CXO Series – Gregory Owen, VP and CIO at Western Reserve Group shares his valuable insight regarding IT challenges and innovation trends in P&C insurance companies…
Gregory Owen is Vice President and CIO for Western Reserve Group, an A.M. Best “A” rated P&C carrier writing personal, commercial and farm business exclusively through independent agents in Ohio and Indiana.
After an early IT career start in banking, manufacturing and distribution, Greg began his insurance technology career with Employer’s Reinsurance Corporation, a GE Capital company, where he was CIO & Client Service Executive for the P&C Re Americas business. He has also held IT leadership positions with Assurant Employee Benefits, and with New York Life where he was Corporate Vice President and CIO for the Long Term Care division. Greg received his BS in Computer Science from the University of Kansas.
Sajid Khan: Gregory, Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this Interview. Can you begin by sharing your perspective on the role of VP and CIO in a mutual P&C insurance company such as Western Reserve Group?
Gregory: Sajid, Thank you as well. I really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.
I definitely see the role continuing to evolve along a journey that started long before I came into the industry. The old “Data Processing” or “Management Information Systems” teams that got their start in Accounting were often seen as a necessary cost to the organization. That has matured into the IT departments we see today that are integral to supporting key business objectives, and are the assembly lines for insurance products. For companies like Western Reserve Group the CIO is now a key member of the executive management team, and is expected to both assist in developing and supporting the business strategy. Instead of being a cost, technology is driving business growth and profitability.
To support this I believe the CIO has to be more than a technologist. You have to understand your products, marketing, distribution, operations and compliance requirements to envision how to strategically apply technology. There’s a lot of synergy with the traditional COO role, and I think that, paired with enterprise risk management needs, will continue to change the role CIO’s play.
For larger companies these new demands can drive the need to still have someone more focused on the traditional bits and bytes; such as the Chief Technology Officer role. But for companies like Western Reserve Group that’s not something we can afford to do, so you still have to keep a toe in the technology. That makes the role more challenging, but also makes it more interesting with an entrepreneurial feel. I know I feel that, and I believe our entire management team feels that pride of ownership. This is our company, and we want to see Western Reserve Group continue to grow.
SK: Would you like to share some of your challenging initiatives at Western Reserve Group as VP/ CIO?
Gregory: Sure. Western Reserve Group is in the heart of a major core systems transformation. This started a few years ago when we began the implementation of a new enterprise data warehouse infrastructure, which laid the foundation for an internal, centralized data exchange for all of our new system implementations and downstream data feeds.
At the same time we were beginning our data warehouse build we we’re finalizing our core systems replacement strategy and vendor selection. Ultimately we selected the Guidewire InsuranceSuite. We are a year into what we’ve internally branded our WRG Connect implementation program to replace billing, claims and policy administration for our commercial, personal and farm lines. This also includes a move to Thunderhead for forms generation and integration into our content management system, along with the 100+ other integration points a transformation like this entails.
Over the past several years Western Reserve has continued to add new features and capabilities to our Agent’s Portal. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, but our internal transformation is also affording us the opportunity to modernize that platform for our agents.
As anyone who’s been down this road before knows each day with a program this complex brings new challenges and issues regardless of the size of your organization. But we’re extremely excited about the new opportunities it will bring us, our agents and our policyholders.
SK: How effectively P&C insurance companies have been innovating in past few years?
Gregory: Compared to a few years ago the level of change is incredible. Do you call that innovation or just catching up?
I do believe the Internet has changed the expectations of consumers, and that in turn has forced investments in modern platforms to support agent and policyholders online access. Most of what consumers have seen over the last several years from a majority of companies has been window dressing on old platforms, or separate but redundant web applications, and that is just too expensive to maintain in the long term. I also believe the commoditization of personal lines products and lower investment income is causing a renewed focus on pricing models for smaller carriers and of course customer service. Market pressures certainly drive innovation as carriers looks for ways to be more efficient.
In my opinion we’re just on the cusp of a new wave of change. As carriers of all sizes complete their system transformations they’ll be looking for ways to leverage those investments, and they’ll have tools at their disposal they haven’t had before. That combined with the new streams of data provided by the Internet of Things and broader use of telematics will allow innovations in pricing, new products and value added services for policyholders. It’s exciting and daunting when there is so much opportunity.
SK: What are some of your plans for future as a VP and CIO at WRG?
Gregory: As I mentioned we’re making significant investments in our core systems and we’ll be working on multiple projects within our WRG Connect initiatives for the next few years. WRG Connect alone will drive efficiency, automation and new online features for our policyholders and agents. This will also include continuing to invest in our data analytics capabilities.
While no solid plan today, we’re cautiously looking at all of the “as a service” offerings. A hybrid model is looking more interesting for infrastructure services, and we’ll likely continue to leverage these types of services for non-core applications.
SK: What’s been your impressive achievement in your career?
Gregory: Without a doubt it has been in completing IT department turnarounds. I’m extremely proud to have come into two different IT organizations that were struggling, had lost the confidence of their customers, and that are now trusted business partners delivering value within their respective companies.
SK: Could you please share your leadership Style? Does your leadership style vary with the role?
Gregory: I truly believe if you have good people working with you then you set the direction and then do your best to support them. I try to make sure my team understands the vision and reasons behind why we’re doing what we are. That way they understand the importance of their work, and can be an active participant in addressing issues or improving on the process. I think we work best as a team where everyone has input and has pride in what we’re accomplishing.
While my leadership style is basically the same, I absolutely do vary my approach based on the role. I’m not a micro-manager, but I will get into the details and provide detailed direction if there is a problem or if asked for help. I have to admit that when talking architectural design my developer roots come out and I can’t help but get a little deeper than folks probably wish I would!
SK: What advice would you offer for other information executives who desire to follow you?
Gregory: I’d have to say remember why you’re there, and in the end it always comes back to relationships.
Too often folks get caught up in the technology and internal process and forget what they are really there for. We provide financial security, peace of mind and support during times of need to our policyholders and claimants through the insurance products we sell. We’re an insurance company, not a technology vendor, and if the process or technology isn’t meeting our customers’ needs it isn’t necessary. Always keep the “Voice of the Customer” in mind.
We all hear it’s a relationship business, and it’s true. You want to do business with folks you like and trust. Treat everyone like they’re you’re customer, internal or external.
SK: Anything else you would like to share with our readers.
Gregory: I frequently talk with my peers in the industry and I’m constantly reminded of just how much we have in common. We have the same technical and business challenges, very similar goals and the same expectations from our customers. It doesn’t matter if we sell $1M or $1B in premium we’re all solving the same problems. We’re just trying to solve them with different sized teams and budgets.
So I’d like to thank you again for the opportunity to talk today. These types of forums help all of us to find solutions to those common problems we share. And in turn, maybe help us to focus a bit more time on those innovations that make our companies stand out.