When colleagues describe Robert V. James, there's no mistaking him for the tradition-bound stereotype of an insurance executive. Instead, they use such adjectives as progressive, creative and charismatic.Co-workers credit his high energy for rapid changes at Chicago-based CNA Insurance Cos. As executive vice president of CNA's Technology Solutions Group, James has attracted top talent to his team, launched an eBusiness initiative from scratch and revolutionized the way the insurer communicates with its agents.
James' formative years in the insurance industry came quite early-during college he worked part time as a customer service representative for Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Co. He went on to gain broad business experience in the industry, including in personal and commercial lines, marketing and operations. In addition, he spent two years as the owner of an independent agency.
"I'm not a technologist. Most of my career has been on the business side," James says. His foray into the technical arena was a matter of "opportunity meeting timing," he says.
While working in the early 1990s as marketing vice president at Hanover Insurance Co., James was asked to solve a distribution problem at the company. Hanover, based in Worcester, Mass., is owned by Allmerica Financial Corp., as is another regional insurer, Citizens Insurance Co. Both companies were marketing the same products to independent agents, but they were using separate back-office systems. As chief information officer, James moved one book of business to the other company's processing platform, enabling the companies to share a data system environment.
"I've categorized myself as a geek-in-training ever since," jokes James. But his colleagues say James' understanding of the technical has always been solid.
"Bob's always been on the cutting edge. He spent a lot of money to buy his own desktop computer in the early days. He understood how it could be used in a business setting before the rest of us did," says John E. Rutecki, a former colleague and longtime friend who is vice president for MetLife Auto & Home.
Establishing ground rules
When James was tapped to launch CNA's e-commerce effort in May 2000, he decided to establish certain ground rules.
The eBusiness Group simply does not start any technology project unless it has garnered the necessary resources, James explains. Gathering those resources is simplified by a policy that allows the group to literally take any CNA personnel it needs-including workers from human resources, technology, marketing, business analysts and underwriters-from their regular positions and drop them into eBusiness for the duration of a software release.
"Instead of having to beg, borrow and steal resources that still reside in the home organization, we actually lift the personnel needed and then tie their incentive compensation and bonuses to a successful software release," James says. "This is a fairly significant change for CNA."
A release is deemed "successful" if it is delivered on time and on budget and if after 30 days, predetermined metrics show that customer satisfaction is very high, with a great user experience, James explains.
If these criteria are not met, the project manager will not receive a financial bonus. The incentive is significant, usually set at 15% of base salary.
CNA's eBusiness group currently boasts 200 workers, a remarkable number since "in June of last year there was just me," James says.
About 55% of those workers are CNA employees, while the remaining are hired consultants and contract programmers.
Staffing should remain constant over the next several years, though James plans to change the staffing mix to a higher percentage of CNA employees. "Since we were starting up under a fairly rigorous time frame, we required outside help," James says, adding that with the recent "economic changes, we are able to attract people into the company who in the past would have wanted to work for a dot-com."
Recruiting top IT talent
Colleagues credit James for the company's ability to hire top IT talent.
"He's a very dynamic, engaging, charismatic guy. To bring that to the IT function within an insurance company is a catalyst for doing great things there," says David W. Garnitz, a partner at Chicago-based Diamond Cluster International and co-head of its insurance and health care practice. Diamond Cluster does management consulting work for CNA's Technology Solutions Group, of which the eBusiness Group is a unit.
"Exceptional people are coming from other organizations and other parts of CNA into his group and a major reason they come is Bob," Garnitz says.
"We love Bob," adds Doreen Y. DeLaney, vice president and senior human resources officer for CNA's Technical Solutions Group. "He's the reason that most of us decided to come or why people within CNA wanted to be part of his team. He's never self-serving and he has mutual respect for his team."
James has made it easier for DeLaney to recruit top technical talent in several ways.
"When I bring in people they see our floor and feel right at home," she says, explaining that James visited several dot-coms and then returned to CNA and did his best to replicate that environment.
"He blew away two floors in a traditional building and replaced the old furnishings with black chairs and telephones, steel-gray doors, walls that we can write on and funky furniture," she says.
Replicating the look and feel of a dot-com environment was only the beginning. James has done his best to replicate the energy and demands of a successful dot-com as well.
"His staff is taking on more responsibility, working harder, learning more and accomplishing more. That makes for more stress but it's much more satisfying," Garnitz says.
The company's e-commerce strategy focuses on leveraging technology to align CNA with its customers, and more importantly, with its agents, Garnitz adds, noting that James has worked hard to maximize CNA's relations with its agents.
To that end, the technology group has been concentrating much of its efforts on creating CNA Central, an online clearinghouse for agents with business at CNA.
CNA Central is the solution to a long-standing business problem at the company, James explains. "We are a collection of businesses that had for years developed agency relationships with 25,000 independent agent producers around the country. But those relationships were built at the business level, and were not tied together well," he says. As a result, "producers know their own products, but not other CNA products."
Since the end of January, the first phase of the solution has been up and running at www.cnacentral.com.
Any agent with business at CNA can visit the site and learn about any CNA product, regardless of the agent's own specialties. For example, an agent who has placed directors and officers coverages at CNA can see that the company also sells large risk management coverage or life insurance, James explains.
Agent input has been crucial to CNA Central. A 70-member eBusiness agency advisory council has been used "as a touch point for all creative decisions," James says. "Our site metrics show we're getting 1,500 users a week and they're averaging 40 minutes on the site. That shows they are using the functionality behind the public site."
Behind the public Web site is a password-protected secure layer accessible only to agents and brokers doing business with CNA.
By fall, the site will support policy inquiry, provide information on coverages, claims and billing, and provide online quotes, binding and policy issuance. Interactive renewals and endorsement transactions are in the works as well.
Facilitating Web-based business is a priority for CNA, as evidenced by the $100 million the insurer has invested in its Internet strategy this year. That investment encompasses a multitude of projects, including retrofitting the company's legacy systems and rolling out the CNA Central Web site, James says.
Beyond CNA Central, the eBusiness Group has focused its Internet strategy "on small- to mid-sized businesses because there is growth there, it is easier to Web-enable those insurance products, they are already a CNA market strength and they are an agent market strength."
In fact, CNA insures 400,000 small- to mid-sized businesses, many of which are finding ways to take their business online. That means the growth potential for insurers like CNA is huge since many of these companies discover they have new Internet-related exposures.
Future projects for the eBusiness group include expanding and improving Web functions.
For instance, it's only a matter of time before some of the functionality built for agencies will be extended to policyholders as well, James says.
Although CNA already has a Web site for employees, over the next year, the technology group will create a CNA Central for employees that will be more integrated than the current site and strive to build community. By using online chat rooms or bulletin boards, underwriters in different parts of the country who have never met will be able to share their expertise in specific areas with each other, James explains.
This illustrates what Garnitz calls James' pragmatic approach to technology. Garnitz observes that CNA has benefited from the fact that James is "not interested in leading-edge technology, but in leveraging market-ready technology to enable CNA to conduct business in a better way."
Sara Harty is a freelance writer based in Grayslake, Ill.
Robert V. James
St. John's College, Camarillo, Calif.,
Syracuse University, Syracuse, N.Y.,
Graduate Certificate Program,
Sales Management & Marketing.
March 2001 to present
Executive vice president, Technology Solutions Group,
CNA Insurance Cos., Chicago.
May 2000 to March 2001
President, eBusiness Group, CNA.
January 2000 to May 2000
Chief operating officer, commercial insurance, CNA.
September 1998 to January 2000
CIO, commercial insurance, CNA.
June 1998 to January 2000
Chief marketing officer, commercial insurance, CNA.
February 1995 to June 1998
Various jobs, including president, middle market domestic brokerage group, American International Group, New York.
May 1993 to February 1995
Owner and vice president, Frank Hand Agency,
Farmington Hills, Mich.
January 1990 to May 1992
Various jobs including chief information officer and marketing vice president, Hanover Insurance Co., Worcester, Mass.
May 1992 to June 1993
Underwriting officer, Citizens Insurance Co., Howell, Mich.
August 1988 to January 1993
Various jobs including vice president and marketing officer,
MetLife Auto & Home, Warwick, R.I.
September 1973 to August 1988
Began as a customer service representative and went on to hold a variety of jobs in offices around the country in operations and sales, Allstate Insurance Co., Northbrook, Ill.
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