Through her initiatives as SVP, technology and operations for Allstate's enterprise shared services and applications, Patricia Coffey's unit has driven savings of more than $10 million, IBM said, by simplifying financial processes, automating procurement processes and adding reporting and analytics capabilities to these and other functions, while reducing her team's operating expenses by more than 10 percent.

This isn't the first time Coffey has been recognized by INN. In 2007 Coffey, then VP of protection technology for Allstate, was recognized for leading a successful Web services solution development project.

"The role that I have now is very focused on our employees and technology," Coffey says, more so than customer-facing technology. "We make sure our data is accurate, that we are always compliant with regulation and also more efficient, because the more efficient we are the better our prices."

One recent example of Coffey's team creating value for both employees and the insurer includes the creation of Allstate's new human resources call center. Previously the Allstate's HR practices had been outsourced.

"We had a notion that we would serve employees better if we brought that back in-house," she says, but they had limited inhouse HR experience and no technology to support the endeavor. "We started with an idea and a piece of paper and we went live in five months," she says. Now, using SAP, 35 human resource employees serve 35,000 Allstate employees.

In a separate and ongoing project, Coffey's group is consolidating 18 disparate agency sales reporting and metrics systems, which support 8,000 agency owners, into one system, vastly simplifying systems and agent support, while lowering costs and increasing accuracy. The 24-month project will use a combination of standard extract, transform and load, data warehouse and information delivery tools, she says.

Coffey long assumed she would become a biochemist. But decided neither research nor practicing medicine appealed to her. She transferred to behavioral science and took a clerical position at a pacemaker manufacturing company. Leveraging those clerical skills, she applied at Allstate.

"I was going to come here and finish my degree," Coffey says. "It was a decent job and they had a good tuition reimbursement program." She then began taking computer science classes and to appreciate the importance of both technology and insurance.

When she began her career, technology was very male-dominated, as was insurance, Coffey says. And a complicated pregnancy led to a defining moment in Coffey's career. She went to her then boss, who she describes as a phenomenal developer of people, and told him she was getting off the fast track and cutting back on the hours she spent in the office.

"People would just hang around. They worked for a good eight or ten, and then there was another two or three hours that I called 'face time,'" Coffey says. "It was important for your career to be there, be seen and network." Her manager told her to take the time she needed, but challenged her to start thinking of herself as a role model and break the face-time paradigm. "I took that very seriously as I tried to pave the way for others," Coffey says.

Coffey says she wouldn't change her career path, though she has some recommendations for others. "I advised my daughters to go straight through their education. I worked and it took too long," Coffey says. She also suggests trying more things, taking more risks and worrying less, especially when young. More than anything, she attributes her success to perseverance. "Being in IT, you absolutely have to have thick skin. There's seldom a day that people say, 'I am so excited that the system is working.' But when it's not... [she laughs]."

As much as her job is about technology, efficiency and measuring results, the lessons she learned studying behavioral science have been critical to her success and manifest in her management philosophy. "When teams are really clear about what they are trying to accomplish and why it's important, they gel as a team," Coffey says, make better decisions and generate better outcomes. "It's the difference between 'we're an insurance company' and 'we take care of people in their time of need.' There's a difference in the way people perform when they are really connected."

She's also learned to love insurance. "It turned out to be a wonderful mix of doing great work for people and being in this exciting technology space. You can make a huge difference on the business and on peoples' lives. It's the best job ever," she says.

Number of years in the industry: 35

Number of direct reports: 6

Company size: $2.31 billion net income

Nominated by: IBM

For photos from the Women in Insurance Leadership Award ceremony, click here.

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