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Main Street America CIO Joel Gelb Manages Transition

Since joining The Main Street America Group as CIO in 2001, Joel Gelb has focused on transitioning the Jacksonville, Fla.-based insurer from a legacy mainframe technology infrastructure to one that includes a mix of Web-based front ends and brand-new claims and commercial systems.

I&T: Describe how The Main Street America Group does business.

Gelb: We are proudly a one-channel company and sell our products only through independent insurance agents. We're staunch advocates of that distribution method, and that belief permeates everything about our company.

Joel Gelb, The Main Street America Group

Joel Gelb
The Main Street America Group

We are represented by more than 1,300 independent agents and write commercial lines, personal lines and bonds products in 16 states in the eastern U.S. We have a lot of small agents; our name, "Main Street," is indicative of the kinds of business we like to write. But that doesn't mean that we don't have very large agents or groups of agents that have banded together as customers. We are subject to the vagaries of how agents are doing their business. We're not limited in any particular way in the business model of the agents we like to work with -- as long as they are independent.

I&T: How does distributing through independent agents impact your technology decisions?

Gelb: As we look for technology and evaluate vendor systems, we are always mindful of the impact on the agents and how we can make it easier for them to do business with us.

I&T: Does the sophistication of the agents vary?

Gelb: Yes, there is still a great variance, some of which has to do with agency size. But there are very few agents who are not Internet-savvy to some extent. Even the mom-and-pop agents are becoming more sophisticated.

I&T: Do you use technology to attract agents?

Gelb: Ease of doing business is an important consideration for agents. Where we think our systems contribute to that, we are eager to illustrate those capabilities.

I&T: What's the IT reporting structure at Main Street America? Is IT centralized?

Gelb: The reporting structure is very straightforward. I report to the SVP of insurance operations [Bill Anderson], who reports to the CEO [Tom Van Berkel]. Anything that looks like IT is my responsibility. And yes, we are centralized.

I&T: What's your technology infrastructure?

Gelb: We're in transition. We're primarily running legacy mainframe systems, but we front-end them with Web-based applications. We're updating our policy administration systems. We just replaced our claim systems with a system from Guidewire Software [San Mateo, Calif.] and are replacing our commercial lines system with a new system from Insurity [Hartford] and our personal lines system with a new system from OneShield (Westborough, Mass.).

We're a mix of legacy, Java [Sun Microsystems; Santa Clara, Calif.] and Microsoft [Redmond, Wash.] -- I don't think you can be pure anything any longer.

I&T: Do you prefer to buy or build technology solutions?

Gelb: Our preference is to buy where available. We believe that we get better, richer functionality from a vendor, and then we do a lot of customization to fit our particular business models. But if we can't find what we need, we will build it.

I&T: What has been your progress in terms of straight-through processing (STP)?

Gelb: The short answer is that right now we don't have much in the way of STP. That's part of what we are working on with our replatforming efforts. STP is increasingly expected and important for the business.

I&T: What do you mean by replatforming?

Gelb: We use that term when we talk about changing our large policy administration or claims administration systems. You can deal with legacy systems by front-ending or encapsulating them, but ripping out and replacing systems is a really complex notion. We've chosen to install new systems. Eventually we'll quiet down most of our legacy systems. But that's a while in the future since we have to convert all of our business. We also have a host of back-end systems that aren't included in this effort, so I don't think the mainframe is going anywhere in the short term.

I&T: What are the benefits of retiring legacy systems?

Gelb: There are lots of advantages: internal process efficiency, increased speed to market of products and the attractiveness of the new systems to our agency force. The benefits are across the board.

I&T: Are there any emerging technologies that will have a great impact on the P&C insurance industry?

Gelb: Physical technology such as black-box technologies for autos that provide information about drivers and how the car is being used may have an impact. Biometric technologies will impact not only insurance, but business in general, especially in the areas of security and identity management.

Enterprise use and availability of corporately accessible databases also is having a large impact. But there is a war waging between our ability to access general information and our desire to get specific information, say for multivariate analyses. It gets easier and easier to populate standard facts about people or businesses, such as address, without having to ask for that information. But at the same time, information demands are increasing. I see a shift in what types of information we are looking for and how we go about getting it.

I&T: How do you keep IT staff motivated and engaged?

Gelb: We've been working on front-ending our systems and building Web and Internet-based applications for some time, and we've put together expertise in this. For most IT people, working in new technology is an attraction. But for those staff members who are not motivated to learn new technologies, we'll still have our legacy work.

I&T: What qualities and skills do you look for in IT staff?

Gelb: I look for individuals who are interested in long-term engagements. I also look for people who are motivated to some extent by helping others and who will naturally support our agent-focused philosophy.

I&T: Do you offshore?

Gelb: We do some offshoring, but I don't see it as a major thrust. If it's cost-efficient, we will work with vendors that have offshore capabilities.

I&T: Are there any hardware or software products developed at Main Street America of which you are particularly proud?

Gelb: The new bond platform we are developing in-house will be an industry leader -- so of course, I can't tell you about it. We often hear that our commercial lines quoting system is easy to use.

From my perspective, our ability to support the business and deliver quality service really is our true measurement of what is outstanding. That involves having systems that are stable, highly available and easy to maintain, since there are a multitude of things that have to get done at the same time you are working on major projects.

I&T: What has been your greatest career challenge?

Gelb: Human beings. Not that technology is easy. I've been involved with insurance technology for a long time, and the most difficult challenge is managing and working with humans because they are so complex and multifaceted.

Another piece that adds to that challenge is trying to achieve balance. You've got complex projects and maintenance and business needs, and people and budget, and all sorts of different factors that are continually moving. My job is to keep all of those factors balanced and in focus, and enable the people and the business to deliver what they need to.

Name: Joel Gelb

Age: 56

Title: CIO

Education: Bachelors degree from State University of New York at Stony Brook; masters degree in history and Ph.D. candidate in statistical sociology from Johns Hopkins University.

First Job: Research faculty member at Columbia University.

Hobbies: Having two young children doesn't leave time for a lot for hobbies, but Gelb tries to partake in outdoor activities such as hiking and biking.

Since joining The Main Street America Group as CIO in 2001, Joel Gelb has focused on transitioning the Jacksonville, Fla.-based insurer from a legacy mainframe technology infrastructure to one that includes a mix of Web-based front ends and brand-new claims and commercial systems.

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