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Chapman Drives Focus on Business Solutions

American Family's Byrne Chapman steers his division toward a better understanding of the business.

Although it doesn't seem as exciting as his boyhood fantasy of becoming a racecar driver, Byrne Chapman will tell you that his position as vice president, information services, American Family Mutual Insurance (Madison, WI, $10 billion in assets) is the best job in the world.

"I've got the opportunity with a division of this size to really help American Family be successful," Chapman says of his 1,150-member team 200 of which are contractors that has a budget of $205 million. "It is very gratifying to see a team bring a project to end and have a successful impact on the business." He leads a division that's responsible for American Family Mutual's being ranked an impressive 114 on the InformationWeek 500, a list of organizations with the most innovative information technology.

Chapman, who had been with the carrier of personal property, auto, life, health, commercial lines and financial services, for 16 years, was named vice president of information systems three years ago. "I moved from a very technology-focused job to the vice president's job, where I need to focus on delivering business solutions," says Chapman. Before his current job, he was American Family Mutual's manager of technology support. Chapman has a bachelor's degree in business from Edgewood College (Madison).

Chapman's current position forced him to look at the company in a whole new way. "I needed to develop a knowledge about what American Family was as a company," he says. "I sit in on many senior business meetings. I spend time with the marketing component of our business and I try to spend time in the field to gain an understanding of what our business challenges are." Chapman also utilizes the company's corporate information factory. "We use it to capture data real-time and know what's happening in the business quickly rather than waiting for traditional end-of-the-month reports or end-of-the-quarter reports," says Chapman.

Broadening Horizons

In an effort to get his staff more business-minded, next year classes will be offered to technicians to provide them with insight on things like ROI and return on equity. "There is some risk for very technical people perhaps not wanting to gain that business knowledge," he concedes. Although Chapman believes that within an insurance company there is value in everyone having understanding of the business, these classes will not be mandatory. "We offer different career paths," explains Chapman. "It's possible to stay very technical as you move through the job paths here, or you can move toward project management or consulting."

Chapman learned the importance of having a diplomatic nature while working with American FamilyMutual's business community. According to Chapman, a leader needs to "find ways for everyone to win" when an issue arises, and "the ability to negotiate, find a consensus and a way to move ahead" is very important.

He uses these skills in the company's quarterly IS budget meetings. "I participate in the meeting," explains Chapman. "But our business partners set the priorities for what will be done." In order to give the members of the company's business community—whom Chapman refers to as clients—a better understanding of how an application might look and feel when it is complete, he has developed a prototyping methodology. "We are now able to give clients a very good feel for what an application looks like without building the application itself," he adds. The company is currently conducting a voice-over-IP trial, which is being tested on a very small scale for its potential use in call centers and agents' offices in the coming year.

Chapman, who counts the need to deliver systems rapidly among his greatest IT challenges, feels the pressures of having to respond quickly to changes in business, now more than ever. "Now we spend time on projects with durations of 90 days or 100 days and try to make sure that we have solid deliverables," he says. "Our strategy is to be a mid-level adopter of technology, not to be a bleeding-edge group. I think that for an insurance organization like ourselves, bleeding-edge technology runs a very high risk of failure," because it is unproven.

HIPAA/Disaster Recovery Are Priorities

Chapman plans to spend part of the fourth quarter of this year working on HIPAA compliance. "It's a bit like Y2K," he says. "We are looking at physical security, data security and going through our e-communications procedures. The biggest impact will be in our EDI area."

Additionally, since the terrorist attacks on America, Chapman has felt the need to rethink some of the company's security issues, as well as its disaster recovery plan, which was developed with natural disasters in mind. "I think that the disaster has perhaps taken a bit of innocence away from us," says Chapman.

Before a project is given the go-ahead, it must be prioritized. After a project—such as the utilization of storage area networks to support data or the in-house development of middleware to interface Web-based applications with the company's legacy environment—is deemed a priority, Chapman and his team drive projects through a monitoring process called a stoplight report. Every major project is issued a stoplight icon on a report published with every project milestone. "A yellow stoplight means that there is an issue that has potential impact on a project's delivery date," explains Chapman. "Red means there are issues that will, if not solved, impact a project's delivery date."

Although it's not NASCAR, Chapman does spend most of his time driving IT projects in a race against the clock. And although he is all grown up, Chapman hasn't given up on his childhood dream. He has combined his hobby of photography with his love of racecars. "If you can't own them, you can take their picture," says Chapman, who follows his subjects to historic car events and car-racing events in his torch red 2000 Corvette.


Byrne Chapman

Vice President of Information Services American Family Mutual Insurance

IT Budget: $205 million

Size Of IT Staff: 950 and 200 contractors

Interests/Hobbies: "I enjoy working on sports cars and I enjoy taking pictures," says Chapman.

Key Quote: "Our strategy is to be a mid-level adopter of technology, not to be a bleeding edge group."

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