When Philip Swift responded to a classified ad for Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., little did he know how that decision would change his life.Swift, living at the time in Liverpool, England, accepted the offer to work for the Novato, Calif.-based carrier, but in the back of his mind he believed his stay in the United States would be short.
Sixteen years later, Swift's career has progressed from being a team leader at a traditional brick-and-mortar carrier to becoming CIO of an Internet insurance company, San Francisco-based Esurance Inc.
"I never went back to (work in) England because I found the business environment in America is much more dynamic," Swift explains. "People here work very hard, but they are rewarded for making decisions, rather than for procrastinating."
Founded in 1998, Esurance provides quote-to-claims service via the Internet for personal auto insurance. Through partnering relationships with banks, credit unions, credit-card companies and other financial firms, it offers auto policies in 27 states.
The company's rapid business growth created unique operational and technical challenges, says Gary Tolman, Esurance's chief operating officer. Tolman hired Swift a year ago in January to help fine-tune and stabilize the technological course of the company as it matures.
"We've moved very quickly here at Esurance, and along the way we've had some problems," says Tolman. "Phil is very pragmatic and deadline-oriented, and has put a disciplined process in place to help us make better business decisions from a technology standpoint."
The most difficult challenge that Esurance has endured to date stemmed from a loss of financing when venture capital funding dried up in 2000. In October, New York-based reinsurer Folksamerica Holding Company, Inc., a subsidiary of White Mountains Insurance Group in Bermuda, bought an 80% stake in the fledgling company, which became an independent entity of Folksamerica.
Swift's responsibilities as CIO include the oversight of the development of Esurance's technology infrastructure, engineering and quality assurance initiatives. He manages an annual budget of $7 million dollars and an IT staff of 47, divided into production support, development, quality assurance and network operations groups.
The first challenge Swift encountered as CIO, however, had nothing to do with technology and everything to do with people.
Due to its earlier financial struggles, the company lost most of its development staff. Swift had to quickly rebuild the group, first by hiring a new management team with a commitment to delivering products on time. Swift also hired programmers who understood they would have a say in setting product and service delivery dates.
In just nine months, he had attracted top IT talent and acquired the personnel needed to successfully run the development area.
"As I look back on my first year, my greatest satisfaction comes from having built a strong team in the development area," says Swift. "The technology challenge is always there, but the biggest challenge is hiring and keeping quality IT employees."
Effective, open-line communication at all levels of the company is one of Swift's biggest strengths as a leader, says Marjorie Davies, Esurance's vice president of Internet operations.
"He is very accessible and walks the floor constantly to make himself even more available to talk to staff," she says. "He is genuinely concerned about making sure people are happy, which is important in our fast-paced environment where we sometimes must put in long hours."
After he rebuilt the development team, Swift was ready to tackle his second-biggest challenge: inflexible technology. Esurance's first-generation systems, Swift explains, were developed quickly to beat the competition and get services to market faster. But they did not have any built-in provisions for future growth and change.
For example, even a simple change such as an increased credit limit in one state would require time-consuming reprogramming because the information was hard-coded. Swift and his team worked to make systems table-driven to enable faster and easier changes, and also to shorten development cycles for product upgrades every four to six weeks.
To further facilitate faster and more standardized releases, Swift and his management team began working more closely with senior business leaders to plan IT goals, set deadlines and commit to specific dates for product delivery.
"We've been able to marry up the development side with the business side and build up a nice rapport," Swift says. "In a small company like ours it is easier to work together as a team and have business leadership involved in the IT decision-making process."
Establising new goals
As Esurance matures from a start-up to a growth company, Swift is setting his short- and long-range IT goals on completing the reconfiguration of systems to increase functionality and flexibility. Hardware, infrastructure, and database re-architecture and upgrades will be completed by September 2002.
By the end of the second quarter, Swift says he hopes to "break off" more functions and turn them into services. For example, he wants to take an existing rating engine that is currently locked into the system and transform it with an XML interface so that it can be easily replaced by a better rating engine.
"We want to restructure the system slightly so we have services plugged in instead of hard-coded and locked in together," he says. "Because we are a small company that relies heavily on vendors, it will be easier for us to upgrade with a better vendor if we are able to 'plug and play.'"
Another major IT goal this year centers on revamping and upgrading how information is organized and loaded into the company's data warehouse. Swift says he wants to reduce load times and increase flexibility to make stored information more accessible and user-friendly.
He hopes to provide actuaries, business executives, and insurance operations employees and analysts with improved data mining capabilities to do faster research and get real-time, on-screen reports on everything from systems errors to annual policy sales and current loss-ratios.
Upgrades and improvements are also on tap for the company's recently acquired call center operation based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Swift says the center's customer service representatives have asked for better technology to provide more service, such as bringing up a caller's transaction history through the use of split screens and other advanced techniques to solve any problem the caller may have.
Even though the company provides around-the-clock customer self-service via the Internet, Swift says the call center is still an important component of the company's business success strategy.
"People like to call and people like to talk, so we want to add more sophisticated technology to improve service and be sure our CSRs have all the customer information at their fingertips to answer any question," he says.
Despite the obvious differences in business philosophies between a brick-and-mortar company like Fireman's Fund and a company that exclusively markets and sells insurance online, Swift says the IT infrastructure at Esurance wasn't perplexing. In fact, Esurance's database design was similar to what he had seen used at his first job at Fireman's Fund Insurance 15 years earlier.
"The biggest technology issue in the beginning was providing online quotes in real time," Swift says. "Now it centers around improving security and privacy measures to get more customers over the barrier of buying directly online."
By the end of 2002, the task of redesigning Esurance's systems will be completed, and the company's IT focus will shift to implementing new technologies when they mature and become more cost-effective, Swift says. This includes voice over IP and wireless technology.
This year, Swift says the company's business volumes are expected to triple as they did in 2001. This rapid business expansion will continue to present challenges in the way service is provided. Swift says more people using the site will put a larger strain on the system to maintain current service levels with fast response times.
"As we finish restructuring our system this year, we will build more flexibility to add more servers and more engines very easily," Swift says. "We must continue to closely monitor our environment and quickly respond to any delays in service by switching in a new backup engine or Web server as needed."
Tina Tapas is a freelance writer based in Prospect Heights, Ill.
Philip J. Swift
Education: City University, London, England; Electrical Engineering Curriculum.
January 2001 to present
CIO, Esurance Inc., San Francisco.
1999 to 2001
Vice president, engineering, eSubscriber, San Francisco.
1998 to 1999
Vice president, information services, QRS, Richmond, Calif.
1996 to 1997
Vice president, research and development, QRS.
Department head, information and product services, Visa International, San Mateo, Calif.
1994 to 1995
Director, VisaVue information services, Visa International.
1993 to 1994
Project leader, member information services, Visa International.
1989 to 1993
Senior project manager, Matson Navigation Company Inc.,
1986 to 1989
Team leader, Fireman's Fund Insurance, Novato, Calif.
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