earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in actuarial science from Drake. She went on to hold actuarial positions at the St. Paul Cos. and American International Group before joining Zurich in 1992. Today, as chief operations officer at Zurich North America Commercial in Schaumburg, Ill., she continues to set new standards.

A member of the firm’s global General Insurance Operations Council, Mueller is responsible for ensuring that the North America division’s strategic and operational transformation initiatives yield the desired results. Prior to becoming COO, she was the chief actuary for the North America division.

Mueller’s purview encompasses a wide swath of Zurich North America’s operations, including business change and IT, operational transformation, operations policy and administration, operations services, premium audit and underwriting support. “As COO, I am focused on operational effectiveness and efficiency,” she explains. “We are transforming operations to be focused on the customer, using big data and other technologies. The pace of change is very rapid.”

Mueller describes her management style as both dispassionate and people-oriented. “I am very fact-based and logical. At the same time, I really care for people,” she says. “I’m known for encouraging us to think about the people we are impacting with our decisions, including customers, brokers and employees.”

Asked about her proudest achievement, Mueller points to her family. “I have two children in college, and I am able to balance being a wife, a mother and an executive. I try to lead by example, by maintaining that balance.”

Cultivating people is a key goal for Mueller. “There is a race for talent, and we need to be thoughtful about how we attract and retain talent,” she maintains. “We need to change the perceptions people have about the insurance industry. I think there is a perception that it is uninteresting. There are lots of exciting things going on in the industry, and we need to find new ways to compete in the war for talent.”

The COO sees the insurance business evolving rapidly, placing a greater emphasis on deepening customer relationships through the use of new technologies including big data and predictive analytics. “I think different parts of the industry are facing different challenges,” she says. “Parts of the business are consolidating operations, while other parts are trying to find ways to get closer to the customer.” On the technology side, she points out, “Big data and the availability of data pose a huge challenge.”

As for the role of women in the industry, true to form, Mueller sticks to the facts. “I believe women will continue to have an expanding role in insurance,” she says. “It’s different than it was when I started. Women are accepted and able to take advantage of opportunities in the industry. Today, it’s a great place to have a career.”

—   Doug Bartholomew

Know Thy Customer

Not many insurance industry executives can say they’ve won a couple of Emmys. Even fewer can claim to have been part of one of the biggest corporate turnarounds in history. Donna Peeples can do both.

The Emmys date from Peeples’ previous life in the energy industry, where she had a successful career for nearly 30 years. The turnaround took place at AIG, where Peeples is chief customer experience officer.

Peeples is a relative newcomer to insurance, entering the industry in

2011, when she joined United Guaranty Corp. as SVP and chief marketing officer. After only a year in that position, she was thrown into the fire at AIG (which owns UGC) to help the firm meet its intense operational and brand challenges.

But while Peeples was still new to the insurance business, her tenure in the energy industry did not leave her entirely unprepared for those challenges. “All companies have customers,” she explains. “So we all have to figure out how to optimize not only the economic value we bring to our relationships with those customers, but also the emotional connection customers have with our brand.”

Peeples developed several principles while working in energy that have proved especially relevant to her current mission at AIG. One of them is investing heavily in an empirical understanding of the customer, rather than relying on personal preconceptions. “A lot of people consult a committee of one,” she notes. “But the insights you need to improve your customer’s experience probably aren’t inside your own head.”

Another key principle is taking into account the full universe of stakeholders in the customer relationship — including brokers, regulators, the media and, increasingly, social networks.

One particular challenge at AIG is that, from the customer’s point of view, AIG is one company. But because AIG is so large and offers so many products in so many countries, it often interacts with customers as though it were several different companies. This siloed engagement can fragment the customer experience and potentially cause the company to miss opportunities to expand its share of the customer’s wallet.

Peeples, however, believes that data analytics will help AIG meet this challenge. “If you’ve just sold someone mortgage insurance on a property with a two-car garage and three bedrooms, that customer probably has other needs you can address, too,” she observes. “Everyone in our business is starting to learn how to leverage this kind of data.”

Peeples’ mission at AIG transcends helping the company gain a unified view of its customers. She is part of a corporate customer experience team that is central to the insurer’s ongoing efforts to reinvent itself. The team’s goal for AIG, as she puts it, “is to not just be different — but to make a difference.”

Another side to AIG’s transformation is diversity — a subject near and dear to Peeples, who sits on the board of directors of the Georgia Diversity Council. For Peeples, diversity is much more than merely having a representative assortment of ethnicity, age and gender. At AIG, she points out, “We have a customer data officer who got his degree in archaeology, and a customer solutions leader with a master’s in HR. Teams comprised of people with such a broad range of life experiences give you better results, because you’re drawing from a more complete set of perspectives.”

Peeples sees big changes on the horizon for the way insurance companies engage with their customers above and beyond the use of social media and mobility. For example, she asserts that the coming wave of Millennial customers tends to be very cause-oriented, and Millennials are more likely to connect their choice of insurance provider with their broader social and political concerns.

“They also constitute a growing percentage of our workforce,” she says. “That’s going to change the way we all do business.”

—   Lenny Liebmann

Relishing the Job

Professional achievements are only one measure of personal success. Another measure is the distance one travels to arrive at those achievements. Still another is the people we bring with us along the way.

Lorraine Seib shines on all three counts.

The late-in-life child of a mother who worked in a school cafeteria and a father who passed away when she was 13, Seib was clearly not born into privilege. No one in her immediate family attended college. And living more than an hour outside New York City on Long Island’s South Shore, she never knew anyone in the insurance business growing up.

Seib went on to get her B.S. in criminal justice, thinking she might pursue a career in corrections. But an internship at Suffolk County’s Riverhead Med/Max Security prison quickly disabused her of that notion. “Having those gates slam shut behind you can be a very rattling experience,” she recalls. “I realized I might not want to spend my life in a depressing career that would never pay very much.”

As she started to cast about for an alternative path, fate intervened in the form of a cousin’s baseball coach, who told her she could have a job in New York City as an underwriter trainee. She wasn’t sure what that even meant, but she decided to give it a shot anyway.

The young woman took to the work immediately. Her strong aptitude with numbers and data made her a natural for the job. And she relished the work enough to endure a nearly two-hour commute to lower Manhattan each day.

Seib moved up the ranks and across companies for a few years before landing at Reliance National in the late 1980s. As the company’s 16th hire, she had a front seat — and a formative role — in Reliance’s meteoric rise to 3,000-plus employees. Seib still looks back fondly on those days: “There’s a special bond that develops with people when you work with that kind of intensity, build a business from scratch and achieve that kind of growth.”

After the collapse of Reliance, Seib became chief underwriting officer at Kemper. But Kemper, too, soon experienced its own meltdown, leaving Seib again looking for a new place to land.

Seib’s next move from Kemper to St. Paul (which then soon merged into Travelers) led to one of her proudest moments. In addition to securing a new position for herself, Seib was able to bring most of her Excess Casualty team from Kemper along with her.

“It took a lot of work with HR to work out all the compensation packages,” she says. “But we were able to keep the majority of our team together.”

Seib notes that at Travelers, as elsewhere, she was typically the only female executive in the room. However, she is quick to add that she never felt at a disadvantage because of that — and the ratio of women to men in leadership is improving.

In her current position as president of XL Insurance’s North American Excess Casualty unit, Seib’s primary focus is managing book growth, ensuring the profitability of the business her unit underwrites, and the retention and development of talent. She also has to keep her eye on the changes taking place in the insurance business, especially the influx of alternative capital into the market and the ever-evolving use of data and analytics.

“Analytics is helping everyone do everything better — from pricing policies to choosing which business you really want to take,” she observes. “So everyone has to figure out how to better leverage all the data we can collect now on economic conditions, crime rates, weather patterns and the other factors that can impact risk.”

One concern Seib has about the future is attracting new talent to the field. “We aren’t getting the word out about how exciting and interesting this work can be,” she says, citing her personal experience helping clients in sports and entertainment manage risk. “Many young people think insurance is just selling people policies — but it’s so much more than that.”

—   Lenny Liebmann

A Winner’s Perspective

For Teresa White, 26 years of career success has been all about gaining perspective.

“I don’t just serve in a role,” says White, the newly named president of Aflac’s U.S. operations. “I really do try to understand how each of our constituents — whether broker, field agent, employer or employee — sees their job, the market and our company. I see how they fit.”

That broadening perspective has helped White drive strong business results. For its most recent fiscal year, Aflac U.S. had more than 12 million policies and certificates in force, delivered $1.4 billion worth of new annualized premiums, and worked with some 76,300 licensed brokers and agents.

White joined Aflac — and the insurance industry — back in 1988 from her home in Columbus, Ga., where she still lives. Though Columbus is the site of Aflac’s world headquarters, for White it was where the U.S. Army had transferred her officer husband. Earlier, he had been assigned to Fairbanks, Alaska, a long way from White’s childhood home in Dallas. With her husband stationed at Fort Benning, the couple lived in nearby Columbus, and White worked for a local credit card company.

Things were fine until her employer was acquired by another company, and she was asked to relocate. “I had a choice. I could move, or I could stay married,” White recounts. “I chose to stay married! Which meant I had to look for a new career.”

White’s first job title at Aflac was second VP of direct insurance, a role that had her dealing directly with consumers. “It was a great training ground for me,” she says. “I learned about our claims-payment culture.” That, in turn, led to her being promoted to second VP of policy and payroll accounts services. “This gave me a bigger view,” she recalls. “I saw how employers were trying to take care of their employees.”

White’s career took a sharp turn in 2004, when she was named Aflac’s senior VP of sales support and administration, her first role in sales. It was another scope-broadening move, giving her a new perspective into how Aflac’s tens of thousands of agents approach the market. “Initially, I had learned what the market needed,” White says. “Now I was learning what was important to our field agents.” There were also some impressive results: White helped guide Aflac U.S. to an increase of $2 billion in annualized premiums in force, while policies or certificates in force increased by nearly 3 million.

White’s next promotion, to chief administrative officer in 2008, broadened her responsibilities even further. Now they included IT. White had actually studied programming while a student at the University of Texas. That background helped her lead an effort to “jet issue” new applications so that consumers receive their policies in just a couple of days, and the agent is paid nearly as promptly. Even more impressive, White spearheaded a 22 percent increase in Aflac’s operational efficiency, a 4 percent increase in employee engagement and a 3 percent increase in account retention.

The result for White? More career-broadening. “Now I was able to understand more about how we deliver on innovation as it relates to both our policies and the consumer,” she says.

Last year, White was promoted to chief operating officer, a role that had her overseeing more than 4,000 Aflac U.S. employees. One of her projects involved market segmentation. “We’re asking our field force to focus on the under-100-employees market, and we’re asking our brokers to focus on the over-1,000-employee market,” she explains.

Then, late last month, word came that Aflac was promoting White once again, this time to president of its U.S. operations. She replaces and will continue to report to former president Kenneth Janke, who will resume his former role as Aflac’s deputy chief financial officer.

Despite her stellar rise, White says her proudest accomplishment has been raising two children to be what she calls “independent thinkers.” She’s also grateful to “a great husband who supports me in what I do,” and her mentors, Aflac’s CEO, Daniel Amos, and Janke: “I’ve learned a lot from both of them.”

An African-American woman in a male-dominated industry, White says she loves the diversity of what she calls Aflac’s well-rounded leadership team: “We have lots of women who are highly educated and valued in this industry. To the extent that they have talent, they can make great strides.” Truly, a winner’s perspective.

—   Peter Krass

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