Robert G. Petrie III recalls his junior year at the University of California at Berkley like it was yesterday. The critical juncture in his young life had arrived--the semester in which he was expected to declare a major and set his sights full-throttle on his dream.
The only problem? Petrie had no idea what he wanted to study or how the elusive dream would eventually unfold. And yet, looking back, Petrie believes that moment of uncertainty, followed by a semester off from school, represented the best decision he could have ever made. It was the beginning of a successful journey that eventually led him to his current role as CEO of CS Stars LLC, a Chicago-based subsidiary of Kroll, a subsidiary of New York-based Marsh & McLennan Companies, and a leading provider of software and services to insurers, third-party administrators and managed-care organizations.
It was winter back in his hometown of Milwaukee when he returned home to sort out his options--another odd stroke of luck. Petrie says of those seemingly endless, cold days, "I was bored." So he turned his boredom around into something positive--volunteering his time to help a local church move their financial and congregational records off paper and onto an automated environment.
Over the years as a standout student, Petrie had already amassed an impressive knowledge of computer programming. In fact, born in 1964 as the oldest of three siblings, Petrie grew up around computers way before they had become common household items. Petrie recalls an early memory of playing with punch cards--the old method of data entry--when his father, Robert, was a partner at the systems integration company Anderson Consulting, later renamed Accenture. His mother, Louise, who went by Lucia, was a fundraiser for the Milwaukee Art Museum, instrumental in raising $80 million for the construction of a new wing.
"There were lots of early signs of computers around the house," says Petrie, who remembers that early versions of IBM and Apple computers were often in his house when most people still only associated Apple with the tasty, red fruit. His natural ability in math, evident as a student at Shorewood High School and later on in college, added to his interest in--and growing ability for--fine-tuning his programming skills.
ELEGANT TWISTS OF FATE
Petrie eventually parlayed his volunteer efforts on behalf of that single church in Milwaukee into his own company, Elegant Solutions. He formed the company in 1984 in Milwaukee with a small office, two employees and a proven product that automated the financial and membership operations of churches and synagogues. With that business gaining steady momentum, it wasn't long before Elegant Solutions branched out into other vertical markets, most notably jewelry manufacturers, to which the company offered an automated product to perform key operations like inventory management and the pricing of orders.
"Our goal was to help them become more efficient," says Petrie--echoing a mission that drives his work today as he still strives to bring greater efficiencies into the realm of risk management for both insurers and their clients.
Although his business was off and running, Petrie recognized the value of a higher education and returned to school, juggling work and classes while attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison to earn a Bachelor of Arts in economics in May 1987.
Not long after, one of his clients, a major jewelry manufacturer, made an offer to buy the company. And while Petrie concedes that selling the business was not in his plans, it was, he recalls, "a good enough offer" to seal the deal, and he soon found himself heading up to the manufacturer's headquarters in Attleboro, Mass., to finalize the transaction.
Heading back home from Massachusetts, "but now without a job," Petrie detoured to New York City and, with an impressive resume for one so young, immediately landed a job with the broker Johnson & Higgins as a business analyst in their risk management solutions department.
This career move began his transition into the arena of risk management, in which he has worked and made an indelible impression over the past 20 years, most recently as CEO of CS Stars, which he has led since 1997. Known then as Stars, a practice of Marsh, the company more recently assumed its current name following the acquisition last year of Corporate Systems Inc., a leading provider of property/casualty technology in the United States.
During his tenure as head of CS Stars, Petrie's focus has been squarely on the client in developing technology initiatives to help organizations of all sizes assess and mitigate risk. He observes that while corporate leaders are recognizing the importance of the risk and claims management functions more so today than did their predecessors, there is still, in many instances, "an underinvestment" in this critical aspect of their operations. "We have a real opportunity to help corporations and vendors improve the predictability (of loss), adapt best practices, acquire solid information about risk and, ultimately, save lives," Petrie says.
Michael G. Cherkasky, chief executive officer of MMC, recognizes Petrie's dedication both to his clients and to integrating technology into the insurance industry to respond to his clients' risk management needs.
"Bob has worked very hard to persuade people that using technology and developing systems is necessary to help clients understand their risk. His constant drive for excellence and focus on client service has just been tremendous," Cherkasky says.
He also stresses that Petrie's development of real-time technology to assess and respond to risk and the ability to capture an objective, numerical understanding of risk management dynamics "has enabled his clients to understand their risk in incredible depth. MMC is more of a solutions-oriented company--focused on advising clients regarding solutions for risk across the globe. Bob and CS Stars are a major piece of that platform."
YOUNG AND DYNAMIC
"Bob Petrie is a young, dynamic leader who will carry on the important purpose of a risk management program to the next generation," adds Guyon Saunders, founder of Corporate Systems. "We're thrilled to be working with Bob. Whenever we deal with Bob, he's thinking six to eight years down the road, and I admire him for that."
Looking ahead, Petrie sees continued challenges in the risk management arena, affected, in part, by growing concerns over corporate security, tightening regulations and emerging compliance issues. Ultimately, he believes, "corporations must adopt a more holistic look at risk."
On a more personal note, Petrie and his wife Dani, head of a management consulting company, are busy raising their two children, Taylor, 6, and Robbie, 2. Residing in a suburb of Chicago, Petrie and his family occasionally take a break from their hectic schedules to enjoy a slower pace at their vacation home on small Washington Island on Lake Michigan, which he refers to fondly as "a terrific, relaxing, rural place."
Yet CS Stars demands most of his time and energy, with more than 700 employees domestically and abroad, and serving more than 1,000 clients in the Unites States and in some 25 countries around the globe. The company, ranked No. 1 in the May 23 issue of a trade weekly by its number of installations in corporate risk management departments, continues to grow under the leadership of Petrie, who remains motivated by an unwavering desire "to help our clients better assess risk to make better decisions about their work environment, which ultimately has a positive human effect."
"That's the goal," he stresses, "that I've built my career on."
BARBARA MORRIS is a New Jersey-based writer and instructor.
October 1, 2005
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