When Ken Barger graduated from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, he resisted two powerful temptations: to emulate the example of most of his relatives and work for IBM (Armonk, NY), and to follow the prevailing fashion of technology students to become an expert in a technology specialty.
The result has been an rewarding career in the insurance industry, culminating in a newly created chief technology officer position at The Hartford (Hartford, $167 billion in assets), which found it could use a dynamic technology generalist to tie its offerings together into a common experience.
"When I was younger people thought, 'I want to be an expert at database,' or 'I want to be the expert CICS person,'" Barger says. But despite the prevailing wisdom that said specialization made one more marketable, Barger took a more difficultand ultimately luckierpath. "I was interested in how all these things work together. I put in some of the first LANs, I put in some of the first serversNovell and Unixand I was heavily involved in mainframes, CICS, database, networking and every possible area you can think of, and worked my way into leadership roles in each one."
In 1997, The Hartford offered Barger an opportunity to be a part of its effort to develop Hartford Life. "They wanted to change the infrastructure to provide better customer service, improve service levels and handle growth," he says. "It was an opportunity to come in and reengineer the whole infrastructure environment, not just from a technology perspective but as it was run, managed and supported," according to Barger.
Barger says his role as a partner with the business was to provide the necessary service levels through a major growth spurt. The result of that partnership was to take Hartford Life from contributing about 20 percent of net income for the corporation to about 70 percent in about four-and-a-half years, Barger reports. Additionally, the organization has won the prestigious Dalbar Award for customer service in the annuity businessa major line at Hartford Lifefive years in a row.
In achieving the transformation at the company, Barger oversaw migration "to a full-services, structured services model, and, using shared technologies across multiple business areas in a life company, implemented a tremendous amount of change," he says. "I think in four years I just about replaced every bit of technology they hadat the same time lowering the cost and improving the service level."
The success of the Hartford Life endeavor was tied to what Barger calls "two major differentiators"effectiveness and customer service. "Those are two components that you need to keep an eye on all the time in this space," he says. That vigilance resulted in cost ratios so favorable vis a vis its competitors that Hartford Life has even been able to be active in acquisitions recently, Barger reports. "So it's a very good success story."
OK from the Top
Corporate agreed. The Hartford took a look at the life company's success and saw that "there were some real opportunities that we could leverage, both in terms of the business model and improved capabilities," Barger says. "As a result, they did a study to determine a way to provide infrastructure services for the entire corporation." That, in turn, led to an enterprise infrastructure model projectand the appointment of Barger to implement it as The Hartford's first-ever CTO. "Since then we have major initiatives underway, including increased Internet capabilities, security authentication services, directory capability, disaster recovery capability and a number of major initiatives to help The Hartford to continue to improve its service levels, be more cost effective and provide better customer service."
Nothing short of such an overhaul of infrastructure, systems and support vehicles is necessary to bring The Hartford to the next step in its transition from a product-focused company to an externally focused company, according to Barger. The goal is to provide "The Hartford experience, to allow our agents, brokers and customers to access us as The Hartford," says Barger. Its delivery will be by means of extranets and portal technologies, such as the carrier's recently re-launched EBC (Electronic Business Center), which provides agents easy access to content and transaction capabilities for personal and commercial insurance, and Advisor World, which supports brokers and dealers on the life side. Barger also says The Hartford will be working hard to develop Internet-based self-service capabilities for consumers.
In order to provide these customer-facing capabilities, "there are a number of infrastructure services that we're implementing, such as a single sign-on capability," Barger says. "As an agent, producer, broker or consumer, you want to be able to authenticate once and be able to access your data." In the near future, directories corresponding to customer categories will enable navigation between multiple systems, utilizing technologies such as content and document management, Barger says. "There's a lot of technology that needs to be positioned, and these common services need to be shared between a number of applications in order to provide that real Hartford experience."
Before getting the opportunity to experience The Hartford for himself, Barger spent a long time at some of the insurer's direct competitors. After a stint at computer maker Burroughs Corp. in Kingston, NY, where Barger says he was "involved in minicomputers in banks and wholesale" and did everything from programming to sales and support, he entered the insurance industry at Travelers (Hartford) as an application programmer. From there he moved to technology support, eventually taking charge of all evaluation for the carrier. For the next 16 years he was at Aetna (Hartford), where he says he worked in all technology areas, including mainframes, CICS, database, and networking. "I eventually moved into their architecture group, where I did all the five-year plans and had a number of different leadership roles."
The Hartford's good reputation for how it treats and retains people was a major reason for Barger's decision to join the firm, and is a crucial factor in its ability to provide superior customer service. "Because we believe in The Hartford experience, we hold people accountable," he says. "It's important that we understand that and develop good business partnership relationships with each other and understand that the real competition is outside the door."
In Barger's view, a key to making that experience a reality is having the right team. "To me, technology is not the issue, it's peoplepeople are your differentiator," he asserts. "It's important to be a good manager, but beyond that you need to be a leader. You need to have a vision and continually move the ball, because it's becoming more competitive all the time. Just managing 'as-is' is not good enough anymore; you need to build a world-class organization."
With Barger, that team has world-class leadership, says Ann Stelmat, vice president, business technology solutions, Hartford Life. "I can't think of a better partner in technology to move our business forward," she says. "His first interest is what the business needs and what we can afford. He understands the technology, but he's also practical enough to know what can be implemented in today's world."
Chief Technology Officer, The Hartford
Size Of IT Staff: 141
Interests/Hobbies: Barger enjoys cruise travel; he loves sports and is an omnivorous reader.
Education: Marist College, Poughkeepsie, NY BS in mathematics, minor in economics and computers
Key Quote: "Just managing 'as is' is not good enough anymore; you need to build a world-class organization, a world-class team."
Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio