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Balancing Act

Western & Southern Financial Group pursues IT initiatives that support growth while keeping expenses in check.

Serving as a CIO is a "balancing act between increasing the profitability of the organization with competitive solutions, while also managing expenses," explains Clint Gibler, SVP and CIO of Western & Southern Financial Group. Among the competitive projects on which Gibler has worked since joining the Cincinnati-based life and health insurer in 1996 was facilitating the development of an IT infrastructure to support Western & Southern's ($39 billion in total assets) online strategy. "I joined the company at a time when the Internet was just taking off, and now we have industry-leading online solutions," says Gibler.

On the other side of the balancing act, Gibler has been working to achieve straight-through processing in the carrier's back office. "We now have a very strong emphasis on back-office automation," he says. But the initiative, Gibler notes, not only will improve efficiency, it also will improve ease of doing business with the carrier for its independent agents, ultimately facilitating business growth. "Maintaining our balance between business growth and expense management is critical to fueling the growth and service of the overall company," he adds.

With growth in mind, Western & Southern decided in 2001 to overhaul its underwriting system. Concerned by the number of omissions in policy applications, the carrier set out to build a real-time underwriting system with an online application process and electronic signature, Gibler relates. "When the customer would apply to an agent, ... their applications would be incomplete, and this caused delays in the issuance of a policy," he explains. "We wanted to automate our underwriting solution to simplify the questionnaire process for the agent as well as to make it more convenient for the end customer."

Signing Up New Business Intelligently

After an extensive review of several vendor technologies, the insurer purchased the NaviSys (Edison, N.J.) Front Office solution -- an automated, end-to-end package with a rating engine and workflow, illustration, application, case management, underwriting and issue functionality -- in 2003 as the platform for its proprietary online application and underwriting system, known as Intelligent New Business (iNB). Western & Southern made several refinements to the product, according to Gibler. For example, the carrier's IT team simplified the Java application to allow agents to submit multiple policies within the same household in one application. Next, IT implemented a J2EE Web server that would allow agents to submit applications directly to the underwriting system with a customer biometric e-signature for real-time policy issuance. "The applications upload to the automated underwriting system for quick turnaround," explains Gibler.

Since iNB's release in 2004 for life products, Western & Southern has witnessed nearly 100 percent accuracy in all incoming life applications, Gibler points out, adding that 84 percent of policies currently are issued as quoted and 25 percent of those applications are issued without human underwriting. Western & Southern also has seen a 25 percent reduction in back-office expenses. The carrier will roll out iNB for annuities this fall, Gibler notes.

Another Web-based initiative focused on enhancing service is Western & Southern's implementation of a new call center platform. Previously, customers were routed to available customer representatives via a traditional Avaya (Basking Ridge, N.J.) PBX landline. But with its new online technology, the carrier saw an opportunity to provide better service by adopting Voice over Internet Protocol. The insurer wanted a system that would support skills-based routing and allow customer service representatives to handle multiple channels, including fax, e-mail and Web chat, Gibler relates. "We have worked hard to offer our customers and producers convenient ways to do business with us -- anywhere, any way and any time they choose," he says.

Western & Southern selected Interactive Intelligence's (Indianapolis) I3 call center and IP telephony solution and implemented the platform at its main contact center in Cincinnati in February 2005. Full implementation was completed in July 2005.

The carrier spent the next nine months adding functionalities, such as interactive voice response (IVR), outbound dialing, skills-based routing and media blending, Gibler says. "The new call center platform makes our customer service representatives more productive," he asserts. The carrier currently is in the process of rolling out the technology to its remote business offices.

Western & Southern's deployment of VoIP technology also supports the carrier's disaster recovery plans, Gibler continues. "We can't tolerate any interruption in critical business processes, ... [including] call center functionality," he says.

To further enhance business continuity, Western & Southern completed the build-out of a disaster-recovery site 25 miles outside of Cincinnati in February 2005, according to Gibler. The center, which has immediate seating for 150 business and IT associates, includes an IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) mainframe and application and database servers, and an EMC (Hopkinton, Mass.) storage area network for data replication and tiered storage.

Western & Southern Financial Group

Company: Western & Southern Financial Group (Cincinnati; $39 billion in total assets).

Lines of Business: Life, health, annuities and mutual funds.

History: Western & Southern Financial Group was founded in 1888. Today, it is comprised of 15 group affiliates. The carrier has 5,000 associates and more than 50,000 individuals in its selling group.

Recent Initiatives: Western & Southern recently completed a proprietary online application and underwriting system based on NaviSys (Edison, N.J.) Front Office, implemented a new contact center with VoIP technology from Interactive Intelligence (Indianapolis) and built a new disaster recovery center.

Name: Clint Gibler, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer.

Career Path: Gibler received a B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Notre Dame, and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University. He worked at AT&T/Bell Labs for 15 years, rising to the position of chief scientist of data networking. Gibler joined Western & Southern Financial Group in 1996 as the assistant vice president of distributed computing services. He was promoted to chief information officer in 2000.

No. 1 IT Challenge: "My greatest challenge is enabling business growth through highly automated, scalable technology while aggressively managing IT expenses," Gibler says.

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