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Inside the Executive Suite

Inside the Executive Suite

The Business Times sat down with State Farm’s head honchos to talk management style, innovation, Joplin and yoga.


Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr and delegates from every insurance firm gathered in the lucky-to-be-standing City Hall to share action plans. Nearly a week had passed, but these companies had their hands full in responding to claimants. Rohr stood up, turned to the delegates from State Farm and said: “We want to know how you’re handling this. You have most of the business here and the most experience. Tell us how things are going.”

“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there,” says the company’s merrily ubiquitous jingle, the premise being State Farm will jump to its policyholders’ rescue when tragedy strikes. For Columbia residents, the neighborly quality is also one of proximity. Three vice presidents, who oversee State Farm’s five-state Central Zone of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, manage, operate and practically live out of the 1,256-person corporate building in south Columbia.


Coordination amidst catastrophe

Virginia Gonzales sits at her desk in the executive suite with the Weather Channel silently playing to her right. “It’s always on,” she says, given the wide variety of weather-related disasters in the zone: hurricanes in Louisiana, wildfires in Oklahoma, tornadoes in Kansas. As vice president of operations, she oversees everything claims-related. During the Joplin tornadoes, helpful hands were flooding to that part of the state, but she saw another storm moving into Kansas and directed a catastrophe team there. “That’s the kind of coordinating we have to do to react to these catastrophes,” she says. “Some years, it’s a catastrophe a day. Literally, there’s one every day.” Claims representatives are also always standing by for the 35,000 non-weather-related claims filed every day. Gonzales grew up in claims and ultimately settled into the division’s highest position.

The vice president is finishing her second year in Columbia after having spent four years in New York as a claim manager. Gonzales’ voice is a blend of accents: New Yorker, Texan, Mexican and, most recently, Midwestern. The New Yorker comes out a little stronger when she starts talking about her old home. “Because New York is fast-paced, they tend not to hear everyone say, ‘Hi, how are you?’” she says. “In New York, they say: ‘How ya doin’? You lost? Where ya goin’?’”

Although there are regional differences, Gonzales and the rest of the State Farmers recite a mantra of family-like culture in every one of their offices. “A year ago yesterday, my brother died,” she says. “I had only been in the zone eight months at that time. I come home from the funeral to find in my mailbox this many sympathy cards.” Her right palm hovers a foot over her left. “Some of them I hadn’t even met here.” She counted the cards later that night: 125 from employees all over the country.

In the little free time that an executive can get, Gonzales visits with her niece, nephew and mother in Texas. She also regularly walks and bikes the MKT Trail with Jean Baird, her Old Hawthorne neighbor and fellow vice president.


Collaborative leadership

Baird took a week in August to retreat into the mountains of California to hike, do yoga and enjoy the outdoors. The hours of nonstop activities attended to her physical and mental needs. “I’ve been doing yoga since ’96, and for me it’s that reminder of taking a big breath in and letting it go — not reacting as quickly,” she says. “It’s kind of a mental balance as much as it is the physical stress or tension you feel grabbing you.”

With thousands of employees in her sphere of influence and corporate partners dreaming up new ideas, stress is not merely part of Baird’s job; it is the job. Immediately following her week of Zen, Baird was back to the grind, in and out of meetings. Her leadership style is highly collaborative. Early in her supervisory career, Baird learned to rely on her adaptability and leadership skills because her team of systems programmers was highly technical. “And when I moved to different positions, including this one, I’ve taken on projects where I’ve never done the actual jobs of the people I’m leading,” she says. “So I’m used to getting information from all different directions then sorting out what I need to do with it.”

She’s a connector. In Joplin, Baird was connecting people and processes.

With 8,000 homes and businesses leveled in one evening, the claims process required an all-hands-on-deck approach. Call centers, agents, claims employees and non-claims employees: It didn’t matter. A community needed help beyond imagination, and it was a true test of the company slogan. Baird used her coordination skills and became a critical-thinking partner, according to Gonzales. They worked together to organize and oversee a system whereby company representatives walked through claim-handling procedures with policyholders. Without that personalized service, customers could have been left wondering how they were going to piece together what they lost.


Quick thinking and plan of action

The third vice president in the Columbia office is Curt Dreier, a former sheriff’s detective out of Kansas who oversees all of the agencies in Missouri. Law enforcement was his first passion. “You’re really helping people at the worst possible time of their lives sometimes, and I think that made me who I am,” he says, his warm Southern accent likely a result of his time spent working in Louisiana. He moved his family northward to Columbia despite his wife’s objections to the possibility of snow, but they quickly fell in love with the town.

The folks around the office know Dreier as the funny guy: quick-witted and always teasing. He’ll have Baird and Gonzales roaring with laughter, much to the distraction of the Public Affairs Department neighboring the executive suite. “When you feel safe to be yourself, that’s a good healthy environment,” he says.

The three execs were at a conference in New Orleans when the tornado swept through Joplin. Dreier flew in immediately. Baird and Gonzales followed him the next day. The tornado had left a distinct path of infrastructural carnage straight through the town. Of his 470 agents in the state, seven of them are located in the Joplin area; one of their offices was destroyed, and they needed immediate help. Dreier  assembled his team in a still-standing agent office across town.

“State Farm used aerial photography where we had a view for every home,” Dreier says. “When there’s not a home anymore, it’s kind of hard to remember what it looks like when you’re trying to do estimates. We were able to issue drafts based on accurate information. We had payments to every policyholder in record time. We wouldn’t have gotten that done if we hadn’t gotten Virginia and corporate executing so well on this massive event.”


Many hands make for light work

Gonzales’ hurdle-jumping reputation is due, in large part, to her leadership style. Six claim managers report directly to her. She empowers them to execute their jobs in the manner they see fit. In fact, her hands-off approach comes less out of management theory and more out of necessity. There’s not a white space to be found on her calendar of meetings and weekly travel time. Just getting the trash out to the street is an event planned days in advance. She gives up her schedule-making autonomy to her assistant, Missy. “I remember as a section manager and claim manager thinking, ‘How pretentious,’ but then when you get to this level, you understand the need for somebody to run your calendar,” Gonzales says.

Gonzales and her team were faced with the task of completing a file review earlier in the spring. “There’s just no way, Virginia,” her team members said on Thursday with a deadline only nine days away. But Virginia had faith in the team. “I came over the weekend and worked alongside,” she says. “That paid off. If you, as an executive, are willing to get your hands dirty and get in there and help them, it pays off. Jean Baird showed up to help, too. People were whispering: ‘What is she doing? Why is she here?’”

The team cranked up the radio and went to work. Pulling files and shuffling documents from one corner of the building to the next, they sang and danced to one of their favorite new songs “Moves Like Jagger.” Many hands and an upbeat environment make for light work. That Tuesday, days before the deadline, the group coordinator and section manager emailed Gonzales. It was done. “To me that’s what this position is all about, just being able to motivate,” Gonzales says.


Desire to help

State Farm’s forward-thinking journey began in rural Illinois, as an exception to the standard rate rules coming out of Hartford, Conn., the insurance Mecca of the early 20th century. The idea was simple; rural folk are less prone to auto accidents, so charge them lower rates. Nearly 100 years later, the idea manifests itself in smartphone technology: an app that measures driver safety and cautiousness to determine rates.

When Dreier starts talking about his career thus far — from law enforcement to insurance man — one thing is constant: the desire to help people. Earlier this year, Dreier ended a long day on the road by sitting down at a restaurant in Clayton, Mo. The couple sitting next to him struck up a conversation. “We’re with State Farm,” they said, after inquiring his line of work. “John Layton. He’s our agent. And Gail, in his office, she calls us, texts us, emails us on a regular basis to tell us anything we need to be aware of. We love her. She takes such good care of us.”

The next day, Dreier made a call to Layton’s office and asked for Gail. “Calm down,” he said. “This is a good call. I just wanted to thank you.”

The State Farmers have built quite the reputation for high-quality customer service. In one large hailstorm a few years ago, on average they received one complaint out of every 2,000 auto claims filed with the Missouri Department of Insurance. As things were starting to settle down in Joplin, Gov. Jay Nixon met with Dreier privately to thank him for State Farm’s leadership through one of Missouri’s greatest tragedies. Especially in Joplin, customer service levels could not diminish. “You hate those catastrophes,” Dreier says. “You hate those sorts of events. But to be there for people, that’s what we’re all about.”  CBT

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