A Closer Look: Sean Kennedy
President and CEO, The IMT Group
Friday, May 16, 2014 6:00 AM
Sean Kennedy was elected president and CEO of West Des Moines-based The IMT Group in April, succeeding Richard Keith, who served in that position for 10 years before retiring this year. After joining IMT in 1993, Kennedy found his calling as an actuary. He also worked for Farm Bureau Financial Services for seven years, and after completing his actuarial training, he returned to IMT in 2005 to oversee the company’s research and development and product pricing efforts. For the past two years, Kennedy has worked side-by-side with Keith in a leadership transition. IMT currently employs 255 people, most of whom work at the West Des Moines home office.
Hometown: Underwood, Iowa
Education: Bachelor of Arts, mathematics and economics, Simpson College, Indianola
Family: He and his wife, Samantha, have five children: David, 19; Daniel, 16; Libby, 13; Matt, 11; and John, 7
What were your early career goals?
When you come out of school with mathematics and economics degrees, there aren’t a whole lot of choices. What I ended up choosing out of college was editing math and computer science textbooks in Dubuque. I was looking to get back to the Des Moines area. I really didn’t know anything about insurance. ... Richard Keith took a chance on me and hired me. In March 1994, he sent me to the Casualty Actuarial Society’s ratemaking seminar. I had an epiphany there that that’s what I wanted to do. Keith brought me over to head up research and development and develop a pricing structure for (IMT subsidiary) Wadena Insurance Co. for personal auto, which has been wildly successful for us.
What is it about actuarial science that interests you?
Actuarial science is the analytical side of the insurance industry; it’s crunching the numbers, it’s problem-solving, it’s getting into predictive modeling. It’s really a challenge, and I’m someone who thrives on challenges and I really went with it.
What are some significant trends in insurance you’re seeing?
Technology is the big thing, and the speed of technology. If you look back five years ago, Progressive is about the only company that had telematics (technology that enables real-time transfer of data from an automobile policyholder’s vehicle to the insurer). Just recently, Progressive had a lot of patents on their business processes, and Liberty Mutual took them to court on it and most of the patents got thrown out. That’s going to open up the speed of telematics, because now other companies are going to be able to develop telematic technology and be able to use telematics for rating personal auto policies. Smart apps are another trend. We developed our first smart app that we rolled out Feb. 1; we have a person full-time who develops apps. It’s a utility app that allows a policyholder to get their policy information, submit claims, pay bills, get roadside assistance.
How much is IMT growing?
We grew last year at 13.5 percent; we budget at 7 to 8 percent as good organic growth. A lot of the growth has been because of a new push into commercial lines. We’re modernizing all of our commercial line systems and we’re looking at larger accounts than we have in the past. One of the reasons we’re doing that is commercial lines tend to be less volatile than, say, homeowners, where if you have hail storms or tornadoes come through, you have a lot of losses.
Will that mean growth in people?
Right now, it’s using independent agents and developing those relationships with independent agents, as well as adding new independent agents. Last year, we added 36 new independent agents; 19 of those were in Minnesota because that’s an area we just started writing business in a year and a half ago. Obviously, we have to gear up to do the underwriting, so we’ve been hiring underwriters, and we’ve been staffing up our claims department also, with most of that growth in surrounding states. And as we add states, we’ve been adding a few programmers also.
What do you see as your biggest challenges ahead professionally?
Probably maintaining the profitability and growth of the company, that’s probably our biggest challenge. A lot of times when you have growth, you’re not as profitable because new business is more expensive, they have more losses, than your retained business. We’ve been very successful with that so far. Our growth last year was well above the industry, we outperformed the industry on a profitability basis also. That really comes down to monitoring the quality of our underlying book of business; we have multiple measures to keep track of that profitability.
What’s the outlook for IMT to be involved in acquisitions?
I would say probably not in the near future. We’re sitting pretty much where we want to; we get a lot of organic growth. Last year, our software company acquired their biggest competitor, and that acquisition has gone very well. I wouldn’t say we’re actively looking for acquisitions, but if there was an opportunity that would fit our culture, we would entertain (making an acquisition).
Any particular business titles that have made an impression on you?
“The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything” (by Stephen Covey), which is a very good book about trust and building trust. About a year ago, my HR director brought it to me. ... Given that we were going through a transition, it really hit on a lot of subjects we needed as a company going through a transition in a CEO. We’re actually going to be changing some of our performance reviews to model some of the characteristics that we need to move forward as a company. Another one I recently finished, “Heroic Leadership” (by William A. Cohen), focuses on leadership in the military and how that transfers over to business. I actually stumbled across that one at the airport, and it was a really good book.
How do you see yourself in leadership and people skills?
All of our employees take a high-level “Inner Metrics” assessment to try to identify weak spots - I’m highly analytical, low empathy. But you combine that with someone who’s high empathy, it makes a good balance. I’m very focused on collaborative leadership; we’ve got to have that high level of trust within our organization. We’re in the process of rolling out our “Speed of Trust” series - a professional development series based on the book. Everybody’s going through the same training to get that open flow of ideas. I’d rather have 100 ideas and accept one idea than have no ideas and have nothing, because that one idea might be the game changer. And you can’t fear failure, or you’ll never move forward as a company.
Best piece of leadership advice you’ve gotten?
My first month at Farm Bureau, my boss at the time who was an actuary also pulled me aside and goes, “Sean, I don’t need number crunchers. I can get monkeys to crunch numbers. I need problem solvers.” That’s always stayed with me, because really what that says is actuarial (work) is more about understanding the numbers, the business and how they work together.
Hobbies outside of work?
I coach a lot. I’m down to coaching just youth football now. This will be my 11th year of coaching youth football. I’ve coached probably eight years of youth baseball, three years of youth wrestling, youth softball and basketball. It’s fun, it’s kind of an escape. The other thing that we do as a family is camp. We have a camper, and that gets you away from the whole corporate world and just out with nature. We camp a lot at Winterset City Park, because they have the nice park right there for the younger kids, and the older kids can go meet friends and then meet us back at the campground. We really like Lake Anita State Park because the campgrounds overlook the lake and it’s very relaxing.