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Front-End Focus

Piyush Singh's front-end strategy took RLI's back-office-focused organization and built agile, user-friendly technology to match the P&C carrier's approach to business.

Company slogans often are empty market speak, but Peoria, Ill.-based RLI Corp.'s unique genesis in the early 1960s as a replacement contact lens insurer and its eventual transformation into an $820 million multiline P&C carrier provide ample justification for its "Fundamentally Innovative" motto. That quality of innovation is every bit as evident in RLI CIO Piyush Singh's IT organization, which has built technology to match the company's product-focused, entrepreneurial style.

In the mid-90s, RLI lured Singh away from a consulting job in Jamaica to add momentum to the carrier's conversion from a Honeywell Bull mainframe to an AS/400 platform running Wheatley's (now Livingston, N.J.-based AIG Technology's) WINS core policy and claims administration system. Upon completion of the three-and-a-half-year job, Singh realized that he could make a contribution to the company in the form of a technology vision and a willingness to drive - rather than wait for - change. Judging that the platform wasn't progressive enough for RLI's needs, Singh marshalled development of functionality improvements to WINS that eventually exceeded the number of lines of code in the original application.

Around the same time, he also took on Y2K compliance. "It was a fairly onerous task for us," recalls Singh. "However, we did it on time and on a fairly efficient basis." To express the accomplishment in a less understated manner - RLI spent about $.17 per line of code against an industry average of approximately $1.10.

Vision in Action

Singh had the opportunity to express his technology vision more expansively with his appointment as VP of IT upon his predecessor's departure from the company. Singh explains that vision with a metaphor from construction: "I look at the IT environment as a house that is built one room at a time," he relates. The business would prefer to have a new home built every time a change is needed, but such wholesale reconstruction isn't possible within the IT environment, Singh continues. It's inevitable, he adds, "that some of the earlier rooms will be based on older standards and new ones on newer standards." The challenge "is to integrate the whole setup so that it's transparent to people, and so the places where people stay are the ones that are nice and modern - and that's the strategy that we've taken."

In other words, Singh has led RLI's technology transformation from legacy-based back-office-focused IT to leading-edge, Internet-based front-end systems. To support that shift, he managed a two-year transitioning of his staff away from legacy skill sets to Web development, and reoriented them from having an IT-area focus to being providers of services to the business. Singh simultaneously moved application maintenance offshore.

"Our approach is to build front-end systems that will always be leading-edge," Singh explains. "We're going to continue to invest the majority of our budget on those systems and the talent pool necessary to drive them. And we're going to look at it from a business functionality perspective, not from the technology perspective."

However, to support the business perspective, Singh has established technology principles that have guided development of RLI's application architecture - a single user interface, single point of entry, single source of information and single corporate document repository. To revert to Singh's metaphor, these principles ensure that the customer enjoys the pleasant space of the front-end app despite the untidy or uncomfortable architecture of the back-office systems. "The user doesn't care how many systems he's logging into," Singh says. What he does care about is service. "Insurance today is not sold entirely on service, but human behavior is based on service," Singh postulates. "Over time, people always gravitate to places where they get better service."

Singh has put that principle into practice both for the company's e-commerce lines - business that is amenable to automated underwriting and can therefore be submitted directly by agents - as well as business that must be handled by individual underwriters internally. For the latter, RLI launched its eSubmissions application - a fully integrated, Web-based policy submission, rating, quoting, binding and issuance system. The solution was launched in 2002 for general liability, followed by commercial umbrella, executive products, difference in conditions, E&S property and construction. In a span of three years, according to Singh, eSubmissions has "completely transformed the way field underwriters and underwriting assistants work," leading to significant cost reductions in the field and a tremendous productivity increase.

The carrier's eCommerce portal was launched in 2003 to enable external distributors to bind business directly using an underwriting matrix. At launch, it enabled quoting, quote management, rating, binding and issuing for program business for RLI's limited service hotels line, followed by commercial umbrella and some of the carrier's signature niche lines in 2004. It since has been rewritten in Microsoft (Redmond, Wash.) .NET technology and its use has been expanded to additional lines.

According to Singh, over 80 percent of RLI's premium flows through its Web-based front-end systems and the number is expected to reach 90 percent by mid-2006 - and they are fast. "We not only can go through the rate, quote, issue, we even generate a policy for a lot of our program business and e-mail it back within a couple of minutes," he says. "When we talk about service, that's what we're trying to do."

Speed also characterizes RLI's ability to ramp up new lines established by the company's business entrepreneurs. "We're looking at another line of business coming up in our e-commerce area," Singh says.

"We're just going to add another underwrite/rate/quote basis for them. All the core features - issue, endorsements, cancellations - are already built in." The project will take only 60 days to 90 elapsed days, and will cost $50,000 to $75,000, Singh notes. "Typically, you end up spending multimillions to put in an e-commerce infrastructure for a product line," he adds.


Fact Sheet

Piyush Singh

CIO, RLI Corp. (Peoria, Ill.; $820 million in revenue).

Size of IT Staff: 68.

Education: Masters in Computer Applications from the University of Delhi; M.B.A. from Bradley University; CPCU from the American Institute of CPCU; Advanced Executive Education from Wharton School of Business.

Work History: Singh started at RLI as a database administrator in 1994. He became VP, IT, in 2002 and assumed the CIO role in 2004. Before joining RLI, Singh worked as a consultant for PriceWaterhouse, a senior consultant for Index Computing/ANZ Bank and a technical consultant for Citicorp Overseas Software.

IT Philosophy: "Our approach is to build front-end systems that will always be leading-edge," Singh explains. "We're going to continue to invest the majority of our budget on those systems and the talent pool necessary to drive them. And we're going to look at it from a business functionality perspective, not the technology perspective."


On The Net

Piyush Singh, RLI Corp.
WINS, AIG Technology

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

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