It was how the floor in the San Diego Convention Center undulated with the carefree dancing, stomping and stumbling of the hundreds of revelers at the show.
"How much would they get sued," Vassar remembers wondering, should the floor collapse.
Chances are, considering their astute, wry nature, many other risk managers in the hopped-up Hootie audience that night had a similar thought.
But this observation is not why we're writing about Vassar. In April, he started work as risk manager for Volkswagen Group of America Inc. That's why.
"I couldn't have scripted it any better," he said about his new gig. He now works a mere 10 miles from his home in the Washington, D.C, area. It's a chance to do good things at a big company. And it gets him back to working in the automotive business, where Vassar got his start.
Turning 50 this June, Vassar first found himself in risk management back in 1986--in car rental claims at Thrifty. Three years later, he would become risk manager for the company.
It was fast success, an indication of things to come. Yet at the time, Vassar admitted, even though he knew he was good at risk management, he wasn't digging it.
Not until he found his passion for it, in education.
Then, he said, his profession became "more than just an opportunity, more than just a paycheck--a passion to try to impact the way people think about risk management."
His goal has been to try to humanize risk management to corporate, to communicate to the C-suite what risk managers should be tasked to do. He said that most people in business see risk management as a mystery that doesn't fit into their organizational charts.
"It's become a goal of mine to educate and enlighten companies that you can save money, lots of money," he said, through smart insurance buying, loss control, safety and everything else that a risk manager can provide.
Gone should be the day that bosses single out a victim in finance or legal and damn them to become the company "risk manager" ... without training ... a week before renewals.
Of course, Vassar also has set out to educate the other side of the equation: risk managers themselves.
"It's up to the risk manager to determine their place in the organization," he said, adding that it can be a difficult and tense transition. Risk managers are not the "rainmakers" in any organization, after all. They typically do not generate revenue. Risk managers can save, and that's their way of making money for their organizations, he said.
Of course, much of Vassar's sentiment is also shared by other risk managers. Besides "Only Want to Be With You" and "Hold My Hand," risk managers at RIMS also heard a very similar message from their leaders and session speakers: Risk managers should recognize, and act upon, their importance to their corporation.
But Vassar feels so strongly about the subject that he wrote the book on it--literally--a paperback titled Hide! Here Comes the Insurance Guy. Originally self-published in 2006, the title has been picked up by book printer.
Which brings us back to his new job.
The subject of his book happened to come up during the interview with VW, and he just happened to have a copy in his briefcase.
"The book lent credibility to my experience and education," Vassar said. "They were looking for someone who could come in and roll their sleeves up and get started."
Vassar might have to roll up his sleeves, loosen his tie and eat his Wheaties for his new job. He has decades of experience--he worked with Thrifty through 2002, then became head of risk management for 200-employee Valcourt Building Services--but Volkswagon of America is a higher gear. VW is the fourth largest automaker on the planet with more than 325,000 employees worldwide and 1,400 in the States. It has a global risk management department with input over the U.S. program, as well as a global insurance program with which certain U.S. coverages must be integrated. Meanwhile, the company is in the process of relocating its headquarters, placing a new plant somewhere stateside and gearing up for a big push into the U.S. market that will see it sell 1 million vehicles by 2018.
When asked about longer hours and more stress, Vassar grins. "It's going to be a challenge."
One that he's confident he can tackle and pin to the ground. He cited his experience working in auto fleet and in claims at Thrifty, which was only broadened with his work at Valcourt. At the building management company, he had to be ahead of the game. A lot of the company's projects involved men hanging off buildings--think window-washing--so when a claim drifted his way, it was bad. The goal was to prevent them, not deal with their aftermath.
With his experience and VW's expectations, his hiring is a "good marriage," Vassar said.
"They have made a commitment to risk management," he said. "They do view risk management from an enterprise standpoint."
Not to mention the automaker's dynamic and employee-oriented environment.
"I think they're a moving force in the United States. It's my goal to make a lifelong commitment to VW," he said. "I would love to finish my career with VW."
MATTHEW BRODSKY is senior editor/Web editor at Risk & Insurance®.
May 14, 2008
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