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Running a Tight Ship

Mark Schwarzmann's up-front discipline improves the technology process and drives the use of standards at Ameriprise Financial.

It doesn't hurt that Mark Schwarzmann is, by his own admission, a "gadget guy" by nature. But he identifies two more purely fortuitous factors that have shaped a keen aptitude for applying technology to the challenges he faces as president of insurance, annuities and product distribution at Ameriprise Financial (Minneapolis; $7.5 billion in revenue).

Schwarzmann had the foresight to minor in computer science while pursuing an undergraduate degree in economics and business at Lafayette College (Easton, Pa.), and he had the good fortune to earn a lead role in the quality and process area in GE's (Fairfield, Conn.) Power Generation business early in his career, where he rose to the position of senior vice president, wealth management services. "That allowed me to get an appreciation for process management," he says. Those two factors together have driven him habitually to inquire into the best way to accomplish an objective. "That has been a hallmark of the way I view my job, regardless of what industry it has been in," Schwarzmann says.

Schwarzmann further honed his life industry and technology acumen at insurance and banking software vendor Allfinanz (Dublin, Ireland) where he was CEO for three years. As a result, he says, "I have, perhaps, a better appreciation than most for the application of technology for the insurance industry, and, specifically, how you can use the ACORD (Pearl River, N.Y.) tools and ... other vehicles to better deliver our products to both the producer and the consumer."

Since Schwarzmann joined Ameriprise in 2003 (then American Express Financial Advisors), he has applied his aptitude to increasing the company's market share in the variable universal life and variable annuity product segments. Through Ameriprise's RiverSource brand, Schwarzmann oversees distribution of insurance products manufactured by Ameriprise companies IDS Life and American Enterprise Life, as well as the corporation's investment products.

Schwarzmann's Allfinanz experience also taught him to appreciate the importance of tighter alignment between the business and technology. Like many companies, Ameriprise was plagued by a tendency on the part of the business to hand IT loose requirements and expect to be able to refine their expectations later on. "Obviously, that leads to cost and time problems as you get deeper into development projects," Schwarzmann says. "Consequently, I have been adamant that my team on the business side deliver definitive requirements and lock them down before we go to the technology team to actually implement something."

To support that increased degree of discipline, in March 2005 Schwarzmann's business reorganized around a single project management office and a single base for all its business and business systems analysts.

Be on the Offensive

Up-front work also characterizes Schwarzmann's approach to technology governance. Schwarzmann believes in avoiding "defensive investment, when you're doing something to avoid doing something else."

But even when in an aggressive or offensive mode, poor definition of what is required can undermine success, he argues. "We are very disciplined in the way we do RFPs [request for proposals], and I think that pays dividends," Schwarzmann says. "If you understand your requirements, that translates into an RFP that makes sense, and the decision you make at the front end should be the appropriate one. That, then, can be the basis upon which you can do your subsequent analysis as to 'Did I get the return I expected?'"

In addition to improving the technology process, Schwarzmann is also driving the use of standards. His organization is currently engaged with the National Association for Variable Annuities (NAVA) and ACORD on a straight-through processing initiative that he hopes will lead to reduced dependence on third-party providers. "Much of that today is done by way of systems such as (Los Angeles), Blue Frog (Pompano Beach, Fla.), etc., so I think that component can be optimized further," he says.

Mark Schwarzmann

Ameriprise Financial

"I have, perhaps, a better appreciation than most for the application of technology for the insurance industry."

Career: Prior to joining Ameriprise Financial in 2003 as president of insurance, annuities and product distribution, Schwarzmann was CEO of Allfinanz (Dublin, Ireland), having been promoted from the position of COO/Americas in 2001. Earlier he had held various management positions at GE, including SVP, wealth management services, GE Financial Assurance; and SVP, financial institution services.

Education: Bachelor's degree in economics and business with a minor in computer science from Lafayette College.

Hobbies/Pastimes: Travel, golf, sailing.

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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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