12/10/2013

In the C-Suite: George Neale

Selective Insurance Company’s Chief Claims Officer discusses multiline training, the challenge of leading a large team, and putting passion ahead of retirement.

By Taylor Smith

Where did you grow up?

In Washington, D.C., right across the street from the old stadium where the Washington Redskins used to play. I always wanted to go to a game, but tickets just weren’t readily available to those in the inner city neighborhood that surrounded the stadium. When I was a junior in high school, I got on the waiting list for season tickets. I recall the person taking my information saying, “I hope you’re young.” Twenty-five years later, I got the tickets and have had them for about 15 years now. Perseverance pays off. I try to make it to a few games a year. Having my father and sister living so close to the new stadium provides additional motivation to return home on a regular basis.

What did your parents do?

My father worked at the Pentagon for about 35 years. He started as a bike messenger delivering mail and worked his way up to a top-secret clearance. That’s where a lot of my work ethic comes from. I watched all he did and accomplished with only a high school education. He was a great role model. I grew up in a pretty tough environment with lots of opportunities to take the wrong path, but I had good parental guidance to help keep me on track.

One of the coolest things my dad’s job got me access to was an opportunity to be on the White House lawn and shake the hand of President Richard Nixon. At the time, I had no idea I would end up being a Duke alumnus as well.

Was anyone in your family involved in the insurance industry?

No. It seems like everything I’ve done in my life has been different than what my family has done—everything from my career, to being heavily involved in music when I was younger, to playing tennis now. Nobody in my family did any of those things. Sometimes I joke with my father that perhaps I was adopted.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

In junior high school, I wanted to do something related to music. I started writing music when I was 13, and I copyrighted and recorded my first song when I was 14. Music was always playing in our house, and I developed a real passion for it. Every Saturday, my dad let my sister and me buy one 45 rpm record. I picked up a trumpet for the first time when I was 12. It was very natural. I got very good very fast and nurtured that passion. I was in the marching band and played in my own band at events and parties. I was also in the D.C. Youth Orchestra. Music was my first love, but academics was my father’s. You see who won out.

Where did you go to college?

I studied economics at Duke. I was attracted to the way economics makes you think. To this day, it plays a role in how I do my job and how I think. Too often, people only think in terms of what they get, not what they give up. That way of looking at opportunity cost helps keep your thinking balanced, and knowing that the balance can change anytime keeps you on your toes.

Did you play music while attending Duke University?

When I first went there, I was not really involved in music. I was more focused on my academics and working. In my junior and senior years, I reconnected with music and played in the jazz ensemble. That allowed me the opportunity to play with Dizzy Gillespie and a few other famous musicians.

What did you plan to do with a degree in economics?

Growing up in D.C., everyone worked for the government. I intended to do the same thing. The recession got in my way because there was no hiring in government when I graduated, so that made me receptive to private industry. My concern was that most of those jobs required you to relocate. I never thought I’d leave D.C. I ended up taking a job that did require me to relocate after five months to Charlotte which, by no coincidence, is where I make my home now.

Was that your first job at Travelers?

Yes. I started with Travelers three weeks after I graduated from college. Back then, there was a lot of emphasis on training. We spent five months training; a month in each line. When we were done, we really knew how to handle claims and understood which lines best suited our capabilities.

Do you think being exposed to multiple lines early in your career was advantageous for you?

Absolutely. I think that’s one of the places where the industry has gotten off track a bit. We have people in single tracks now for their entire careers. It’s one of things that attracted me to Selective after leaving Liberty. Selective is one of the few carriers that continues to have multiline claim handlers. It’s really important for self-development for the individual and the company. As people ascend into management, it’s extremely beneficial to have multiline experience.

Does that approach invigorate your staff?

It does. It helps round out a person’s career and choose what fits him or her best. And it opens up career track opportunities for them.

Do you think colleges should offer claims education?

It’s always surprising to me that those colleges that offer risk and insurance programs do not have a claims track. Claims management is such an integral part of an insurance company’s operations. I would love to see those schools start to look at claims as the profession that it is. A lot of people luck into this profession, and it would be great to have students planning early on to take this career path.

How can claims executives create an environment that is supportive of change?

One of the mistakes managers too often make is not doing a good job explaining why change is necessary and the expected benefits from change. People will get on board and take reasonable risks if they believe in the vision and understand the strategy.

You’ve managed exceptionally large teams in your career. What are some of the challenges in leading an organization of 5,000 or more people?

You have to be an underwriter of talent. You can’t manage everything. You have to have the right people in the right jobs doing the right things so that the company’s strategic vision can be carried out. The job is easier, in a way, when you have that many people because you have several high-level professionals under you who are accountable for their areas. That has allowed me to be in some very strategic roles. But when you are in a smaller organization, you have to be more involved in the execution of day-to-day claims handling. I think that can be even more challenging because your managers have to be more versatile, which puts an even greater importance around talent management and development.

You retired from Liberty Mutual and then started at Selective. What took you out of retirement so quickly?

Selective excited me because it has a strong foundation in claims and a superior service reputation. It also afforded me the opportunity to directly manage some things I hadn’t done previously in my career like staff counsel, bond, and environmental claims. But at the end of the day, it was really about continuing to have a strong passion for the work and supporting an extremely well-run company with superior and innovative claims management. I am driven by continuous improvement, and there are still many things I want to accomplish in claims before I retire to the tennis courts.

Do you have children?

I have two sons. One is in business for himself, and the other has been in claims for 10 years. I’m very proud that he is following in my footsteps and making his own name for himself.

Do you have any hobbies?

I play tennis. I love it because the more you put into it, the better you’ll get…even at my age. There is a lot more strategy to it than people think. If you’re a better strategist than your opponent, you can beat them. I get satisfaction out of that, especially if they are younger than me.  



Taylor Smith is a contributing editor to CLM Magazine and president of CLM Advisors, which provides consulting and talent acquisition services to the claims and litigation management industry. He may be reached at taylor.smith@clmadvisors.org, (224) 212-0134, www.clmadvisors.org.

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