In the C-Suite with Ken Kozek, Grange Insurance

Grange Insurance’s Vice President of Claims speaks about not losing your cool, running the Boston Marathon, and why managing claims is such an important and rewarding service to others.

By Taylor Smith

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Chicago and lived on the South Side. I went to college in Toledo, Ohio.

Tell us about your family as you were growing up.

I have two brothers and three sisters—I’m the oldest. My mom was a nurse, and my dad owned his own mobile truck power washing company. I started working for him when I was 10 years old. We had vans with self-contained water tanks and motors that we would drive around to wash trucks and other vehicles. I’ve washed trucks, planes, helicopters, and mobile homes. My dad and his partner grew the business from two trucks to 10 trucks.

When you were growing up, what did you want to be?

I thought I wanted to be an attorney; I thought it sounded like a great profession. My dad’s advice was to become a professional, so that’s what I thought I’d do. Ultimately, I went to the University of Toledo and earned a bachelor’s degree in English. I was always good at writing, so it made sense.

What did you do after graduating from college?

I first took a job with a rental car company that did insurance replacement work. The owner of that company decided to open a branch in Fort Wayne, Ind. Having the opportunity to run my own business at the age of 21 sounded great, so I did that for a while. We were in the same building as the Nationwide claims office, where I made some friends and developed an interest in claims.

I didn’t see a long-term future with the rental car company, so I applied for a job with Farm Bureau Insurance as a claims trainee. I worked with them in Fort Wayne for a year. My goal was to get back to Toledo and, fortunately, a job opened up at Grange.

What was your training program like at Farm Bureau?

The training was pretty intense. They were ahead of the curve at the time. They had a training office in Indianapolis with its own body shop and home. It was a three-week program. The first week was policy oriented, the second week was focused on homeowners’ losses, and the third was auto-focused—we actually worked in the body shop. Then we were put in a field office filling in for claims adjusters who were on vacation or out ill. I did that for three months until a job opened up in Fort Wayne.

At what point did you realize that claims was something you wanted to do as a career?

It was early on because there was a company car involved. My first company car was a brand new Ford Thunderbird, which was pretty great at the time. There also was a lot of flexibility with the job that I enjoyed. I tend to work better when I’m not micromanaged.

I have worked in several lines, but I have always liked working property losses because each claim is so different. Plus, especially in a fire loss, you are really doing something to help a family. It made the job meaningful. I went to a Jesuit high school where the mantra was “service to others,” so that’s always been important to me. To get paid to help others is a great career opportunity and probably something not stressed enough in our industry.

What was your first management job?

I was with Grange close to 10 years before I took my first management role. I was a working supervisor. I was handling fire and large property losses while also supervising claims reps.

Why would you encourage college students to pursue a career in claims?

There are many career opportunities because so many of us in claims and insurance, in general, are getting older and we need young, new talent. To be a good claims person, you have to genuinely care about people. You help make something good out of something bad. I think it’s a noble profession, and the work is varied and interesting. In some positions, the work hours can be flexible, which is attractive. During a catastrophe, the days are long, but those also are the most rewarding times because you are helping those in crisis. And if someone’s not interested in claims, the insurance industry as a whole offers other opportunities in areas like marketing, underwriting, IT, customer service, and much more.

Do you find it difficult to find the right people for claims jobs?

Actually no, and I think that has to do with the culture here at Grange. It’s a fun place to work. My best friends work here. We have people with very long tenures here. It’s a blend of a culture of accountability, openness, and fun that creates an environment to be successful. Our staff has personal ownership and accountability for their work.

I left Grange once and came back because I missed the culture. I was with Grange for 15 years, left for what I thought was a better opportunity, then came back two years later. I’m glad I did.

What advice do you give young professionals to help them to be successful?

Take advantage of the opportunities that are available to you. Get a broad knowledge base at first; from there, you can specialize. Throughout your career, continue to educate yourself and make yourself as valuable as possible. Be flexible to meet the needs and expectations of those you serve. Be a good communicator. Write and speak well, but most importantly, listen. You have to listen to policyholders so you can serve them well.

Does your organization take on professionals new to the industry?

We do. We’ve had seven trainee classes and are planning one this year. We have up to 10 students in each class. We first decide where we want to place them in our offices across the country and then hire them in the local area where they would work. We recruit from local colleges when possible and plug in with companies that have good training programs, such as Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

How would you describe your management style?

I look for the right people, so I don’t have to micromanage them. I look for people who like to take ownership of their work. I trust them to get the job done, but they know I’m here if they need me. I also wouldn’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.

Where do good ideas come from?

We are very plugged into the industry and participate in industry events and conferences. Many times, those generate good ideas to pilot. When our staff attends an event, it’s with the expectation that they come home with knowledge that they can share or ideas we can pilot. We also stay connected with our peer companies to see what they are doing and how it might fit at Grange.

Are you noticing any industry trends in terms of policyholder expectations?

Policyholders are certainly more accustomed to a fast pace of communication and resolution. We give them options to text, email, or call. We don’t dictate how they communicate with us but tailor our response in a way that best serves their needs. One of the most important things, in my view, is to offer them choices.

One of the reasons handling claims today is definitely more difficult than when I first started is the speed with which policyholders expect resolution. We have the tools to help with that, but we have to focus on doing it fast and accurately. Many consumers also are more educated about the process, so we have to be able to communicate with them on a higher level than we had in the past. Still, others are not educated on the process, so a claims professional has to be able to work well with all types of customers.

Did you have any mentors in your career?

Absolutely. They were typically people I sought out or those who reached out to help me. In that relationship, it’s important to be comfortable with one another. In my view, it works better if it’s not something arranged by a third party.

What would you encourage a new manager NOT to do?

Don’t be dictatorial. Don’t lose your cool. Don’t be unavailable—drop what you are doing when someone needs something from you.

Do you have any hobbies?

My passion is running. I’ve run 12 marathons, including three Boston Marathons. I try to run at least one a year. Even during the years when I don’t do a marathon, I’m still running. I try to do anywhere from four to six miles a day during the week, and longer on the weekend. I started running later in life when I discovered it was going to be a necessity if I wanted to keep eating and drinking what I wanted. I then decided there needed to be another purpose to the running, so I started doing races. I started with 10K distance races and built up to marathons. I was 39 years old when I ran my first marathon.

What was your most interesting marathon?

I was running in the last Boston Marathon when the bombing happened. I was running with a co-worker, and we had finished about 20 minutes before the bombing. We were about six blocks away. We left right away and went back to the hotel once we found our friends who were there to cheer us on. I don’t think I’ve ever gone from such a high of finishing a marathon to such a low. It’s something I hope to never experience again. I’m not running the Boston Marathon this year, but hope to do it again in 2015.

Do you have children?

I do. I have two sons and a daughter. My oldest is 26, and he’s a tattoo artist in California. My second son is a sports journalist with an Internet sports channel in Chicago. And my daughter was just accepted to Columbus College of Art and Design. She’s going to study digital media and marketing. I couldn’t be more proud of them.   

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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