Inside Risk: Brian Walters, Centerplate
Managing risk for the food service provider's thousands of employees and clientele—some of the biggest stadiums in the country—is no game.
By Eric Gilkey
Food services provider Centerplate has 30,000 employees and more than 350 clients, some of which include professional sports stadiums like San Francisco’s Levi’s Stadium, Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, and Seattle’s SAFECO Field. CLM Fellow Brian Walters explains what it takes to succeed in this challenging and competitive environment fraught with risks.
Q. How did you get interested in risk management?
I became a risk manager by way of a safety specialist. My early career involved working with state government and insurance carriers as a loss control representative, but I was always intrigued by the larger role of managing overall risk. I realized early in my career that all safety and loss control is driven by the ROI it can generate. While I enjoy risk financing and the complex world of claims, my foundation is safety and loss control. I found myself investigating principles of risk finance, claims handling, underwriting, and broker/carrier relationships, and made a purposeful transition to the risk management profession.
Q. What is your philosophy when it comes to managing risks?
Risk management at Centerplate is a diverse and unique challenge because our business model bridges foodservice and hospitality. While we serve several hundred million guests per year, we aim to provide a hospitality experience second to none for each guest, from fine dining to a stadium beverage.
I would describe my approach as neither risk taker nor risk avoider, as I take calculated risks that allow us to grow our business while ensuring that we protect our assets. While I was risk averse early in my career, I now appreciate taking risks so long as they are properly evaluated.
Q. What is your day to day work life like?
I typically have my to-do list, which involves significant communication with operations and other internal departments, as well as working closely with our third party administrator to effectively manage our claims. Frequently, this to-do list gets thrown out the window when a request or urgent situation presents itself.
Working in such a diverse environment means that my daily activities include managing workers’ compensation claims, reviewing contracts for proper indemnity language, placing and managing our bonds, managing food safety, basic loss control activities, crisis response, and reputational risks. These varied responsibilities and desire from within our organization to continually improve help me stay focused on my tasks while playing an integral part of our management team.
Q. What exposures and claims keep you up at night?
The exposures at Centerplate are many and range from significant dram shop (liquor) and foodborne illness liabilities to the common premises liability and significant workers’ compensation exposures. In addition, due to our employment base, we have employment practices liabilities.
While workers’ compensation claims represent the most significant portion of our claims—and my time—it is the dram shop and foodborne illness risks that “keep me up at night.” The dram shop and foodborne illness exposures are two areas in which we have no room for error, as we must maintain focus on programs and procedures that we have in place to prevent and mitigate these claims. These claims not only have significant dollar exposures, but also come with significant reputational and brand exposures that may exceed the actual claim value.
Q. How do you manage claims? How is your department staffed?
We have a very limited staff, so we employ several key business partners to help us manage risk and the resulting claims. Key to this is our third party administrator, which includes a team of about 14 adjusters who handle our claims. We have state-specific workers’ compensation adjusters and centralized liability adjusting. We use a simple system to allocate claims costs to our units, which helps us “gain traction” with local and regional management in loss control activities.
Q. Are there any unique claims or claims situations that you can discuss?
Due to our business plan and scope, unique claims are all too common. How often do you have a workers’ compensation claim involving being struck by baseball? Or dealing with a guest who finds a knife blade in his hot dog?
Q. What does it take to succeed in risk management?
In my opinion, some of the key attributes it takes to be successful in this role is an ability to communicate clearly and effectively, be an active listener, and maintain flexibility since we all wear many hats.