From the C-Suite: Gary Stephen
PURE’s Gary Stephen speaks about the benefits of designing claim management processes from the customers’ perspective, the industry’s need to develop claims professionals, and the importance of charting your own career plan.
By Taylor Smith
Current Position: Senior Vice President of Claims and Risk Management
Organization Name: Privilege Underwriters Reciprocal Exchange (PURE)
Years in Current Role: More than 3 years
Years in Insurance Industry: 36
Originally From: Greenwich Village, New York
First Claims Job: Claims Representative, Aetna
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Villanova and master’s degree from University of Pennsylvania
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York City—in Greenwich Village. It’s an environment that some might call eccentric, but while you’re growing up, you just assume that’s the way the world is. I think ultimately it made me a more open-minded person.
When did you leave New York?
When I left for college. I went to Villanova in Pennsylvania and then went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. I studied political science in my undergraduate years and then international relations in graduate school. After school, I came back to New York and started my claims career. I loved it.
What was your first claims job?
I was a claims representative for Aetna Life and Casualty. Aetna had a fantastic training program. For three months, I had the opportunity to study insurance and do rotational assignments through different areas of claims. I started specializing in handling casualty bodily injury claims. I did that for about a year before I transferred to Denver for a claims adjuster position, where I handled a diverse caseload of medical malpractice, products liability, and construction loss claims.
When did you begin to move into the management ranks?
About four years into my career at Aetna, we started a claims unit to focus on workers’ compensation, no-fault, and subrogation, and I was chosen to lead that operation. I did that for about a year before moving to Salt Lake City, where I had regional claims management responsibility. After that, I moved to Seattle, where I managed several claim groups that serviced our national account clients.
What do you think Aetna saw in you that enabled your move into management?
I was fortunate to be given a diverse group of claims when I first started out, so I was always learning and had a broad experience with many different types of exposures. I was able to hone my thinking, organizational, and communication skills and translate those into my early supervisory roles. As anyone moves through their career, the importance of being thorough and performing well, I believe, gets recognized.
Did you have any mentorship relationships?
Yes, I’ve had so many people who have been tremendously influential throughout my career. When I first started out, the average tenure of my fellow claims professionals was 15-20 years, so I was in an environment where I was surrounded by people with tremendous expertise. They would counsel me on how to handle different situations, and their advice was very helpful. Then as I moved into management, I encountered other professionals who took an interest in me and my career and gave me advice and counsel. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been counseled by many professionals who have helped me grow throughout my career.
Do you think formal mentorship programs are helpful?
They can be, but it’s important to make sure it’s not forced on either party. We do some mentorship here at PURE, and it’s successful because it’s really based on volunteers. The best mentors understand the role and are willing to put in the time to do it well. It also requires a degree of personal chemistry between two people. When it’s forced, it’s not as effective.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I try to make certain that I’m delivering a very clear message about who we are, what we need to accomplish, how we perform the work we do, and what our organizational image needs to be. I try to avoid micromanaging and to be outwardly focused, as well, so I’m not myopic. I solicit feedback from agents, policyholders, and peers about our performance.
Have you found that your leadership style has changed over the years?
I’ve made some adaptations based on the organization and the role that I’m in. But at the heart of it, I believe successful leaders have core beliefs that do not change about how they interact with people and other areas. I’ve been in roles that require operational skills and those that require a more strategic focus. How you perform and where you focus is somewhat dictated by your role.
Tell me about your company.
PURE is a reciprocal insurer owned by its membership. We are five-plus years old and are currently offering coverage to about 16,000 families in nearly 40 states. What we have tried to create here is absolutely the most outstanding customer service organization that we possibly can. Certainly, the feedback we get tells us that we are successful in doing that. Strategically, we do some things that are very different—we’re the only company that exclusively focuses on highly affluent clientele. We believe that, for that clientele, word-of-mouth advertising and reputation is absolutely critical to success. We believe that our remarkable growth rate is due in no small part to the outstanding claims and risk management services that we offer.
Coming to PURE and being able to build and design a claims organization from the ground up, I was able to look at claims management from a client perspective. We’ve created such a remarkable claims experience that our policyholders—or what we call our members—want to talk about it with others. More than 98 percent of our members who have had claims with us say they would highly recommend us to a family member or friend. We’re also good stewards of the company’s financials in terms of achieving accurate outcomes.
How do you use technology to communicate with clients?
We capture e-mail addresses for our insureds and make extensive use of that information to provide advice and counsel to them on how to protect their property and how they can reach us if they need us. However, we want our interactions to be personal, so we hire very experienced claims people who can make that positive connection. We make sure each member has a single point of contact in the company.
What about the role of technology overall in your claims organization?
Being a relatively new company and building our systems from the ground up makes a huge difference. We aren’t dealing with old legacy systems. All of our systems are designed so that we have the information we need, when we need it, which allows us to better serve our members and agents. Our policy and claims systems are also fully integrated. For example, I can instantaneously pull up the exact policy of any of our members as I’m speaking to them. Another great thing is our ability to easily specify a geographical area and identify our members in that area. When tornadoes hit the Dallas area earlier this year, we were able to make more than 100 outbound calls to members in that area to see if they were OK and if their property was OK. That kind of service really resonates with our policyholders, and that’s important.
Do you see a talent crisis in the claims industry?
I don’t see a talent crisis on a broad scale, but I do worry that as an industry we are facing a development crisis. We have bright people in the industry with broad capabilities, but I worry whether as an industry we’re creating the opportunity for them to grow broadly enough. In other words, can they understand liability exposure, insurance company operations, underwriting functions, and insurance financials? Certainly in some specific areas, we are seeing a talent crunch. For example, there is a lack of highly trained property claim professionals. I believe this is because, as an industry, we have cut back on training, and our trained professionals are getting older and retiring. It raises the question of how we are going to fully develop claims professionals in the future.
Do you think it’s best to have a broad experience base or to specialize?
If I were a young professional today, I’d be looking for opportunities to get a broad base of experience. I’d consider lateral moves, and I would take on additional assignments. I also encourage young professionals to chart their own development courses. It is important not to let opportunities come to them, but for them to chart their own course and seek out opportunities. All of those things can help grow and expand a career. At some point, an individual may want to focus and develop a deep expertise in a particular area and opt for a more specialized role, but at the onset, I would encourage people to think more broadly.
Tell me about your family.
I am married and have one son who recently graduated from George Washington University and is currently working as a construction project manager. We also have a one-year-old chocolate lab named Chloe. Having a one-year-old lab will keep you on your toes.
What’s in your technology bag when you travel?
Laptop, iPhone, and Kindle.
Can you share anything with us that relatively few people know about you?
A lot of people may not know of my love for skiing and fishing. I love deep-sea fishing, and I also fly-fish. We frequently go to the Pacific Northwest to fish for salmon. It’s a time that I truly look forward to every year.