By STEVE YAHN, who has written for and edited national publications for more than 30 years
Kelly Crowder was born in Milwaukee and her father died unexpectedly when she and her two brothers were under the age of 3. When Crowder was 8, her mother remarried, and the family moved to the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield.
And that's when Crowder entered a fifth-grade classroom in a new school that would change her life.
"It was really the first time I ever had to meet a new group of friends," Crowder recalled. "I obviously didn't know anybody, and maybe I was a little shy. And yet, in my second semester, I was elected class president. Being elected by new kids really built my confidence and encouraged me to join other organizations and try new activities."
Things continued to unfold dramatically for the better.
High school was full of good times: playing tennis and being a member of the pom pom squad for three years, joining the Spanish Club and serving on the Student Council, then being elected secretary in her senior year. Crowder was a good student and "mostly" got along with her teachers.
"I say 'mostly," she pointed out with an easy laugh, "because I was easily bored, and when that happened, I could get a little chatty. But it made me realize I much preferred to be in situations that are challenging, where I needed to perform under pressure. That continues to this day."
RISK MANAGEMENT MINDED
Crowder's college years at the University of Wisconsin at Madison were good ones as well. She started as finance major.
"That's what I was going to focus on," she said. "But you had to take a number of core classes, and one of them I chose was the principles of risk management. It was so interesting that I made it my major."
It not only got her a double major. It also led to her first job after college.
"I always worked while I was in college," she noted. "But a big break came during my senior year when I was chosen to work in the university's office of risk management."
A gentleman who had worked in the university's risk management department came to recruit for Sedgwick brokerage's San Francisco office. They recruited only at Wisconsin, Temple and Georgia universities because those schools had the country's top risk management departments. And when he came in to see his old boss, Crowder happened to be in the office. It didn't hurt that then as well as now Crowder had a ready smile and an out-going personality.
"I obviously had signed up on the interview schedule. But I got to meet him before my interview. So I talked with him, and things went so well I was invited for a second interview in San Francisco. I was hooked after that," she recalled.
That's also where her career "split," because she already had a job offer from S.C. Johnson in Racine, Wisc., for a finance position, as well as this Sedgwick offer for insurance.
Added Crowder: "In my mind, the choice was between San Francisco or Racine, Wisc. Even though it was very difficult to leave my family and friends, I knew I would regret it if I didn't give it a try. At the time, I thought I'd be here a few years, which made the decision easier."
Twenty years later, she still lives in San Francisco, working for Google in Mountain View.
Crowder's first year at Sedgwick, in 1990, was a heady one. At that time, the company, with approximately 10,000 employees, had a truly global practice. Entering employees like Crowder came in with a good base of knowledge.
"They started as account assistants, doing basic, administrative things," noted Crowder, who was dealing with large clients like Bank of America, Sun Microsystems and Apple.
Crowder's first international trip was for Sedgwick. "I went to London to see how the marketplace there worked, specifically Lloyd's of London," Crowder said. "They selected five people from their U.S. offices to do this. I had always loved to travel, but this expanded my horizons and created new places to add to my list. Since then, my travels have taken me to Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece and Costa Rica--some several times."
Matt Davis, office head of all Aon operations in the Bay Area, in charge of 150 people, was one of the people who were part of the team that recruited students for Crowder's entry year at Sedgwick.
Recalled Davis: "All of those students had a good grassroots understanding of risk management, but I think Kelly stood out. On an overall basis, her people skill set and her personal style translated very well to the brokerage world. And so that's why she was immediately successful at Sedgwick.
"Also, Kelly was very project-management oriented, which was vital at Sedgwick, where we had major service-intensive accounts like Bank of America, Transamerica Corp. and Apple Computer. Right from the start, Kelly was a good listener. That is something we really noticed."
Also, added Davis, Crowder had good overall business skills.
"She was well organized, disciplined and very effective with technology, which, back 20 years ago, wasn't as commonplace as it is now.
"Over time, she developed an ability to have a seat at the strategic table with our customers, to talk with them about their goals and value propositions and strategies and the tactics necessary to carry them out. We had a group that we saw as our 'Navy Seals' team, and Kelly was definitely on it."
That skill set of hers, Davis stressed, and that experience she developed at an early age helped her become the extremely professional risk manager she is today at Google.
"When Kelly looks at risk she understands her TCOR (total cost of risk)," Davis continued. "She also understands the impact of risk on Google beyond just her specific insurance programs, her insurance costs, or even her total cost of risk and how risk can impact her business in other ways. It's not just traditional hazard risk management. It's understanding the way risk management integrates into the very unique culture at Google. Kelly is very good at that."
BROADENING HER BROKER PERSPECTIVE
As Crowder was closing in on her 10th year with Sedgwick, the company was merged into Marsh.
"During the merger of Sedgwick into Marsh, Zurich had been talking to me for a couple of months about joining them on the casualty underwriting side for global accounts. I thought it was a good time to try something new while the dust was still settling from the merger. Even though I would say I learned a lot, and I definitely think it was of value to my overall knowledge base and therefore career, it really was not for me.
"As an underwriter, you were at your desk 90 percent of the time crunching numbers," Crowder added. "And although I love numbers, I'm more of a people person."
Bottom line, then, Crowder enjoyed the role of the broker more.
"I think it relates to my preference for a challenging environment, where multitasking is critical. Also, I preferred being in the middle, working on behalf of clients and negotiating with the markets to deliver the best solutions. To me, it just seemed more interactive. I thrive on negotiating, and I find I do it often in my personal life, too, sometimes to the embarrassment of my friends and family.
Crowder cited the time she was negotiating for a better room or rate when vacationing with friends in Mykonos, Greece.
"I couldn't tell if haggling was just not done there or if it was a language issue," recalled Crowder, "because my requests were just met with stares by the front-desk staff. My friends were distancing themselves from me and finally made me give it up."
After Crowder spent a year with Zurich, the San Francisco office of Arthur J. Gallagher recruited her to become a member of its new global risk management practice team. But Crowder was still in touch with old friends at Marsh in San Francisco.
"They said they were interested in my rejoining them. At Sedgwick we were generalists. At Marsh they developed staff as specialists. They needed someone to be part of their "FinPro" (financial products). This was definitely of interest to me, so I interviewed with them and joined a month later."
That was July 2001 in the midst of the dot-com bust, then Sept. 11. There also were a lot of issues with IPOs at that time. Crowder was specializing in directors' and officers' liability, along with errors and omissions, employment practices liability, and crime and fiduciary liability.
"The most sensitive area clearly was D&O," she recalled. "The market was really, really challenging as coverage, and limits were restricting while pricing was significantly increasing. It was really trial by fire to be given a book of business and left to run with it. There was no hand holding, but I loved it."
Crowder handled roughly eight large accounts and six or so smaller ones--"mostly high tech," she said, including Google--but she also handled Gap and Chevron.
STILL HEAD OF THE CLASS
On the personal front, Crowder is single, with avid interests in tennis, golf, yoga/pilates and travel. She is especially proud of her mother, who reared three children alone after Crowder's father died.
"My mom unexpectedly had to raise three children under the age of three by herself," said Crowder. "She got a job working in a financial institution and later worked in a medical clinic in various functions. Later, she remarried my stepdad who was an electrical engineer."
Crowder does not have to go far to earn accolades of her own. One of her biggest fans is Marsh's Yvonne Cho, who observed: "Kelly is easy-going. She's very friendly and reasonable. She has a terrific thought process. She asks very good questions. She's a great facilitator."
Another sign of her good character is her loyalty to people who have helped her along her way.
On April 24, Crowder traveled from San Francisco to the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison to attend the retirement party of one of her college mentors, Dan Anderson, who was leaving after 39 years at the university.
Getting ready for the trip, Crowder said, "He and Joan Schmit, another professor of risk management, are two key reasons I am in the field of risk management. They made insurance interesting and relevant--and its no easy task to impart that to a 19-year-old."
July 1, 2009
Copyright 2009© LRP Publications