Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Tom Marra, President and CEO of Symetra, was our latest speaker in the Albers Executive Speaker Series, visiting on November 19th. Symetra is headquartered in Bellevue and provides employee benefit, annuity, and life insurance products. Marra has served as CEO since 2010. He has more than 30 years of experience in the insurance industry, beginning his career at The Hartford Group, which he left after serving as president and chief operating officer.
Marra explained the origin of Symetra, which at one time was the life insurance division of Safeco Insurance. Safeco sold the division to White Mountain Insurance Holdings in 2004, which included other investors such as Berkshire Hathaway. The current ownership structure is 20% White Mountain, 20% Berkshire Hathaway, and 60% publicly traded.
The title of Marra's talk was, "Respect the Cash Cow." To explain that, he shared a simple tool that he uses to make good decisions about different business units in a company, what he called the "Boston Matrix." On one axis is the growth prospects for the business - high or low?? On the other axis is market share - high or low?? A business can be classified into one of four quadrants: high growth and market share("Stars"), high growth and low market share (??s), low growth and high market share ("Cash Cows"), and low growth and low market share ("Dogs").
The goal should be to become a "Cash Cow" for the business. "Stars" may not be sustainable. Competition will be attracted into the market and profitability will be challenged. Or, they may become cash cows. A Question Mark (??) is unproven but has potential. The problem is it is not making money, it is burning cash. The Cash Cow may help fund the Question Mark, but you don't want to do that for too long. A "Dog" is losing money, but can prove hard to get rid of. It may have been the first line of business and so people want to hold on to it for too long.
When asked about the "Fiscal Cliff," he noted that their business tracks with the economy. They do well when family income is rising. Symetra wants to see a strong economy. He is hopeful that a bi-partisan effort will succeed in avoiding the Fiscal Cliff. He noted that higher personal income taxes should help Symetra's tax saving product line.
Marra also explained how the low interest rate environment created by the Federal Reserve is a drag on their performance. The low rates depress the performance of Symetra's investment portfolio and ultimately force them to raise insurance rates.
When asked for one piece of advice he wished he had received upon entering the job market after college, he said he wished someone had told him that he had more control over his career progress than he realized. He noted that if you network and find a mentor, it can help you take charge of your career and make moves that you didn't realize you could make. Another plug for the Mentor Program and networking!
One panelist asked Marra if it was problematic to be an insurance company headquartered in a town known for technology. He said the problem had more to do with Seattle not being an insurance town, because it will be more difficult to network with others in your industry, and networking is very important. If you are in Hartford, which is such a hub of insurance activity, you can network at your children's soccer game because there are sure to be half a dozen other parents working in the industry. Not going to happen in Seattle. As a result, he tells his employees to get out and join industry groups, attend conferences, and visit customers more frequently. Another challenge is you are not as near the customer. The Northwest does not have the same population density that other parts of the nation have. It means longer, more time consuming trips to see the customer.
When asked about the comment by previous speaker Jim Sinegal, former CEO of Costco Wholesale and now Executive in Residence for Albers, that culture is the most important thing about an organization, he said he could not agree more. He described the Symetra culture as one of teamwork, mutual support, and respect. People support each other. Leadership is necessary to provide direction, but everyone is important and valued. It is important to remember the competition is out there, not in the organization!
It was another great opportunity for our students to hear from a respected business leader, in this case one representing the insurance industry, Tom Marra from Symetra.