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Position of Influence

The Principal's Barry Griswell advocates IT that benefits customers and producers.

There are two reasons why J. Barry Griswell might not be considered a traditional insurance chief executive. First, the chairman, president and CEO of Des Moines-based Principal Financial Group ($144.9 billion in assets under management) only started playing golf a few years ago. Second, unlike many of his peers, Griswell's roots are in sales and marketing.

That atypical experience helped him develop Principal Financial's successful global growth strategy and also has fueled his understanding of the ways in which technology can support that strategy. "[It] gives me a perspective that is a little more growth focused and sales oriented," observes Griswell, who came to the provider of retirement and investment services, life and health insurance, and mortgage banking in 1988 from MetLife, where he had been president and CEO of brokerage/distribution subsidiary MetLife Marketing Corp. He was named president in 1998, CEO in 2000 and chairman in 2002.

While acknowledging the importance of making IT investments that boost efficiency, Griswell thinks there's more to the story. "I have a great interest in having technology going beyond efficiency, in ways that are more related to the customer experience," he says, referring to "those parts that touch the customer and the producer, that find ways to retain and better serve customers and help people be more productive."

Under the direction of CIO Gary Scholten, The Principal has pursued initiatives - including customer and contact management systems and customer relationship management systems - that help create a common customer experience. For example, "Five or six years ago, we had a vision of creating a group of sales/service counselors who would work with plan participants near retirement or changing jobs, with the express purpose of retaining assets from those people," Griswell says. "We put a team together that is heavily supported by technology, and last year we retained about 55 percent" - up from 30 percent previously.

It comes down to cross-selling, which, Griswell concedes, is "like the Holy Grail in insurance." Still, "We are very focused on improving our cross-selling capabilities," the CEO reports.

As Griswell's responsibilities have changed, so has his role in driving technology strategies at The Principal. "I'm less active in the day-to-day management of technology, but I am still very involved, more as an influencer," he says.

Exerting Control

Griswell wants to move beyond cliches about business and IT alignment. "We've got to leverage technology across the enterprise," he says. "There was a time when we let each business unit do its own thing, but decentralization can be taken too far." That is especially so in today's intense regulatory environment. "Things like privacy need enterprise-wide attention, so, under Gary's leadership, we have begun to bring things back together."

The same approach applies to The Principal's international strategy. "We are operating primarily in emerging markets that have some kind of tax incentive or mandatory retirement system, such as Chile, Brazil, Hong Kong and Mexico," Griswell says. These also are markets where The Principal can leverage its U.S.-based products and supporting technologies, he adds.

This kind of more integrated, collaborative structure is also essential to meeting what Griswell considers to be his primary challenge: achieving profitable growth. "We are fortunate that we are a diverse business and have grown," he notes. A related top challenge is "having this organization prepared for and able to respond to rapid change - and having technology that will enable us to respond."

J. Barry Griswell, Chairman, President, CEO, Principal Financial Group

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree from Berry College (Rome, Ga.); master's degree from Stetson University (Deland, Fla.).

COMMUNITY SERVICE: Board member, ACLI, American Council for Capital Formation, S.S. Huebner Foundation for Insurance Education, The Business Roundtable; trustee, Central College (Pella, Iowa), Berry College; director, Business Committee for the Arts; president, Federation of Iowa Insurers; chair, Greater Des Moines Partnership. Member, Iowa Business Hall of Fame.

HOBBIES/PASTIMES "I do enjoy my charitable activities. I play a lot of tennis, I'm a new golfer and I read a fair amount. And I'm a new grandfather."

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

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