Part of the reason striving to be a leader in financial services is such a challenge is that new business and technology approaches catch on fast, product niches fill up quickly and reaching for the next trend becomes a permanent posture. Still, Assumption Life's corporate mission is "to be a leader in the financial services industry," relates Derrick Smith, the carrier's director of IT. And the IT department's mission at Assumption Life? "To be an industry model for our IT solutions while staying in line with the corporate strategic plan," Smith relates.
Typically, a company in a market leadership position is doing something differently or better than its peers. For Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada-based Assumption Life's IT group, however, staying ahead of the competition means conforming. "Our main technology goals are to bring all of our systems into one type of platform and one type of operating system," explains Smith. Admittedly, the technology strategy isn't a brand-new trend, given the buzz around standards adoption and the often derogatory tone with which people might utter "legacy system." But, Smith stresses, it is an approach that makes smart business sense, nonetheless.
To remain at the front of the pack, Assumption Life ($725 million in assets under management) understands that it needs a standardized, flexible technology platform to marshall data quickly and easily and support the company's ability to give customers and producers what they want when they want it. "Centralizing a lot of our information across our different lines of business is mandatory so that we can more easily provide information to our clients from a customer service perspective and to ensure that we can adapt to the sales force for our marketplace," says Smith. Assumption Life sells through both a career agent force and an independent broker sales force. "We are constantly trying to make certain that we stay abreast of all of the changes that are happening in the world of each of our sales channels," Smith adds.
The foundation for this effort was started in early 2003 when Assumption Life developed an ROI-based project plan, outlining the expenses and benefits of moving the company's entire infrastructure, bit by bit, over to a client/server environment from the legacy system where business was housed. "We found that the client/server-type systems being offered today have more than enough horsepower to support the amount of business that we would be putting on them," reports Smith. "We then charted out expenses and planned to begin the project in late 2003 with a finishing goal of 2007."
Concentrating on the Core
As part of the ongoing IT overhaul, Smith and his department recently completed a year-long initiative to build a new centralized disbursement system, a main database equipped with applications that allow for the formatting and transfer of data. "The main functionality of the centralized disbursement system (CDS) is that it allows us to pay out or transfer electronically any kind of funds and receive reconciliation from the bank to a client, broker or agent," explains Smith.
The process involves reformatting all of the payment documents that need to be printed, such as checks, and provides the ability to send financial data to agents and brokers in a variety of desired formats. "With the legacy system, we had multiple entry points and multiple exit points," continues Smith. "With the new system, we wanted to keep the centralized portion of the system - where the data was formatted - as simple as possible."
Rather than purchasing an entire system from a third-party provider, Assumption Life developed the system in-house on Microsoft's (Redmond, Wash.) .NET platform and added an application from Whitehill Technologies (Moncton), called Transport, to enable the reformatting of data. "We could not find a product on the market that met all of our needs, so we decided it was best to do the development ourselves and guarantee that we would end up with a product that we really wanted," relates Smith. What the insurer ended up with was a system with the ability to store, reformat and distribute data in a flexible manner.
"The [Transport] application allows us to take different types of streams of data and transform them into a very likeable format and with the flexibility we need to be able to do a multitude of transactions for all of our different lines of business," relates Smith. For example, check stubs for each line of business at Assumption Life have a different layout variety, he notes. Data transfer also is facilitated by Transport, Smith adds. "We also need the ability to distribute the information to multiple places, such as sending e-mail information and generating PDF image versions of financial data to our different touch points."
One of those touch points - for agents, brokers and clients - is the Web. Assumption Life provides an e-business Web portal that makes policy and financial information available to clients and information relating to products and sales to its captive agents and brokers. Some of that information is provided through the Whitehill Technologies application. "There is some information that moves between the CDS and e-business systems, which is mostly the interfacing of basic financial information," explains Smith.
In the future, Assumption Life plans to leverage the Transport product's formatting and distribution capabilities for reporting throughout the entire company platform. "We're not going to use pieces of a reporting engine that may exist within an old system or rewrite a reporting engine," says Smith. Instead, the carrier will use the reporting capabilities of the CDS across the majority of its systems as it transitions to the client/server environment.
The Tough Get Going
So far, Assumption Life has made good progress on the standardization initiative, according to Smith. The IT department currently is moving the group insurance system to the new environment and is on track to complete the project stage in the third quarter of this year.
Next up is the conversion of some of the payment and compensation administration systems, Smith relates. Upon completion of that stage, the insurer's entire technology environment will be on a .NET platform, minus some functions provided on an application service provider (ASP) basis. "We do not necessarily want control of the development platform of any third-party systems that are purchased - as long as it fits in with our architecture and our vision for the future," Smith says.
Despite an IT department of just 25 employees, the complexities of a major four-year project, the challenges of maintaining a Web site and the normal demands of a business, Smith is not worried about the capabilities of his staff. "It is a kind of organized mayhem sometimes," he jokes, explaining that project managers are in place to organize the large legacy system move, and analysts and contractors are brought in as needed. On the bright side, "It is always a lot easier to keep your employees at home if they've got exciting new technology to work with," explains Smith. "And employee retention has not been a problem here in the past couple of years because there are a lot of new and exciting things going on."
As a result of the IT department's hard work, the technology being built and maintained will help Assumption Life's business and contribute to the retention of agents, brokers and clients. "I think a strong technology platform helps a lot with regards to brokers," says Smith. "In today's world, you have to be able to offer the best technology available to provide new tools and new capabilities that will keep the sales teams interested and able to do business quickly."
Company: Assumption Life Insurance (Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada; $725 million in assets under management).
Lines of Business: Life and group insurance.
History: The Organisation la Societe l'Assomption was formed in 1903 in Massachusetts to ensure the well-being of Acadian families who had lost their fathers or husbands. In 1969, the fraternal society became a mutual insurance company and adopted the name Assomption Compagnie Mutuelle d'Assurance-Vie, or Assumption Life.
Recent Initiatives: Assumption Life currently is in the middle of a four-year project to migrate its legacy systems to a client/server environment, built primarily on the Microsoft .NET platform.
Name: Derrick Smith, Director of IT
Career Path: Smith joined Assumption Life as director of IT in early 2002. Prior to joining the carrier, he was director of information technologies at Microforum, a Toronto-based company specializing in credit adjudication systems and e-commerce development for a number of large clients. Smith holds a bachelor's degree in computer science.
IT Philosophy: "In today's world, you have to be able to offer the best technology available to provide new tools and new capabilities that will keep the sales teams interested and able to do business quickly," says Smith. Additionally, "It is always a lot easier to keep your employees at home if they've got exciting new technology to work with," he notes.