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Fast Life on the Farm

Cecilia Claudio has found life as CIO for Farmers Group to be anything but slow.

When you ask most people about their "dream job," the answers usually are not surprising. Most occupations—such as managing the New York Yankees, being a teacher or full-time world traveler—are obvious.

However Cecilia Claudio, senior vice president and chief information officer at Los Angeles-based Farmers Group, Inc., has a different type of job in mind—she would like to be a farmer. No this isn't some clever play on words. Claudio says she has always dreamed of growing things and raising animals on a farm—even long before her tenure at Farmers ($12.8 billion in assets) began in 1998.

"I truly love growing things," says Claudio. "Being out there and being able to do that with lots of animals around me sounds wonderful. Creating things from nothing inspires me."

For now, Claudio will be content nurturing and developing the technology focus for Farmers—something much different from the day of a typical farmer. "The pace and the rate of change we are all faced with in the insurance industry is my greatest challenge," she says. "We actually use a phrase at Farmers, 'It is not the large that will survive, it is the fast that will survive over the slow.' It is a call-to-action on business and IT sides. The business side has to deliver faster and IT has to be prepared."

The fast-paced environment is something Claudio admits she didn't expect to find at an insurance company. After 30 years in technology, starting in Portugal working for Olivetti and moving through other companies such as Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Xerox and The Gap, Claudio didn't know what to expect at Farmers. "To be honest, the reason I came to Farmers was Marty Farmers' Martin D. Feinstein, Chairman of The Board, President & CEO. Marty can sell ice to Eskimos. Ididn't know what to expect, but I have never had as much fun in my career as I do here. I am learning a lot."

In order to follow up on the Farmers' call-to-action, Claudio says she needs certain traits to succeed as a CIO in today's market. "I have to be able to adapt, be extremely flexible and make decisions very quickly," she says. A CIO also has to have "the ability to see trends, to look to the future and make those trends a reality."

In fact, as a faculty member of Harvard School of Public Health from 1994 to 1997, Claudio lectured to business leaders about the aspects of aligning business goals and information technology. "Strategy is very critical and strategy without execution is not worth anything," Claudio would tell her executive students. "A business strategy has to have a mirror image on the IT side. I carry that idea with me every day."

But most importantly, Claudio says, a CIO must have "strong support from the business side to be successful." At Farmers, Claudio has daily meetings with her boss, CEO Feinstein. "CIOs used to be truly kept behind the scenes," she says. "CIOs used to be looked upon as one that automates business processes, reduces expenses. A CIO's organization used to be seen as a cost unit. Now it is seen as a tremendous contributor to the success of the business. IT is an organization that drives the business strategy. IT is now center stage for an enterprise."

And by being in the spotlight, Claudio knows her position carries greater responsibility. "As the CIO I have to be visible and sell the value of IT," she says. "I have to sell how we compare to other companies and demonstrate the ongoing value of IT. With the visibility, I am a member of the business team and I am seen as a business leader."

By becoming more of a business leader, Claudio expects her position will look more and more like a head of a business unit over the next few years. "The CIO will continue to gain more and more respect from the business side and will be seen as a business leader, just like the heads of other business units," she says. "I think over the next three years, IT organizations will become P and L profit-and-loss organizations. They no longer will be seen as cost centers."

According to Claudio, CIOs will also run their own IT organizations the way the CEO runs the entire company. "That means having financial controls," she says. "Although I am not a P and L organization yet, I manage it as if I am. I try to be visible to everyone in the organization and run IT as a business."

Greg MacSweeney is editorial director of InformationWeek Financial Services, whose brands include Wall Street & Technology, Bank Systems & Technology, Advanced Trading, and Insurance & Technology. View Full Bio

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