In the C-Suite with Tom Nelson
Continental Western Group’s Vice President of Claims explains what it takes to be a great claims professional.
By Taylor Smith
You’re one of the very few executives who we’ve interviewed that has a familial connection to the insurance industry. Did that influence your career choice?
I grew up in Owatonna, Minn., where my dad had a 39-year career with Federated Insurance. He was responsible for bringing the first mainframe computer to Federated back in the day when those needed a huge, special room. He was a senior vice president there for many years. So I guess through osmosis I was exposed to insurance all my life, although my dad did not work in claims.
How did you get your first job in claims?
As I was about to graduate from college and contemplating law school, I realized that I wanted to take some time off from school and get a job. About that time, I spoke with a recruiter from St. Paul Companies who explained the claims role. It sounded really interesting—and the Chevrolet Malibu company car was pretty alluring.
Do you think newer claims professionals today should specialize their focus or remain as broad as possible?
I think, to a degree, that there are differences in what kinds of claims people might like to handle based on their personalities. For example, I think property and casualty claims professionals have different ways of thinking about things. Some people are better suited for one type of claim versus another. Of course, being exposed to a broad base of options and lines is helpful for any future management roles.
How has the pace of claims work changed?
It’s definitely much faster today. Back when I started, we didn’t even have fax machines, so you would send everything standard mail. Interactions took much longer, so you had more time. Now, everything is almost instantaneous with email, the Internet, and text messaging.
Customers today also have much higher expectations in terms of response time. Not only the pace, but also overall customer expectations have changed. For example, it’s easy now for claimants to do their own research and have their own expectations in terms of valuation. That can make the claims resolution process more challenging when a claimant’s research differs from reality.
How has your management style changed over the years?
I was given an opportunity to manage the claims staff in St. Paul’s Charlotte, N.C., office, and someone gave me the good advice to not overfocus on areas in which I was not as experienced. In other words, don’t try to be an expert in all things. Trust the people working with you. My job was to manage the staff and not to be an expert in all the lines they were handling.
How would you promote a claims career to a young person today?
Claims has been an outstanding career for me, and I think that opportunity is still there for new professionals today. There is so much variety in the profession. From the beginning, as a claims representative, every claim and every person with whom you deal is different. Then you start building knowledge in a variety of areas. There also is a forensics element of the career, which appeals to many younger people. Our work is a bit like the CSI shows that are so popular today.
What makes someone a good claims person?
When I interview candidates, I look for a fair amount of intangibles. A good attitude is absolutely key. I also look for someone who is passionate and willing to work as a team member. I’ve seen some really smart people go down in flames when they thought they knew more than others and were not open to learning. I also look for people who want to take the time to attend various professional training opportunities that exist in the industry. A willingness to invest in your own learning is a really important part of professional growth.
What are your hobbies?
Until not too long ago, I was an avid Harley rider. Riding was a lot of fun and a great way to de-stress after a long day. I took a lot of rides along the Mississippi River, and they were just beautiful. However, in this current job, I saw too many motorcycle fatalities, and my wife and daughter convinced me to sell my bike and focus more on golf. I do enjoy golfing, and it’s a lot safer. I haven’t been hit by a golf ball yet.
Current position: Vice President, Claims, Continental Western Group
Years in Current Role: Seven
Years in Insurance Industry: 37
Originally From: Owatonna, Minn.
First Claims Job: Claims Trainee, St. Paul Companies