By STEVE YAHN who has written for and edited national publications for many years.
For 55-year-old Mary Harrington, who has been Subaru of America Inc.'s risk manager almost from the time she graduated from Temple University's insurance and risk management program in 1983, it's been a long haul since she started as part of a three-person team.
Along the way, Harrington, who now has a staff of 10, has secured a reputation as a leading risk manager with a variety of accomplishments.
However, when she entered the liberal arts program at Temple in Philadelphia, the road to Subaru was far from clear. Temple had a standout insurance and risk management program, but it was not on Harrington's radar screen. After a semester, she accepted a summer internship at Fireman's Insurance Co., and really liked it. "I was doing a lot of different things, assisting underwritings, doing ratings, things like that. At the end of the summer they offered me a significant salary to stay," she said.
Harrington worked at Fireman's for two years, but during that time she felt that she wasn't going to get where she really wanted to go without a college degree. She hit the brakes, quit, and went back to Temple.
"I knew Temple had a good insurance and risk management program, so I signed up for it and it didn't take long for me to realize that this was for me,'' she said. "The risk management program was strong, but still rather small, which was nice. You got real personal attention."
In particular, Harrington said, she was mentored by two professors--the late G. William "Bill" Glendenning, whose book "Personal Lines Underwriting" still sells on Amazon, and the late H. Wayne Snider, a professor at Temple.
When Harrington graduated, her goal was to find a job in risk management because of the variety it offered, compared with the more specialized occupations of brokers and carriers.
Harrington's budding career went into high gear when, with Snider recommending her, she was hired as a risk analyst at Subaru of America. At that time, in January 1983, Subaru had only a risk manager and a secretary.
Within two months of joining the risk management department, the woman who headed it became very ill. The risk manager was out close to a year on disability and it was just Harrington and a secretary at the wheel.
Just like that, Harrington, who entered the risk management field almost by chance, now found herself at the helm of a major automobile company.
"Obviously, two months out of an undergraduate program, I was nervous, to say the least," said Harrington. "People were constantly coming to me and saying, 'Is this the right coverage.' I didn't feel comfortable giving them an answer quickly. I learned pretty fast to say, 'I'll get back to you on that.' "
Finally, the risk manager came back, but only for six months before she decided to leave, and this time it was for good. "And because I'd been running the department while she was out, they offered me the job," Harrington said. "But I was pretty inexperienced at 27 or 28. I was greatly helped by my boss, Joe Scharff, who for many years has been the company's treasurer and vice president of finance. He's been a tremendous mentor to me."
"I enjoy the challenge of developing new programs, and of course it's good for business," said Harrington, who noted that privately held Subaru has posted strong unit sales the past three years, despite the troubles of the auto industry. One such safe-driving program, "Alive at 25," is geared to employees and their family members, especially teenagers
Profits are rolling in not just from cars, but from ancillary products developed by Harrington and her team.
"One major product we developed, for example, is a gap coverage policy,'' she said. "It covers the gap between the cash value the insurance company would pay you if your car were stolen or totaled and what you owe on the car. We've gotten the dealers behind this program so we know the customer is secure if he or she buys the coverage from us."
Subaru, with 620 U.S. dealers, has an arrangement in which the dealers sell service contracts to customers at the time they purchase a vehicle, and the contracts provide the largest source of income, Harrington said.
In a recent project with Human Resources Director Dan Dalton, Harrington streamlined the company's workers' compensation and short-term disability program to make it easier for employees to report a claim for an injury, and to get back their benefits as quickly as possible.
Another highlight was the creation and expansion of a captive program, which currently has 28 lines and 10 reinsurance companies behind it.
Subaru is noted for a variety of safe-driving programs it sponsors, programs also developed by Harrington. Early in her tenure as risk manager, though, Harrington fought a royal battle over installing a fleet-loss program.
"Obviously for a car company, the fleet is a very big deal because we have a lot of cars on the road every day," Harrington said. "And until we created this policy, there had been no real effort to control the fleet or put restrictions on it--who could drive and things like that.''
The fleet policy required seat belt usage, running driving records on employees, putting some criteria on what was an unacceptable record and a firm policy on drunk-driving violations, she said. None of this had been done before.
A major responsibility for Harrington and her team is obtaining insurance for the more than 120 events Subaru sponsors every year-- competitions, for example, sporting events, and even a long-distance jump in a rally car. The events, many fraught with risk, require the purchase of specific sponsorship liability coverage.
"I can honestly say I probably deal with every department in the company at some point on a regular basis," said Harrington, who relishes the variety of her job. "It's the nature of risk management that I work with human resources, legal, marketing and other departments. It's pretty constant."
For Harrington, the road to Subaru of America began as the daughter of John and Mary McConnell in Philadelphia. Her father was the composing room boss of the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin daily newspaper.
Her mother, who raised six children, was a consummate reader--often to her children. "To this day, I never have a book far from me," Harrington said. Recent favorites were "The Lost Art of Gratitude" by Alexander McCall Smith and "Bossypants" by Tina Fey.
"I was quite accident prone as a child," she said. "I stood out among my siblings in that regard. My parents have a picture of me with a cast on my arm when I was about four or five years old going down a sliding board. One of my sisters wrote under the photo, 'Born to be a risk manager.'
"But I think it did help form my personality. I do tend to be, as my children would say, a professional worrier, that I tend to be cautious and am always looking to the future, looking for ways to prevent things from going wrong," Harrington said.
"She's firm when she has to be ? but generally her people like her very much and look up to her," her boss Scharff said. "She can be like a bulldog. When she gets on to something, she sticks with it."
Harrington, who earned an MBA and an associate in risk management designation, has been a working mom throughout her career. "That can be a difficult balancing act between office and home, and yet she's always done it well,'' Scharff said. "I can call her any time day or night if I have a problem I want to discuss with her and she's always reachable."
Harrington has always been generous in sharing her knowledge with the risk management business, especially information about the Subaru captive, said Janice Chamberlain, an assistant vice president of risk management at Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco Wholesale.
"Mary is an innovator," Chamberlain said. "She's one of those lifelong learners."
October 1, 2011
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