By B.G. YOVOVICH, who has written for national trade publications for more than 20 years
J. Neal Abernathy, president and CEO of Swett & Crawford, has some advice for younger insurance
brokers coming up through the ranks: Don't be afraid of making mistakes, and don't shy away from disagreement.
From the first-year broker all the way to the CEO, it's always important to challenge the way you think and not take your own thoughts as gospel. In other words, Abernathy is suggesting people look themselves in the mirror.
"I like things that challenge the way that I think," Abernathy said, in an interview with Risk & Insurance® in August. "I do not have enough time to read too much stuff, but I really enjoy The Economist because it gives me a different perspective on issues and makes me think my positions through. Why spend a lot of time reading things that confirm what you think or believe to be true?"
Seeking out different perspectives also helps identify potentially dangerous unknown unknowns, he said.
"If you are not looking for the black swans, they are probably going to eat you," said Abernathy, who recently merged Swett with the London-based wholesale broker Cooper Gay. "They will put you out of business or severely limit you, so you have to be looking--maybe not for Armageddon, but for trends and different ways of doing things that either you have not done before, or that people have not done before."
"When many people say, 'We've never done it that way,' to me, that is a red flag that we probably ought to be looking at it."
The contrarian streak has served Abernathy well in his career as a check-and-balance against his own beliefs. But he also understands when and how to make the big decisions, and that skill has earned him due recognition.
"He is very inclusive and open to new ideas but recognizes that decisions need to be made and you can't run a business like Swett trying to please everyone," said Andrew Rosen, a partner at HM Capital Partners, the private-equity firm that helped finance the spin-off of Swett from Aon, and also a member of the Swett board of directors.
"What convinced us that Neal was the right person to be CEO was the respect he garnered from everyone in the organization--from our top producers through to our support staff," he added.
FOREVER, INCLUDING ACQUISITIONS
Unlike some CEOs heading the nation's top brokerage firms, Abernathy has experience working in the brokerage trenches, which is key in providing the ability to emphasize with producers
"Having been on the front line himself as a property broker for many years, he can not only empathize with issues and frustrations that brokers face daily, but also offer advice from a peer versus management perspective," said Priscilla K. Brott, a senior vice president with Swett & Crawford in Atlanta, where the company is headquartered.
Abernathy, following in his father's footsteps, joined the property/casualty industry right after college more than 30 years ago. Looking back, through, Abernathy might not have entered the business at all.
With the property/casualty business growing rapidly after World War II, a friend of his father suggested that his father go into the life insurance business.
"His response was, 'I'm afraid of dogs,' because all he had ever been around was the debit life insurance guy who went around collecting premiums door-to-door," Abernathy said. "They told him that this was a different kind of insurance, and he got into the property/casualty side--and he did that forever."
When asked how long Abernathy the younger has been in the industry, he, too, replies "forever--if you include acquisitions."
Abernathy believes that an honesty-is-the-best-policy approach will always serve you best.
"The biggest way you can get in trouble is by not communicating honestly and effectively with people," Abernathy said. "The honesty part is a given, but, because we know what we are doing, we often assume that everyone else knows what we are doing--and why."
Abernathy said that, if brokers sit down with clients and take the time to explain what brokers are doing and why and how it affects others, then insurance buyers will come around.
"If you lay those things out to people, they tend to understand and will give you a lot of leeway in doing what you need to do. But, if you breech their trust, you are going to be in for a tough go of it."
Honesty is part of the service brokers ought to be providing clients, and it's also part of the sale.
"Neal has taken Swett from a good service organization to a great sales and service organization that is recognized as the best in the business," said Jason White, managing director of the Swett & Crawford Professional Services Group.
With the Swett-Cooper merger the largest deal of Abernathy's career, it's hard to argue with White.
October 1, 2010
Copyright 2010© LRP Publications