In the C-Suite with Eric Spencer
Amerisure Mutual Company’s Vice President of Claims discusses the shift in claims training, his strategies for effective leadership, and how he found a career in insurance on his wedding day.
By Taylor Smith
Eric, where did you grow up?
I grew up mainly in the mountain area of San Bernardino. We moved around a bit because of my dad’s work, but primarily we lived in Southern California.
What did your parents do?
My dad was a civil engineer and worked on a number of the highways built in Southern California. My mom was a resource specialist in our local school district. She always was home when I was home and had the same school vacations that I had, so it was really nice.
Do you have siblings?
I’m the youngest of four—the youngest by six years. I have two older brothers and an older sister.
Did you have any exposure to the insurance industry when you were growing up?
I had a little bit knowing that my dad had to get bonds to do his work, but I never really connected that to insurance. However, it did expose me to the concept of joint ventures and why you would do a joint venture. I remember asking my dad why he’d joint venture with a company if his company was doing the work. He explained the finances of his work to me, which were very interesting.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was a fairly decent soccer player, so most of my aspirations were about playing soccer. I never really thought about much else. I had a number of friends who played professional indoor soccer, and I thought that was what I’d do—until I found out how little money they made. I went into college without a very clear picture of what I was going to do. My only goal was to graduate in four years.
Where did you go to college?
I went to several colleges. I started at a small Bible college in Oregon, then went to the University of Oregon. I finished at Cal State Fullerton, but my deepest allegiance is to the University of Oregon where, up until recently, we were season ticket holders to their football games. I studied psychology. After I graduated, I thought, “Now what?” That’s when I found an opportunity in insurance.
What was your first insurance job?
My wife was a semester behind me in college. She lived next door to a Travelers manager who told her when she graduated that he would get her a job there. She graduated and went through the company’s training program. I had taken a job with Enterprise Rent-A-Car. In that job, I was visiting insurance companies in what were termed “marketing calls,” but they were more like doughnut-delivery calls.
Between those two things, when I saw an ad in the paper for a claims trainee job with Mercury Insurance, I thought it sounded interesting. I had already left Enterprise, and I actually interviewed with Mercury on the day of my wedding. My father-in-law was very gracious to let his daughter marry an unemployed man, but I had a job when I got back from our honeymoon!
Tell me about your training at Mercury.
We spent six weeks in a very controlled environment. The first few weeks were spent exclusively dealing with auto policies. There were seven or eight trainees with a supervisor. We went through a lot of training before we ever took a claim or made a phone call. When we started handling liability claims, our supervisor would sit with us and go step by step through the process. We’d listen in on other adjuster calls and go out with them into the field. We weren’t released to a branch for a few months. It was really an excellent and thorough training.
How does that compare to training in the industry today?
Training is an easy dollar to cut in a budget, and that has been especially true in recent years. There’s often the mindset that we’ll let other companies train and we’ll just hire the experienced adjusters. If everyone does that, though, there won’t be any new adjusters coming into the market. I think we’re beginning to see that change as people are aging and we are missing new, young talent. Companies are beginning to invest more heavily in training. The CLM Claims College is a great example of resources to help train staff.
What was your first supervisor position?
My first true supervisor position was with Travelers in casualty, non-comp claims. That was about five years into my career.
What do you look for when hiring or promoting someone into a leadership position?
I look for those with leadership aptitude that we either test for or that we see demonstrated in project work. It’s not just great claims people who make good leaders. I talk to young leaders about keeping their chins up and not getting lost in the details. Leaders need to be able to take in information and help redirect staff. It requires a degree of humility to look for insight from others; either those you are leading or from others in the organization or industry. It’s also the willingness to take risks and be accountable for those decisions.
Does that require motivational skills?
Motivation means different things to different people. If you’re a high-energy person, you may motivate someone who responds to that, but it may have no effect on someone who does not. It’s important to be adaptable and use what works with different people. I tell people that there are many ways to get to the mall. What’s important is that you get there. You have to know when to pull back on the throttle when needed. Passionate, motivated, self-aware people make good leaders.
Did you have a mentor?
I’ve never been in a formal mentor-mentee relationship, but I’ve had a quite a few people who were significant in shaping my career. One helped me understand the technical aspects of claims. Another was a good, solid leader who helped me learn humility in my leadership style. [Former Chief Claims Officer] Dean Harring was probably the best strategic person for whom I have ever worked. He has a great ability to make strategy very clear and easy to understand and execute.
How have you evolved as a leader?
Looking back, I’m grateful people cut me a lot of slack when I was a young leader. Early on, I thought my way was the right way. I was a hard-charging, passionate person, and I thought everyone needed to be that way. I learned about the value of diversity and different perspectives. If you’re only able to work and lead one way, it makes leading harder because you’re not connecting with people in a way that works for them. Today, I’m still passionate but I look at the world with a broader vision to see all of the dynamics of a situation. I also seek the input of others in order to create an environment where people are willing to contribute and share their talents and insights.
What would you say to encourage someone to enter the claims profession?
The claims industry doesn’t quite get the level of respect that I think it deserves, but inside the claims world we really help people. It is rewarding to hear people say, “thank you.” It’s meaningful to walk someone through the process of getting his life back to normal after a catastrophe or accident. On a personal level, it’s very rewarding to learn about so many different things as you are investigating claims. You’re always learning and it’s never the same. The complexity is always there. It also allows for a well-balanced life. I can look back at my career and know I didn’t miss important moments in the lives of my children.
What advice would you give new claims professionals entering the industry?
I recommend that they become strong and solid in a single line to learn the dynamics and nuances so they can build their skills. They need to learn how to negotiate and how to have empathy for people going through crises. If they aspire to a role in leadership, I suggest that they expand their market knowledge by participating in projects or workgroups. It’s important to understand other roles in the company and the industry. I also recommend being willing to invest in themselves and take advantage of learning opportunities.
Is the relationship between underwriting and claims important?
Definitely. One of the things that makes Amerisure special is that we connect the underwriter, claims, and loss control persons at the hip. They share information and work as a team more than I’ve ever seen before.
How many children do you have?
I have a son who just completed his first year of medical school. If I had to guess, I’d say he’d land in family practice helping in underserved areas. Our daughter has graduated from college and moved to Michigan with us, about which we are thrilled. She works in sales. We’re very proud of both of them.
Do you have any hobbies?
My wife and I like to just spend time together. I like skeet shooting. My wife does not, but she likes to come with me. She pushes the button to release the clay pigeon, and then I try to shoot them. It’s a fabulous hobby that I really enjoy. There’s an art and a challenge to it, and I have plenty of room for improvement. My true passion outside of my family is skiing. I’ll ski anytime, anywhere. We raised our children in the Northwest, where we skied a lot.