Mark C. Russell is CEO of Ohio Mutual Insurance Group, a premier insurance carrier born and cultivated in Ohio with more than 100 years servicing customers. Mark leads a team that is driven to be an industry leader, earning market-leading loyalty from both policyholders and independent agents. Mark was interviewed by Michael Fiedel, a Community Leader at InsurTech Ohio and Partner at PolicyFly, Inc.
Mark, why has Ohio Mutual focused so strongly on working exclusively through the independent agent channel?
“We were recently celebrating one of our top agents and their 46-year anniversary of working with Ohio Mutual. So we are intimately familiar with deep, long-lasting relationships with our agents and the value it brings to the end-customer.
There are always going to be challenges to any distribution system that you have. The unmistakable value, however, that the independent agent brings is in assisting with the competitive shopping of insurance, the matching up of the right coverages to each individual client’s unique needs, and to be that advocate during the claims process.”
When you hear new insurtech players say they’re going to replace the agent, what’s your gut reaction?
“First of all, I’ve heard that now for going on three decades. You can throw all kinds of statistics around, predicting where business is going, but through it all the independent distribution system has remained very strong.
I recognize that some customers only want to interact online, without an intermediary. I can understand why some customers want to do that. But I know without a doubt that you’re going to get your best outcome when you have an independent agent who has the expertise and also your interests at heart. These agents work with multiple competing carriers, so to have that screening by the independent agent to help you choose which coverage fits best, and which carrier actually delivers the best service and claims, means everything. Customer experience results with independent agents clearly back that up.
We’ve got all our eggs in the independent agency distribution basket and I don’t lose any sleep over it.”
You mentioned competition amongst carriers, how competitive is this industry?
“Insurance is the most competitive industry in the United States! There are over a thousand insurance carriers banging up against each other, vying for your business. If you’re going to compete, you have to be really good at Continuous Improvement or “CI” to strip out non-value-added costs and processes to keep premiums competitive. I’m extremely passionate about how Continuous Improvement plays a key role in our earning and retaining loyalty.”
How do you attack this focus on continuous improvement and ensure you’re delivering real value to your business, the agents, and your customers?
“We really try hard to listen to our customers and take that insight and turn it into action to get better. Our analytics platform and processes help drive that insight. I guess that doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s critical to take incremental steps every day towards Continuous Improvement. It’s a discipline that’s a big part of our culture.
Continuous Improvement can also stem from education and that’s something we celebrate at Ohio Mutual. If you’re an associate here you are expected to improve your skills through taking courses here at our Ohio Mutual University or through courses such as CPCU, ARM, Claims Law or through advanced degrees. We have one of the highest percentages among our peers whose associates have the prestigious CPCU designation. Learning and bettering yourself is part of our culture, which drives professionalism and improves our collective skillset. We even go so far as to dedicate an entire wall as you walk into our building that displays the designations and degrees of every team member.
Our organizational structure is also conducive to Continuous Improvement — we’ve kept a very flat organizational structure, which is something that I’m very passionate about. I like wide spans of control because excessive management layers negatively impact communication, teamwork and CI. More management layers equals a less agile company. We’re structured and incentivized towards teamwork, collaboration, sharing resources, and on overall corporate results. We compete against other insurance companies, not internally against each other.”
When it comes to finding talent do you find that the industry is falling short?
“The insurance industry is doing better in attracting talent, but we still have room to improve. Ohio has a vibrant insurance industry with strong partnerships with universities and community colleges. That has greatly improved recruiting. Overall, at Ohio Mutual I think we’re doing quite well in our talent acquisition. I’ve found that being based in a smaller city is actually an advantage rather than a disadvantage. We’re able to attract candidates who want to live in a smaller community plus we’re close enough to Columbus to draw its talent. We’ve also closely partnered with schools in northern Ohio. We’ve established strong internship and trainee programs, and we’re having no issues filling those trainee slots.
We’ve been able to extend that momentum into areas of talent that can be particularly challenging like application developers and analytics positions. But, believe it or not, we’ve filled all of our technology and analytical positions this year and most of those individuals were developed up through our internship and trainee programs over the last few years, so I feel really good about our pipeline.”
Talking a bit more about independent agents, it seems clear you see technology making the agent stronger.
“I absolutely do. In particular, the technology around data acquisition and analytics is playing an important role in elevating the service that agents provide to their existing customer base. It enables them to know to whom they need to reach out, and at what time, in order to anticipate and meet the needs of the customer proactively.
I also see technology bridging carrier data points that can be collected around customer experience married up with the agent’s own data. This can provide actionable insight in order to tell which customers are at critical decision points, such as those most likely to shop for new coverage. It’s extraordinarily expensive to replace customers, so using analytics to improve service and retention is critical.
Agents are holding insurance carriers accountable for the technology they’re providing as well. Is the carrier sharing useful data? Are their cycle times for writing new business better than their competitors? Are their quoting portals easy to use? Do they close claims quickly, process endorsements and renewals with ease? Independent agents are going to weed out the carriers that don’t meet their needs around speed, data and analytics.
I like to stress that it’s all about how you look at insurtechs and innovation. We focus on technologies that enable our team to improve customer experience — whether that be the policyholder or the agent. It’s not about chasing a bunch of shiny objects, because you really can chase your tail and waste resources on technology that doesn’t move the needle on customer experience.”