Executives always talk about the importance of employees to their organizations' successes, but few really "walk the walk" the way Catherine S. Brune does at Allstate Insurance Co. Brune, senior vice president and CIO of the Northbrook, Ill.-based insurance industry giant ($161 billion in assets), runs a 12,000-employee organization (6,500 specifically in IT) with a $1 billion-plus budget. But the job is a lot more than a numbers game to her.
"I don't know if I have a management style, but I do believe in people," declares the outspoken Brune. "I also believe you have to be ever ready to transform your business every day. You have to be thinking every day, 'What can we do differently today from yesterday that is going to get us closer to the goals at hand?'"
This constant focus on transformation reflects Brune's concerns about the state of the industry. "What keeps me up at night," she says, "is the constant reminder that this business is changing faster than people realize, and our systems will not be ready to support that for the future unless we're thinking like industries that do have to be fast and nimble. There's no doubt in my mind we have to get quicker to market. That means your systems have to be enabled so you can do that."
Spreading the Gospel
Everyone needs to buy into this belief, but it's Brune's responsibility to spread the gospel. She evangelizes not only to her Allstate colleagues and staff, but also outside the company, especially to high school and college students who may not be considering the insurance industry in their career plans.
"Thinking back along my career, so many people helped me be a better person and a better leader," Brune reflects. "I love being able to give back -- I love being on college campuses, working with young women and minority groups. I worry [that] in our industry we are not attracting enough diversity."
Brune says she finds this kind of mentoring and outreach to be tremendously fulfilling personally, but she also sees it as key to helping Allstate maintain its position as an industry leader. Not only can it give the company an advantage in recruiting IT talent from the cream of the crop, Brune notes, it provides a foundation for success once these individuals become employees.
"The payback more than anything is knowing that maybe you helped somebody succeed, or maybe not make the same mistakes you made along the way, or in the case of my own employees, to see them succeed and grow," Brune reflects. "You help people grow and get better; they make your business grow and get better. I have believed that for 31 years, [and] they'll put me in my grave believing that because I've seen that's a better payoff than any other way to spend our time."
This philosophy translates into a high-performance, results-oriented organization that is recognized as essential to Allstate's success. "In our industry today, if you didn't have a strong technology organization, I don't know how you could be strong as a company," Brune says. But technology certainly isn't an end in and of itself, she adds. "Tom Wilson, our CEO, probably says it better than anybody: We are all businesspeople. Some of us happen to be technology professionals, some are marketing, some sales. But at the end of the day, we're all about delivering a business result and a business strategy."
Help Me Help You
For Brune -- who reports directly to CEO Wilson -- this means helping "[the] business divisions think through what they want to do," she relates. "We are involved in many conversations around growth strategies and the things I think are important to our industry: pricing sophistication, the ability to connect with customers on a much more personal basis and the ability to be able to distribute your products in different ways. Technology enables all of that." And this isn't just rhetoric, Brune points out, since her goals and compensation are linked to the performance of these business units.
As recently as five years ago, she adds, her incentives were tied primarily to cut-and-dried metrics such as project completion. "It's not that those things aren't important and that we don't measure and manage those," she says. "But when I look at what the company says to me that is important -- strategy and the business results of the company -- then that's what the extra reward is all about."
To facilitate the kinds of discussions that help drive growth, Brune was an early advocate for the introduction of tools such as project portfolio management and timekeeping systems. "It helps not only you as the technology organization, but it helps you help your business partners make better decisions," she remarks. One benefit of these investments, according to Brune, is the ability to "actually give the business an idea about unit costs about running particular applications, against what their business costs were for a particular product line." With these kinds of insights, much smarter choices can be made about where to invest, where to pull back, or where to start over and reengineer to better serve business goals, she says.
Another way Brune has maximized the use of IT resources and delivered results to the business has been to champion an SOA-based enterprise architecture initiative. Not only is this improving Allstate's speed and flexibility, it will significantly rationalize the number of applications and support systems that the carrier needs to maintain, she says. According to Brune, the process involves working with business partners to identify the necessary features and functions of, say, a content management system "so that we can build it once as an enterprise and set it up as reusable components, reusable applications, so any time someone needs a content or document management system it meets the requirements of the entire organization."
Brune stresses that the architecture must solve not just today's problems, but also support the business going forward -- or, as she puts it, "Let's make sure from an architectural standpoint that we don't have the Wild Wild West. Because if we do, how will we ever integrate all the different businesses coming together in a consistent view for customers?" Brune continues: "Thinking from the customer inward, you really do have to start with the architecture. I can't let my financial company be building on an architecture different from the protection side of the business."
In other words, at Allstate an improved architecture goes hand in hand with improved corporate governance. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the carrier's massive Next Gen project, a $100 million-plus initiative to build a new claims system and reengineer processes for Allstate's 20,000-employee claims operation.
The effort has been transformative for Brune. "I've learned something from building Next Gen that I want to pass on to every CIO in the world," she says fervently. "I will never build another big system like Next Gen without doing exactly what we've done there. There is a leader in the business and a leader in technology, and they are both accountable for the same end results. Some days they look like Siamese twins -- you can't tell the subject-matter expert versus the technology leader. There is no finger pointing that goes on when there is something broken. There aren't 200 technology professionals and 200 claim professionals sitting there looking at each other wondering whose fault it was. It is 400 very strong Allstaters [collaborating on] what to do differently, where's the work around until we get this piece done."
Brune continues: "I look at this and say, 'If I don't use that methodology [again], I hope somebody hits me in the head.'"
Brune is an inductee of the YWCA's Academy of Women Achievers and WON the Excellence in Corporate IT Leadership Award from Women in Technology INT'L.
Catherine S. Brune
Position:Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Allstate Insurance Co.
Annual IT Budget: More than $1 billion
Size of IT Organization: 6,500-plus IT employees worldwide; 12,000 total employees in Brune's organization
Career: After graduating from the University of South Carolina in 1974 with a B.S. in management, Brune joined Allstate in 1976, eventually became VP of technology shared services, and was named SVP and CIO in September 2002.
Management Philosophy: "You help people grow and get better; they make your business grow and get better. I have believed that for 31 years, [and] they'll put me in my grave believing that because I've seen that's a better payoff than any other way to spend our time."
Pastimes/Hobbies: Brune enjoys watching her son and daughter play sports ("We get to spend a lot of time in stands chewing our fingernails while our children perform instead of us."), golf, music and catching up with her three sisters.
Fun Fact: Brune is an inductee of the YWCA's Academy of Women Achievers and WON the Excellence in Corporate IT Leadership Award from Women in Technology INT'L.
Katherine Burger is Editorial Director of Bank Systems & Technology and Insurance & Technology, members of UBM TechWeb's InformationWeek Financial Services. She assumed leadership of Bank Systems & Technology in 2003 and of Insurance & Technology in 1991. In addition to ... View Full Bio