By Janet Aschkenasy
As one of three sisters in a family that also had six boys, Maxine Walker learned to hold her own in a male-dominated arena at a very young age -- a skill that has served her well during a stunning 31 years with property insurance and engineering specialist FM Global.
She remembers how, growing up on a farm in rural Mississippi, she learned that taking the easy way out will often backfire.
Her family had no electricity and no indoor plumbing at home till Walker was 12. The family's primary source of income was cotton. The family raised cucumbers as well, and Walker and her eight siblings were each given five rows of the crop to tend on their own.
Initially, that seemed like too much work, so "I'd take some of the vines, cut them up and bury them," Walker said, smiling.
But Walker's parents and grandparents arranged it so she and her siblings got 100 percent of the revenue on the cucumbers they'd raised. Sure enough, burying the vines meant fewer cucumbers at harvest, and less income.
"What happened was after the end of the first year, the yield was less than it would have been," said Walker. That ended the shenanigans. "It taught me not to take shortcuts," she observed.
FOLLOWING A DIFFERENT PATH
For as long as she can remember, Walker imagined a different life for herself -- away from Mississippi and away from farming. And she made that vision a reality attending Mississippi State University, where she received a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering technology.
Walker modeled with the Mississippi State University Fashion Board during her college years, and her friends assumed she would pursue a career in fashion or merchandising, but fields like engineering or computer science were more to her liking.
"I knew I would do something not very girly," she said. "I wanted to take my life in a direction where I could immediately make a living for myself and take care of myself."
Today, Walker is vice president and division claims manager for FM Global's Western Division in Plano, Texas, covering Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as Latin America.
She sits on the board of directors of the Loss Executives Association and is a registered professional adjuster. She has been with FM Global since the Highly Protected Risk property insurer recruited her back in 1981, when the company was simply known as "Factory Mutual."
Interestingly enough, Walker did not begin working in the claims department. She first joined the company as a loss prevention engineering consultant, spending nine years there before deciding she was ready for a change and could learn more about the business by moving from engineering to the loss adjustment side.
FM Global's claims management and loss adjustment department had been pursuing Walker for some time. "John Southall, the adjustment manager in Atlanta at the time, thought I'd be a really good fit so one day I decided to talk to John," Walker said.
She liked what she saw.
"I was able to see how they assisted the clients with repairs to their property and mitigating losses to their business." It was more like project management than what Walker had done previously, since "You started at the beginning and got to see what happens all the way through to the end."
"After a loss like Katrina," for instance, "you're with the client immediately following the event and work with them until their business is fully restored, and you're building relationships in the process," Walker said.
Her supervisor, Gerry Alonso, senior vice president of claims at the firm, said that maybe due to her humble beginnings, Walker has incredible drive as well as "an innate ability to be able to do her duties and outperform while at the same time have people look up to her.
"And she can joke with people and turn around and speak with people on something serious and they're going to listen to her. She has a good compass on her. You know when she is saying something it's coming from a good place. It's almost like it's in her DNA, that failure is not an option."
She is proud of the company she works for, in terms of its specialty products and capabilities, and happy to be in an industry that has become more global, and that hopefully will continue to hire more minorities, she said.
"Especially on the property side where I work, it's still very male dominated, and the property insurance industry has lagged behind other businesses in terms of hiring females and minorities. That is slowly changing," said Walker, who served on FM Global's Diversity Advisory Group from 2009 till 2011.
Because businesses have become so global, any company operating "in a multicultural environment" worldwide has to become more diverse, if you ask Walker.
FM Global writes coverage for one out of every three companies in the Fortune 1000. A company like hers with offices or affiliates serving clients in more than 110 countries, has got to hire people who "are culturally representative" of those countries, she said.
Meanwhile, the globalization of business is largely responsible for the emergence of broader coverages. For example, there's been more interest of late in supply chain insurance.
She recalled the floods, which occurred during the 2011 monsoon season in Thailand.
If an FM Global client was receiving an automobile navigation system from a company with manufacturing and distribution in Thailand during the floods, a relatively new form of supply chain coverage from FM Global will cover losses resulting from loss or damage at both direct and indirect suppliers of the components which interrupted the client's business.
FM Global refers to this as "contingent time element extended" coverage, which is available under a supply chain extension the company added in 2008.
Walker said that the reason she's hung in there at FM Global for over three decades is because of the ways the firm has set itself apart from other insurers, and "the manner in which we partner with our clients to restore business and mitigate their loss.
"We hold their hands, we talk with them to understand the impact of the loss on their business, and help guide them through the process of recovery to restore them to business as usual as quickly as we can.We also have in-house adjustors who handle the losses and engineers who assist with the process, which is hardly typical.
Walker notes too that this past summer, Greenwich Associates ranked FM Global No. 1 among insurance companies for its "underwriting expertise," "customer service" and "claims processing responsiveness," for the second year in a row, based on a survey of U.S. corporate risk managers. The latest survey represents the views of more than 700 risk managers representing companies with annual revenue greater than $500 million.
In April 2011, Greenwich also published a chart showing how major U.S. carriers rank in companies' ratings of claims processing responsiveness. Number one on the list was FM Global, followed by Chubb Corp. and Travelers.
Greenwich explained at the time that "the claims process has actually become more important in recent years as companies have professionalized their risk management operations and ratcheted up the sophistication of their risk management capabilities.
As a result, executives from the CEO on down are now ready to press for quick answers about the status of a claim. That pressure filters down to corporate risk managers, who have become much more proactive throughout the claims process," Greenwich stated.
For other aspiring minority employees eager to excel in any business, Walker offers the mantra she and her siblings were given by her parents and grandparents -- "we could be anything we wanted."
"From a professional standpoint I'd say to any young person out there, especially minorities, do not be constrained if you look at an organization and don't see a lot of people who look like you. Don't let that stand in your way.
"Look at me," said Walker. I couldn't have accomplished what I have today if I looked around that building the first time I interviewed at FM Global in Atlanta and didn't see other people of color and did not take a chance on the opportunity to work there."
"I think there was one other female consulting engineer in the Atlanta operation at the time I joined," she said. "You can do anything you want, in any environment, if you want it badly enough."
JANET ASCHKENASY is a freelance writer based in New York.
November 1, 2012
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