When Atlantic Mutual Cos. moved its back-office operations from New York to Roanoke, Va., in 1977, David Mitchell was working on school redistricting as a programmer for the Roanoke City schools.Tipped off by IBM Corp.'s local representative about Atlantic Mutual's plans, Mitchell jumped at the opportunity and was hired by the New York-based insurer as a senior programmer.

Fast forward to 2001. Mitchell, now 47 years old, has risen through Atlantic Mutual's ranks to become a senior vice president and head of information systems.

Such a long career at one institution is unusual these days in any industry, and in the fast-changing world of information technology, it's almost unheard of.

But at New York-based Atlantic Mutual, loyalty like Mitchell's is not uncommon. The company's IT division boasts a low annual turnover rate of about 5%, compared with an industry average in the low teens.

"It's a unique environment," Mitchell says. "People stay because they get the opportunity to work on new technology and use it to satisfy end-users and customers." IT employees feel they have contributed to the business, he adds.

That stability has enormous benefits for the IT department and ultimately, for the company. "What you get is technology people who begin to understand the business," Mitchell says.

Challenging environment

Although some technology executives may argue that they would become bored if they stayed at the same company for 24 years, Mitchell believes his longevity at Atlantic Mutual has benefited his career.

"Atlantic has remained in tune with technological changes, which establishes a creative, challenging environment," he explains. On top of that, he has enjoyed the chance to establish long-term working relationships with fellow employees. These factors combined have created a work environment where you can really make a difference, he notes.

Bitten by the tech bug

As a sophomore in high school, Mitchell was bitten by the high-tech bug. He became fascinated by computers while working nights with his uncle in the operations center of a large auto store. "I got hooked," Mitchell recalls. "I made the decision that I wanted to get into technology."

He went on to study computer science in a unique program run by former IBM employees at Virginia Western Community College. He graduated with an associate's degree, and decided not to continue with his education. His goal was clear without it. "I knew what I wanted to do when I was 15 years old," Mitchell explains.

That determination landed him his first job at the Roanoke City school system in 1974. After three years, Mitchell was eager to join Atlantic Mutual. His first assignment: helping the company relocate its back office systems to Roanoke.

"We had to actually move the mainframe from New York to Roanoke, unlike today when we would be able to install a system in Roanoke first and transfer the application from the mainframe in New York," he explains.

Rising through the ranks

Once the relocation was completed, Mitchell did "a bit of everything" as one of only about 40 IT professionals. He became a project leader for a couple of years, with responsibility for various business systems including reinsurance, and then project manager in the early 1980s.

He helped successfully implement the company's first automated claims system, using Aclaim. That led to another promotion, to manager of systems and programming.

A decade before computer clocks struck Year 2000, Mitchell prepared a white paper on Y2K issues. He recommended that Atlantic allocate resources by 1995-96 to ensure an orderly implementation. "Y2K wasn't a hoax," Mitchell says. "It was real, and there were a lot of resources allocated to it and a lot of man-hours spent on it."

Y2K preparations aside, the most far-reaching technology project of the 1990s for Atlantic-and the industry-was moving away from legacy systems to a client/server environment.

"Three years ago, we realized that the Internet was the way to go," Mitchell recalls. "The move was driven by our eagerness to provide a more user-friendly graphical environment for employees, customers and agents."

In the process, a new claims system was implemented-the fourth since Mitchell joined the company. The commercial business system was re-engineered, followed by systems supporting the personal insurance lines.

During the transition, Mitchell made his mark at the company. "Moving to client/server technology was the biggest challenge facing insurance," says Kermit Smith, president and chief operating officer at Atlantic. "The way Dave managed that process and developed a staff capable of managing that transition was a deciding factor in bringing it about."

Mitchell and his team had to understand the business needs of Atlantic's different departments.

"Before, end-users were almost disinterested, and now they're leading the conversation," Smith adds. "Dave had the ability to partner with the business and work in a collaborative environment."

Partnering with Business

Mitchell firmly believes IT adds value by collaborating with the different business units. "We do make a difference in the growth and service associated with the businesses," he explains.

He and company management foster that partnership in several ways. While many companies want their IT workers to have some grounding in business, Mitchell encourages his staff to learn as much as possible about the insurance industry.

Several employees have passed the Certified Property and Casualty Underwriter examinations (CPCU). "That's very difficult-big-time tough," Mitchell says.

Although IT employees learn as much as they can about the business, the reverse is also true, Mitchell says. The company strives to maintain the good relationship between the business and technology units. "Atlantic has proved that a good IT/business relationship can result in using technology to add strategic value and improve the bottom line," he says.

He also ensures that communication lines between IT and the various business units are open. Each unit-commercial, marine, personal, surety, claims, finance, human resources and business-has a steering group composed of staff from that unit and from the IT division. They meet at least once every quarter to discuss priorities for the coming months.

Mitchell, his direct reports, and representatives from each business unit, make up the Business Tech Group, which meets every two to three weeks to share information and review strategy. Mitchell co-chairs the group with an executive from the business side.

Mitchell also is a member of Atlantic's Business Planning Group. Comprised of senior vice presidents from the various units, and Atlantic's president and chairman, the group focuses on corporate strategy.

Assisting AGents

Currently, Mitchell and his staff are in the process of rolling out an e- business product targeted to the company's 880 independent insurance agents.

Dubbed "Abiz," the product allows the agents to manage accounts online. They will be able to get quotes, check on billing, and have a full service interface with Atlantic.

"Our plan is to have agents as our business partners," Mitchell says.

Initially, Abiz will be targeted to the commercial insurance business. After working on the product for about a year, the IT staff is testing it with a handful of agents and will roll it out later in the year.

In general, Atlantic has developed Internet-based products selectively over the past five years.

"We've had some good thought leadership with the Internet," Mitchell states. "We didn't just throw products out there to target millions of people."

One of its first forays began about five years ago with the business-to- consumer site InsurePoint. Designed as an insurance exchange for commercial lines, the effort targeted small high-tech businesses in California. InsurePoint has since been spun off and is signing additional carriers to allow both customers and agents to get multiple quotes on small business products.

Atlantic Mutual's IT team also developed Riskpoint, which enables commercial and marine accounts to view their claims loss history and analyze those losses. The product is especially useful for risk managers at large companies. "They can create reports that pinpoint loss drivers," Mitchell explains.

For the most part, Atlantic, like other carriers, is now targeting agents with its new Internet efforts, such as Abiz. "We got our (Internet) exposure early," Mitchell says. "Now, we see it as a great mechanism to improve the agents' environment."

Jeanne Burke is a freelance business writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

David P, Mitchell, Jr.

Age: 47

Education:

Virginia Western Community College, Roanoke Virginia computer science,

graduated 1974.

Experience:

2001 to present

Senior vice president, information systems, Atlantic Mutual,

New York.

1998 to 2000

Vice president, information systems, Atlantic Mutual.

1987 to 1998

Assistant vice president, information systems, Atlantic Mutual.

1986 to 1987

Manager of systems and programming, Atlantic Mutual.

1982 to 1986

Project manager, Atlantic Mutual.

1979 to 1982

Project leader, Atlantic Mutual.

1977 to 1979

Senior Programmer/analyst, Atlantic Mutual.

1974 to 1977

Programmer, Roanoke City Schools, Roanoke, Va.

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