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Management Strategies

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Jackson National Life CIO Mark Clark Emphasizes Simplicity and Service

Working in close partnership with operations, Jackson National Life's CIO seeks to meet intensifying broker-dealer demands and drive 'explosive growth' while controlling costs.

For many IT shops, tight alignment with the business is a worthwhile goal. For Mark Clark, CIO of Lansing, Mich.-based Jackson National Life (approximately $77 billion in total assets), a subsidiary of London-based Prudential, it's a way of life. In 1990 Clark cofounded software and consulting firm Cooperative Technologies in partnership with George Napoles, Clark's predecessor in the Jackson CIO role and now the carrier's EVP. The vendor's moniker also would be good name for Jackson's internal IT organization.

Clark's promotion to SVP and CIO in December 2009 was announced at the same time as Laura Prieskorn's appointment as the company's SVP and chief administrative officer -- a title that Napoles held while CIO -- because of the tight coordination of the technology and operations organizations' strategic objectives. In key respects, Clark's and Prieskorn's new roles represent an institutionalization of work begun by Napoles to move Jackson from a largely manual processing environment to a service-focused organization supported by state-of-the-art technology and processes.

"Our philosophy has always been that we're business people who understand technology, and since we never want to implement technology for technology's sake, we work together with the business to find the solutions that work best," Clark comments. "Every project has both an IT and a business owner, and ideas come from both sides."

To drive mutual understanding of each side's challenges, last year Clark's and Prieskorn's organizations adopted from Jackson's sales organization the concept of "ride-alongs." The term refers to internal wholesalers' forays into the field with their external counterparts. In the IT/operations partnership it refers to efforts such as giving operations executives a class on COBOL and having them work with programmers on the projects that they sponsor. Another example involves IT professionals sitting with customer service representatives to understand the day-to-day challenges in the call center.

"As Mark allowed for IT management and associates to sit in ops and see what we do, we were able to share how that impacts the service we provide to our producers," comments Prieskorn. "The end result has been a great deal of creativity and collaboration."

Reducing Complexity

That result, according to Clark, is aimed at addressing Jackson's strategic challenge of growth through both organic expansion and acquisition. Clark says he is focused on both reducing the complexity of Jackson's IT capabilities while introducing higher levels of automation to operations. To date, he boasts, the company has distinguished itself by delivering service and technological excellence while keeping costs low.

"Laura's unit costs are some of the lowest in the industry, but she's constantly winning service awards," Clark relates. "My IT budget as a percentage of operating expenses last year was 2.2 percent. We run a very lean IT shop, yet we're able to deliver about twice as much technology per employee as most of the people in our industry."

Jackson's IT staff, however, has nearly doubled since 2001, and its size and complexity threaten to increase further in the face of growth and acquisition, Clark notes. Jackson faces increased demand from its broker-dealer customers, many of whom have very specific rules about how they will do business, he explains. And, while Jackson has been a leader in speed to market, according to Clark, the insurer can't rest on its laurels. "On many fronts we hear that our competition is catching up to us, so we have to take it to the next level," he says.

Single Platform Strategy

In the interest of reducing complexity, the IT organization has embarked on a platform consolidation effort to move from three policy administration systems to a single CSC (Falls Church, Va.) CyberLife platform. Begun about two years ago, the initiative is scheduled for completion within the next two years, Clark reports. Noting Jackson's recent acquisition of Life of Georgia from ING, Clark comments, "We intend to be buying companies, and as we do, we'll continue to consolidate on a single admin system."

Among the automation efforts aimed at addressing increasing service demands, Clark's group enabled the stratification of customer service personnel by skills and knowledge. "We've created what we call 'virtual pods,' where people are trained to deal with particular broker-dealers," he explains. "We try to align our best people with our best financial service advisers, such that calls and paperwork are automatically routed to the best people."

Prieskorn emphasizes that this is more than just getting the top customer to the top service rep. "Customization is developing into a major focus for us," she relates. "As broker-dealers' demands become greater and more specific, we have to be able to accommodate them without any degradation in the quality of service that we provide."

In the coming year one of Clark's most important automation-related efforts will be the implementation of a business rules engine based on the Drools open source product. "We plan on using this extensively throughout the operations organization so that work will not only be routed automatically, but sometimes automatically completed in order to further reduce our costs," he says.

Clark also plans to reinforce the efficiency, quality and innovative orientation of his organization through a rigorous hiring process that includes a demanding aptitude test. "As an environment grows more complex, you have to make sure you're hiring well, that you're bringing in the creative people who can foster innovation," he asserts. "We want very well-qualified people when we make a hire -- we'd rather leave a position open than fill it with a subpar person."

Clark sees this emphasis on excellence as well-suited to meeting the demands of a life and annuities market in the throes of a "flight to quality." Jackson CEO Clark Manning's commitment to running the company lean all the time has enabled the company to maintain a kind of business-as-usual atmosphere while others were cutting budgets, laying off people and withholding bonuses, according to Clark. But he hastens to add that "business as usual" at Jackson comprises not only dedication to living up to high standards day to day, but also driving those standards higher in order to maintain a leadership position in the market.

Of that market position today, Clark remarks, "Prior to the crisis Clark [Manning] refused to price products as crazily as some of our competitors did; we priced our products correctly, and so we weathered the financial crisis very well, and we're ready to come out of the chute with what we think will be explosive growth."

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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