Jody Puffett: Rising to the occasion

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The speed of technological change continues to disrupt standard operating procedures insurers have relied upon for years, driving a need for progress and innovation. Jody Puffett, head of finance and actuarial modernization for Transamerica, is in charge of overseeing such efforts, with the company’s seven-year initiative to transform its bifurcated financial reporting processes and technology infrastructure. The company, a subsidy of Aegon, and among the top ten largest providers of variable annuities, individual universal life, and individual term life in the U.S., started the process in 2016.

When the employee originally tasked with leading the effort left the company, Puffett stepped up when called on to take on the years-long challenge. “That individual left the organization about a month before the roadmap was scheduled to go before our board for approval,” she shares. “I literally was named to head this effort the week it was approved by our board. I went from not having been involved in the roadmapping exercise to taking the lead of the team the week it was approved, ready to hit the ground running and start execution.”

While many would find the challenge overwhelming, she calls it an “exciting time,” and credits the work of her teammates for the progress made thus far.

She also says she was helped along in the transition, and in carrying out her current duties, by her varied experience within the company, allowing her to know how to best “ask the right questions” and facilitate communication between departments. Puffett joined the company in 1991, where she oversaw accounting and financial reporting of third-party asset management contracts, and moved up to the point of spending three years as the associate CFO for Transamerica’s investments and retirement division before taking on this challenge.

The modernization effort involves establishing a data governance framework and single source for a data lake that will come from approximately 150 source systems, which will then be available for downstream consumption by all relevant teams.
Transamerica is subject to International Financial Reporting Standards, with new insurance accounting rules set to go into effect at the start of 2021, and much of the efforts already underway will, Puffett says, also “help enable the new requirements under that standard.”

The initiative toward efficiency and modernization is also being undertaken with an eye toward shifting the daily duties of the company’s employees.

“Right now, the majority of our finance and actuarial folks are spending a significant amount of time copying and pasting between Excel spreadsheets, and (doing) data cleansing, and they don’t have the capacity – because they’re doing all that – to truly do analytics on the business to understand our profitability,” she says.

“So, a big driver of what this program will do, once we get to a more standardized, governed framework with automated processes in place, is just going to free up those folks to be able to do more value-added work.”

That said, Puffett, a certified mediator who has experience in mentoring, both one-on-one and in group settings, knows the success of any effort like this relies on the participation of those who will be tasked to adapt to the changing landscape. She has also picked up lessons in patience and effective communication through her experience raising her six children with her husband. Three of their children are adopted, an outgrowth of their serving as foster parents, which includes Puffett having sat on the boards of organizations focused on child welfare, including Families Helping Families of Iowa and the Boys and Girls Club of Cedar Rapids.

“The one thing we can’t forget or underestimate is the level of change that happens on the people side of this when you do a big transformation effort like this. And there is a huge shift for folks in the organization,” she says.

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