In the C-Suite with David Conner
United Fire Group’s Vice President of Claims and Chief Claims Officer sheds light on what he looks for in a claims trainee, changing the public perception of claims, and generational differences in the workforce.
By Taylor Smith
Where did you grow up?
My family moved around a lot because my dad had a series of interesting jobs. He got bored easily and always wanted to try new things. We first lived in Chicago, then Pennsylvania, where we stayed until I began high school. When I was a sophomore, we moved to Iowa.
My dad got a degree in music from Northwestern University and started as the first trumpeter in the Chicago Symphony. He always said that job had more stress than most people realized, since everyone is always trying to take your spot. After doing that for awhile, he went back to school and earned an engineering degree.
Ultimately, after working as an engineer for many years, he decided to buy a farm in Iowa. We rented out the farmland, and my dad worked in town as a manager of a business. I still consider myself an Iowa farm kid, though, because I love that kind of work and being outdoors. That said, when I graduated from high school, I didn’t see much of a future in farming because of the growth of big corporate farming. So I went to business school at the University of Northern Iowa.
When you were growing up, what did you want to be?
Through my grade school and early high school life, I wanted to play professional soccer. I had my sights set on going to Penn State until we moved to Iowa. In Iowa, soccer was non-existent at the high school level. My dad coached soccer at Grinnell College in Iowa, though, so I was able to work out with the team. Then I played soccer in college. When it came time to choose a college major, my dad advised me that a business degree would give me the most options.
What did you do after graduating from college?
I was introduced to claims during my senior year in college. I was renting a room from a friend who was a field adjuster. Because I couldn’t see myself sitting behind a desk all day long, claims seemed like a great fit for me. I loved the idea that I would be out and about in this kind of career.
What was your first claims job?
I worked for GAB Robins, which was then known as GAB Business Services, as an independent adjuster. I went through their training program and was a field adjuster in central Iowa for about three years. Then I was “lucky” enough to get promoted to an office in East Saint Louis. I was fairly young to have that kind of position, but I suspect that no one else wanted to work there. I thought it would provide a great opportunity for my career growth, so I took it. It was a great decision.
Was the transition to management difficult?
There were a lot of similarities in the customer service aspect of my role. Because GAB Robins was an independent adjusting firm, as an adjuster I had two masters to serve: the insurers sending in the claims and the policyholders. In management, I had a similar situation in which I had to serve my internal customers, the employees, and my external customers—the policyholders and insurers. That experience of having such a crossover in roles was very helpful.
What kind of training did you receive at GAB Robins?
At the time, GAB Robins had one of the more well-known training programs, which they conducted at training facilities in Denver. I was there for six weeks, and it was very intense. They ran the full multiline training program for all of the candidates. It was great. Every week we were graded, and then we had a final grade at the end that was sent back to our managers.
Is that brand of intense training rare in the industry today?
It is certainly not seen as frequently. Here at United Fire, we believe in that kind of model, though. For example, we develop our new trainees for about nine to 12 months before they are given the title of adjuster. We may be a little unique in our high investment in our trainees—and, in fact, many companies I know won’t hire trainees.
Our entry-level folks are generally college graduates or someone coming from another career. During those early months, we give them solid multiline training. Right now, we have two trainees on staff. Our turnover is so low that we have to manage our new hires carefully so we don’t have people without work. We are growing, though, so we’re ramping up to handle that. Our perfect candidate is someone right of college. We have a great relationship with the Vaughan Institute of Insurance at the University of Iowa, which is not far from our offices in Cedar Rapids. We use graduates from that program for claims and other specialties, like underwriting.
What attributes do you look for in a potential adjuster trainee?
Primarily, I look for strong and advanced people skills—things like how they express themselves and whether or not they enjoy social interaction. For me, it’s a fairly quick read when candidates come in. I think it’s important to have a mix of strong intellect and an interest in building relationships.
Do you have trouble finding qualified claims candidates?
I think the biggest problem with bringing new talent to the industry is that we have not done enough to sell the concept that a career in claims is something of which to be proud. Many college students may look at claims as an unexciting or boring career. Even the students studying risk and insurance are exposed to more of the finance or actuarial side of insurance than the claims side. When they do get exposed to claims, they begin to see the potential for a fulfilling career.
When I meet with younger professionals who are considering claims, I point out that the claims industry is growing, which brings excellent career security. I also like to tell them that it’s a good career choice for someone who likes challenge and variety in their work. It’s also fulfilling because we are able to get out and help people during their times of crises. My love for claims has been maintained because it’s continually challenging. You can never sit still and stop learning, and I love that. That keeps me motivated and driven.
What advice do you give young professionals?
First and foremost, do everything you can to continue your education. There are many professional development programs available, and it better positions you to be more marketable for open positions. If you have a passion for a specialty, focus on that and tailor your continuing education for it. Make people aware of your interests. Set targets and goals for yourself. I finished my CPCU and earned my master’s degree in business to make myself more marketable for the higher-level positions I wanted.
Have you noticed generational differences with younger claims professionals?
Each generation has probably said the same thing about the next one. I find that today’s younger staff members are more anxious to move up quickly. The challenge, then, is to always keep them motivated. Beyond that, I don’t know that I believe there are too many differences. I will say that I believe that being a claims professional in today’s fast-paced environment, with more information and higher customer expectations, makes the job even harder than it used to be.
Tell me about your involvement with the Central Claim Executives Association.
I currently serve as the president of the board for the CCEA, which is an organization of senior officers from property & casualty insurance companies located in the central part of the U.S. It’s a group of my peers, which I really enjoy. We see some of the same things and have some of the same challenges, so we are able to network and discuss those topics. The purpose of the group is to develop ideas to promote the claims industry as a whole. We’re starting to focus more on improving the reputation of the industry to help attract new talent. We meet several times each year.
Tell me about your family.
I have a son, Alex, who just graduated from the University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Business. He’s working as a management trainee for a group of physical therapy clinics. He’s doing very well, and he’s staying in Iowa—which I am very pleased about.
What hobbies do you have?
A few years ago, I purchased 40 acres in the middle of nowhere for the sole purpose of building a weekend getaway and maybe a place for my retirement. Three years ago, I built a four-acre pond there and stocked it with largemouth bass, blue gill, and feeder fish. It was a fun learning experience to learn exactly how many of each type of fish would be required to make the pond self-sustaining. This year, I hope to put a cabin or a small house on the property. It has been a lot of fun to put that together and begin the planning.
Are you an avid fisherman?
Yes. I used to participate in tournament fishing, but it became too time-consuming and expensive. I do have an annual fishing trip that I take with a number of very good fishing buddies. We select different and interesting places each year; this year we picked Chickamauga Lake in Tennessee. I enjoy those trips very much.