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Elite 8 2012: Susan Gueli’s High-Energy Approach to Building IT Muscle

Nationwide Financial CIO Susan Gueli has led a highly motivated team to simplify systems and build market-leading capabilities for the insurer's adviser distributors.

Susan Gueli, SVP and CIO of Nationwide Financial, recalls the excitement of leaving Ohio State to become an entry-level programmer at Nationwide in downtown Columbus, Ohio. "Having been at a large school, I was thrilled at the tremendous amount of opportunity at a large company," Gueli recollects. Her enthusiasm has been vindicated during a 26-year career at the company that has been a tour of preparation for her successful CIO tenure.

Although she has served in other parts of the Nationwide enterprise, Gueli spent the first eight years of her career in Nationwide Financial, a division of Columbus-based Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. ($20.7 billion in 2011 operating income), working in small teams and learning to perform a variety of roles. Gueli recalls from that era a particular manager who had a lasting influence on her career: "She had very high expectations but would never ask anything of her team that she wasn't willing to do herself," Gueli recalls. "It taught me a great deal about what it means to be a leader."

Gueli spent the next eight years in Nationwide's infrastructure delivery organization. While it provided an opportunity for her to utilize skills she had acquired, she describes it as an important departure from her previous experience. "It was instrumental in opening up my mind to the broader enterprise," Gueli explains. "I had the opportunity to deliver for the broad Nationwide organization, including all of our business -- P&C, Nationwide Financial and our affiliates -- as well as working with a different dimension of our technology environment."

According to Gueli, one of her last assignments as part of the infrastructure delivery team gave her responsibility for delivering infrastructure for a set of business units with a small team of professionals outside her organizational structure. "It really helped me to build muscle in how to utilize the broad capability of an organization, not just the resources within your own scope of responsibility," she says.

In 2002, Gueli put that muscle to use with her appointment as VP of information risk management (IRM), a function that comprises information security, continuity management and crisis management. "During my time at IRM I had the opportunity to work with some distinguished experts in those disciplines," Gueli relates. "We had the opportunity as a team to build our enterprise practice and drive a very significant improvement in the company's risk posture."

She refers to an observation she made to Nationwide's enterprise CIO Mike Keller about two years into the job: "It doesn't matter what I do next, whether infrastructure delivery or back to application development, I will execute those roles dramatically differently now that I have a deeper understanding of the risk management portion of the role."

At that stage in her career, Gueli relates, she had discretion about her next move and chose in 2006 to return to the oldest discipline on her resume, heading Nationwide Financial's application development center. "The year or so that I spent there gave me the opportunity to dig deep into application development again, making me a better candidate for the CIO position when it became available," she comments.

In the Name of the Adviser

Gueli has put her accumulated muscle to work in driving initiatives that play to the needs of the company's adviser distribution strategy. For example, her team recently rolled out the Investment Solutions Builder tool, which allows retirement plan advisers to create highly specific, high-performing investment models within plans based on criteria such as age, risk tolerance and where the investor stands in the savings cycle. "It's a tool that helps them deliver plans that perform for the participant, based on that individual participant's needs," Gueli explains. "It's a very exciting tool with features that have patents pending."

Earlier this year Nationwide rolled out a single-sign-on solution that allows advisers to link directly from their firms' websites to "We've implemented it for a few adviser firms and are in the process of rolling it out more broadly," Gueli reports.

Toward the end of 2011, Nationwide Financial began delivering tablet technology to its field wholesalers, whom Gueli characterizes as key players in the company's sales and service strategy. The program began with the rollout of lower-risk mobile capabilities, such as email and calendaring, to the entire wholesaler population; Nationwide currently is working on a secure tablet-based CRM solution. "We have been very deliberate about what gets stored on a personal device versus what they can access but gets stored remotely," Gueli specifies.

Gueli's team is nearing the end of a consolidation initiative to take retirement plan administration systems down from three systems to one. Nationwide Financial shut down the first system in 2009 and is on track to decommission the second in 2013, leaving only the company's in-house-developed DC Direct system. The initiative delivers significant business benefit as well as a raw operating efficiency expense reduction of 11.5 percent, according to Gueli. "We will have the opportunity to have a single public sector retirement plan platform with innovative capabilities and strong functionality," she comments.

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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