Inside Risk: Rob Behnke, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store
Rob Behnke, director of risk management for Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and CLM Fellow since 2010, sheds light on how he manages risks, why he prefers a hands-on approach, and his opinion on saying, “I’m sorry.”
By Eric Gilkey
Don’t let the home cooking and crafts fool you. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store has 67,000 employees who serve half a million customers every day across 616 locations in 42 states. Rob Behnke, director of risk management for the company and CLM Fellow since 2010, sheds light on how he manages risks, why he prefers a hands-on approach, and his opinion on saying, “I’m sorry.”
Q. Where did your career begin?
A. I started out of college as a multi-line claims adjuster with Liberty Mutual and I had no idea what an adjuster actually was when I accepted the job. I handled multi-line claims—property, auto, liability, comp—which isn’t so common now. But it was a very beneficial background for me to have since I’m now responsible for those things at Cracker Barrel. I’m definitely a claims guy at heart.
Q. What is your day-to-day life like?
A. I am primarily responsible for our insurance program, workers’ comp claims, general liability claims, financial planning and projections, OSHA, and whatever other oddball issue presents itself each day. However, I really like to stay involved as much as I can in the day-to-day claims.
Every morning, I review the list of checks that were issued by our workers’ comp TPA the prior day, so I have an idea as to where our money is being spent while also keeping me aware of the claims that are becoming significant. I spend a lot of time each month analyzing claims data so I can alert our finance department of good or bad financial trends in our claims. Thankfully, the trends have been very good for the last several years thanks to the great work of my team.
Q. How hands-on do you get with claims?
A. I’ve been to more than 100 mediations all across the country in the last 10 years. I don’t like sending just an adjuster or attorney; if the injured party is going to be there, we should be there, too, trying to resolve the matter. I have found that there is something magical about mediation; information comes out and people seem much more willing to compromise and resolve things. I like being a part of that.
Q. What kinds of risks do you face?
A. Beyond the basic risks, including workers’ compensation and general liability claims, I think one of the biggest risks for any restaurant company is a food-borne illness outbreak. Not only does it produce claims, but the reputation of the company is at stake.
Q. What’s your overall approach to handling claims?
A. We made a decision to handle all of our customer claims in-house six years ago, and that is a scary and risky task to take on because there is no one else to blame when a claim goes south. Our claims handling approach is to resolve the issue with our guest rather than argue and look for a way not to pay the claim. That means being reasonable, fair, and willing to compromise. This has reduced our litigation by over 50 percent and reduced our overall annual general liability claim costs by over 20 percent as well. It pays to be nice to your customers even when they are making a claim against you.
Q. Is saying “sorry” ok in your department?
A. Absolutely. I tell my department all the time that it’s ok and in fact it’s expected. We should say sorry when a guest is injured or has a bad experience. It’s not an admission of guilt, it’s just common courtesy and it’s absolutely the appropriate thing to do. Why would we want our guests to have a bad experience? Of course we’re sorry.
Q. How do you handle workers’ comp?
A. Our workers’ comp claims are handled by a TPA and managed by my workers’ comp team in my department. My team has reduced our workers’ comp losses by over 30 percent following our introduction of a formal return-to-work program, a new claims allocation system, and our focus on the lost-time claims. We owe it to our employees to make the workers’ comp claim as trouble free as it can be.
Q. What’s a memorable claim you’ve handled?
A. Rather than pick one, I guess the one thing that routinely amazes me more than anything is the complete refusal of some people to accept any responsibility for their actions. Whether it is someone who walked through our landscaping and fell when there was a perfectly good sidewalk three feet away or someone who left his new iPhone on the table and expects us to pay for it when they return hours later and it’s gone, most people don’t seem to think there is any fault on their part—it’s always someone else’s.