What happens when you mix a string bass with a lead singer whose country music roots stretch back more than 30 years, along with traditional bluegrass music and bluegrass gospel with a modern twist, and add someone who is serious about tracing his huge family's genealogy? You get Larry Stephens, director of risk management at Indiana University in Bloomington and the bass player in the five-member Crossfire Bluegrass Band.
Seems like an unusual mix, doesn't it? How many risk managers play in a bluegrass band? But plucking a bass fiddle in a syncopated rhythm and figuring how to mitigate the risk for university student drivers, for example, isn't really all that different. Both involve paying close attention to details.
As Stephens' cousin Ron Shields, the mandolin player in the band, explains, because there's no sheet music to follow, "you try to be as inventive as you can. It's the details, especially with what Larry does. He carries the bass line for us. He has to be on top of things." Shields describes Stephens' day job as "taking care of I.U.'s insurance, seeing that accidents don't happen." Pretty similar.
And as a risk manager at a Big Ten university with 98,000 students on eight campuses throughout Indiana, he has to be on top of things all the time. In effect, he carries the bass line for the university, too, making sure the facilities, students, faculty, staff, school departments, campus, special events and all operations are protected.
There's certainly no exact roadmap or set of directions that can keep students perfectly safe when they're driving, which is why Stephens says that's a risk he considers the most serious liability. As he points out, "rappelling down a cliff with the proper equipment is a whole lot safer that driving 90 mph in Atlanta."
Like most of his fellow risk managers, Stephens didn't grow up wanting to be a risk manager or even be in the insurance business. Music was more his tune, having grown up in a country-music-playing family. He was raised in Monroe County, Ind., about halfway between Unionville in Benton Township and Bloomington. He went to school in Unionville, and his family was among the first settlers in the Benton Township area. That's probably why his co-workers tease him about all his relatives.
"We can be talking about someone, and he'll say, 'Oh yeah, that's my cousin.' He's related to half the people in the county," says his supervisor, Paul Sullivan, deputy vice president of administration. That's also probably why Stephens is so fascinated with his family's genealogy.
When he was 16, Stephens started working with his family's propane delivery business, installing tanks and stoves. But that wasn't challenging enough for a guy who takes his responsibilities seriously, so he trained as a policeman at the Indiana and Louisville police academies, graduating first in both classes. He spent six years as an I.U. policeman, while he finished up his degree in business administration at I.U., and spent two years as a Louisville policeman in between. Then for a year he hauled coal with his tractor-trailer.
"I was looking for anything to do other than be a truck driver. There was nothing romantic there," he says.
So he found a job as an insurance adjuster, but he knew he needed to learn more about the insurance business to move up in the industry. So he enrolled in GAB Business Services' (today GAB Robins) insurance training school and took advanced property/casualty courses. He earned his Associate in Claims and most of his Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter designations there. Since then, he's also earned his Associate in Risk Management, Associate in Automation Management, and Distinguished Risk Manager conveyed by the University Risk Management and Insurance Association, as well as completed his CPCU training.
In 1985, he joined I.U.'s property/casualty insurance department as assistant director?in the midst of one of the insurance industry's worst liability markets.
"As best as I can recall, we bought $50 million (in liability coverage) for about $350,000. By 1986, all we could buy anywhere was $5 million (in coverage), and it cost $1 million."
By 1987, that was the point when the I.U. administration decided it was time to self-insure, and Stephens became the point man on that, and took on the mantle of risk manager. "I had to start doing things that would affect our level of risk," he says.
Actually, the higher education industry was a little late at adopting the risk management concept that the corporate world had already jumped on in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "It was already in vogue in the real world, but not at universities. A few were moving in that direction, but not many were called risk managers. There were more things to do to become proactive," he says.
Meanwhile, the higher education trade association, known as the University Insurance Management Association since its founding in 1969 by a small group of major universities, was transforming itself in 1976 into the University Risk Management and Insurance Association as it's known today.
Stephens joined URMIA in the mid-1980s as a means to add to his risk management knowledge base. By the early 1990s, as the chairman of the communications committee, he took over publishing URMIA's regular annual journal and quarterly report.
"The quality of the publications went up because of Larry's influence," says Allen Bova, director of risk management at Cornell University and former URMIA president. "He put us on a pretty regular publication schedule."
He served two terms as president--from 1999 to 2000 and from 2001 to 2002. Presidents usually serve only one term. According to Leta Finch, executive director in the higher education practice group at Gallagher, and former URMIA president, he's also brought his smarts and sense of professionalism to the organization.
"He brings clarity and sanity to a situation," says Finch--while he did the same on his job.
"I've learned more about the insurance business than I've ever wanted to know, and learned more about actuaries than I ever wanted to know too," says his supervisor, Paul Sullivan, deputy vice president of administration.
With a reputation for wearing his cowboy boots, which complement his 6-foot-2-inch frame and gray hair, he got his feet wet as a risk manager by taking control of I.U.'s claims. A predecessor had hired AIG to write I.U.'s auto and general liability coverage in the early 1980s and GAB Services to handle all the claims, which had to flow through the company's Bloomington branch.
"I convinced my bosses just a few months after I was hired to make me the account adjuster, so I handled the I.U. claims and approved claims handled by all other offices," he says. "It took a long time to start making changes."
Known by his boss as "quite the renaissance man," Stephens has sweated pushing the risk management philosophy of preventing accidents and always thinks about what might happen. Could someone trip on that broken sidewalk? Could that residence hall burn down without a sprinkler system?
"People prefer not to think about the bad things in life, but we have to keep problems out in front of them all the time without sounding like Chicken Little. I sometimes feel like a character out of American Gothic and should dress all in black," he says.
But he's also well aware of problems that you just can't prevent, no matter what kinds of protection systems you have in place. He heaves a sigh when discussing the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech that happened a year ago, and the February shooting at Northern Illinois University.
"It's difficult to find people like that beforehand, even if you have enough evidence," referring to Seung-Hui Cho, the troubled shooter who killed 33 people, including himself, at Virginia Tech last year. "From when the shooting started, I don't think they (the campus police) did anything wrong. The police responded to what they thought was wrong, while the shooter was in the other building," he says.
"People were saying they should have locked down the campus, but how do you do that?" He points out that at I.U.'s Bloomington campus there are as many as 300 buildings, so how would you lock down all those buildings? "You can't just push a button."
"If a campus is that open, how are you going to prevent somebody from causing a problem," he asks. "You can't."
Even though, since that tragedy, most every school has been busy installing some kind of early notification system--most generate some kind of message to students, staff and faculty through text message, e-mail and the school's Web site. Some schools are also adding public address systems or disaster horns scattered around campus. Is that enough to protect everyone?
"There will always be a limited system," Stephens says.
Look at Northern Illinois University where a former graduate student killed five students plus himself earlier this year. The school already had a notification system in place. Essentially, the school did everything right.
"There's no practical way to guarantee protection," he says. I.U. students studying in Kenya live in a compound surrounded by a wall with barbed wire and broken glass on top. "We can't put a wall around I.U.'s 1,933 acre campus," he says. "We've installed a notification system and trained our faculty."
That's about the best a proactive risk manager can do to protect his campus.
lives in Philadelphia.
April 15, 2008
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