Robert Morrell, chief technology officer at Aon Risk Laboratories, found his calling early in life--when he was just five years old to be exact. Some people learn to read with The Cat in the Hat, or Fun with Dick and Jane; Morrell learned his ABCs from computer manuals.
That early taste for technology and a lifelong penchant for programming led Morrell to co-found the risk management software firm Risk Laboratories while still in college. Nearly a dozen years later, the startup begun in a colleague's basement is now part of No. 2 broker Aon Corp., and Morrell is helping to lead a technology revolution for risk managers.
As chief technology officer, the 31-year-old Morrell runs the technology organization at RiskLabs in Marietta, Ga., and oversees a team that numbers nearly two dozen. He also spends a lot of time on the road on a mission to spread the gospel of his risk management software, RiskConsole, to clients worldwide.
"Bob seems to have a particular passion for delivering great results to clients," says Mark Stephens, managing director of Aon eSolutions.
"The other thing we noticed is that Bob has fun. He enjoys what he does," Stephens says. "And frankly, Bob is at the very front, leading where the industry is going."
These days Morrell is living an experience he only dreamed about when he co-founded RiskLabs as a sophomore at Georgia Tech with George Netherton, a former director of risk management at Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co.
"We used to talk about all these good problems we would have one day--growing an organization, hiring people, managing capacity in this massive growth when we were going to be super successful," Morrell says.
While there is still plenty of stress, Morrell no longer wonders where his next paycheck is coming from. Since RiskLabs was bought by Aon last year from AIG, the number of users for RiskConsole has skyrocketed to nearly 35,000 from around 500, Morrell says.
Morrell's enthusiasm for risk management technology is mirrored in his home life in Powder Springs, Ga. His wife Elizabeth serves as chairwoman of the Technology Advisory Council of the Risk and Insurance Management Society and a senior risk analyst at Southern Co., a major power producer in the U.S. Southeast.
The couple also have two children, Emily, 4, and Sara, 7, to keep them grounded.
"Our conversations are a little geeky, but we share a lot," Morrell says. "She's in technology on the risk management side, where I'm purely technology, so we come at it from different perspectives. Our relationship is very synergistic."
That relationship goes back to Morrell's first year in college when the two met?a meeting that not only led Morrell to begin a family, but also to start his own business.
Morrell discovered his love of technology as a five-year-old growing up in Pennsylvania. His father brought home a Timex Sinclair computer with just two kilobytes of memory. It was for his 14-year-old brother, who showed little interest.
Morrell, however, was hooked.
"I learned to read on computer manuals," he says.
While precocious as a programmer, Morrell's family background lent itself to his early endeavors. His father, now 81, worked on the RCA team sponsored by then-CEO David Sarnoff to invent and perfect the color television tube.
Ten years later, Morrell started programming professionally as a 15-year-old high school student who had to take the school bus to a job where he was the first employee without a college degree. While other young and promising programmers might have been lured by Seattle or Silicon Valley, Morrell turned his sights to Atlanta after high school.
"I knew that Atlanta was a growth area, especially in technology, and that was the right place for me. That move paid a lot of dividends," Morrell says.
Those dividends came in both his career and his personal life. While a freshman at Georgia Tech, Morrell met Elizabeth, who played a key role in setting him on the path to founding RiskLabs. She was working for the broker Minet (since acquired by Aon) with Netherton, who was heading up its Atlanta consulting group after leaving Coca-Cola, and told Elizabeth about his idea for a new kind of system for risk managers.
She recommended her boyfriend.
"George brought me in as a contractor. I worked there during the summer to create a proof-of-concept executive information system."
After Minet decided not to enter that business, the two men launched RiskLabs in 1994 with a single computer and a second phone line in Netherton's basement. Morrell started going to college part-time as he spent hours writing software and set about growing the company.
While hiring people well out of college, Morrell faced an unusual problem for a company founder: his youthful appearance.
"When I was 19, I had one risk manager say, 'You look younger than my 16-year-old son!' Coming right in the middle of a demo, that didn't make me feel too good," Morrell says. "I don't worry about getting carded in front of prospects anymore. Now it's fun to look back, but 'Who's this kid?' was one of the hardest perceptions to overcome."
A big break came when the biggest software company of all, Microsoft Corp., expressed interest after three days of demos. The software giant, however, wanted a company with more substantial backing.
Microsoft's treasurer suggested they enter into a partnership with AIG or Aon, and called the chairmen of both firms to get the ball rolling. In the end, AIG invested in RiskLabs, giving it the capital it needed to rebuild its software for the Internet and develop the RiskConsole system it has now.
AIG last year sold the firm to Aon, which has been a better fit. "With Aon, the strategic fit, it's absolutely perfect," Morrell says.
Now Morrell is enjoying the good stress that comes with managing a team that is developing new technology for a rapidly growing business, while balancing the demands and differences between the corporate culture at Aon and the startup spirit at RiskLabs.
"I have a very open atmosphere that's very demanding but also very casual. We have not changed our dress code since we started our company," Morrell says, adding, "We're able to be the best in our market with one-third the staff of our competitors, and I think that's saying a lot. I hire the best and expect that from them." Those competitors include Marsh's STARS and Crawford & Cos.' Risk Sciences Group RMIS products.
Morrell also remains focused on the fundamentals. "No. 1: Clients are the reason we exist. Our goal is for our clients to be happy," Morrell says. "No. 2 is technology is subservient to the business. Business sets the priority, and the technology people solve the problems. That's what the technology people are for."
While he sometimes misses programming, Morrell is enthusiastic about the opportunity to make RiskLabs a global success.
"I get the best of both worlds in that regard," Morrell says. "I get to be involved with the details of solving complex problems as well as sales, supporting clients and business strategy."
That enthusiasm for growing the business domestically and internationally is an important part of Morrell's work with Aon.
"What I appreciate about Bob is that he is really interested also from a commercial perspective," says Ed Monchen, managing director, eSolutions, Aon Risk Services International. "If you talk about sales and you talk about making RiskConsole successful to the rest of the world, he really gets interested."
a former writer and editor for Reuters, contributes frequently to Risk & Insurance®.
April 15, 2005
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