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Trial-By-Fire Sets CEO’s Technology Vision

Farmers Group's CEO Martin Feinstein learned first hand about how a lack of IT/business alignment can be harmful.

Sometimes being a CEO means being well-connected. Martin Feinstein, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Farmers Group, Inc. ($12.3 billion in assets), takes being connected to heart. Feinstein commonly answers his own phone and doesn't let anyone screen his email. "I don't believe people should read and screen," Feinstein says. "Technology is no longer something that can be considered a hobby, you have to keep connected."

That's why when Feinstein travels, he carries a cell phone, a wireless Palm VII and a laptop. "I have to be wired since I travel so much," he says. "If I don't keep up with my email, it gets unbearable."

For Farmers, Feinstein feels being connected to the customer is extremely important. "CRM technology is vital," Feinstein says. "Customers are beginning to see insurance products as commodities. With CRM technology, we can add value by personalizing information to match the customer's needs." Feinstein points out that Farmers, like many insurers, has a wealth of data that it can use to make the customer's experience better. "The trick is transforming data into something meaningful." Currently, Farmers is investing in CRM database management tools, he adds.

Some of Feinstein's direct reports also attest to his CRM drive. "Marty is passionate when it comes to CRM," says Cecilia Claudio, senior vice president, CIO and chief transformation officer. "He is a visionary when it comes to business strategy and technology."

Feinstein, although not a "techie," did spend two of his 31 years at at Farmers as CIO. "My tenure as CIO was a test by fire," he says. "We had a large $300 million transformation project in the technology area and the project hit a bump. I was asked to go over and report back on the project." As a result of the report, executive management "moved out the technology management and plunked me in," Feinstein recalls.

Like a city boy lost in the woods, Feinstein had to brush up on technology quickly. "IBM sent me to a lot of courses at their offices and I leaned heavily on our consultants from Ernst & Young," he admits. "It was a real challenge. When I started as CIO there was absolutely no alignment between technology and business. It is incredibly important that business and technology are in synch."

Feinstein places such an emphasis on technology that the CIO is considered a full business partner. "Cecilia is expected to express her business point of view and understand the business," he says. Also, the Business and Technology Integration Committee, consisting of senior business and IT managers, meets weekly.

But even though technology plays a vital role at Farmers, Feinstein does not worry about it. "I am a professional worrier," he says. "But I am not worried about technology. Technology is a good thing. I do worry about how technology is applied."

For instance, Farmers is using technology to make the claims "experience" better for its policyholders, Feinstein says. "Frankly, the customer experience for claims in the insurance industry just stinks," he says. "Instead of an insurer adjusting the claim and paying it immediately, most companies...figure out the least amount possible the company has to pay.

"When something bad happens, you need someone to help you," Feinstein continues. "The claim is the moment of truth for an insurer." Farmers is using technology in its customer care centers to connect policyholders to body shops, car rentals and tow trucks. "The Farmers' representative can be on a three-way call with the rental car company," he adds. By directing the policyholder to Farmers' preferred partners, the company should be able to reduce claim costs, he says.

However, Feinstein knows that technology is also a dangerous toy. "We need to guard against buying technology for technology's sake," he says. "If you understand the strategy behind a plan, finding the right technology is easier."



Chairman, president and CEO, Farmers Group, $12.3 billion in assets, Los Angeles.

CAREER: Started at Farmers as a claims trainee in 1970. Held various positions, including CIO, COO, and senior VP, P&C.

EDUCATION: BS, California State University, Los Angeles; Wharton School executive training programs; CPCU, CLU.

HOBBIES: "Going to the movies is a way to escape. Also, I love popcorn."

LAST BOOK READ: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by MalcolmGladwell.

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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