A Closer Look: Jeff Russell
President and CEO, Delta Dental of Iowa
Friday, June 14, 2013 7:00 AM
Jeff Russell spent more than 20 years in the financial services world with The Members Group before he was selected for the top job at Delta Dental of Iowa this spring. He succeeds Donn Hutchins, who retired from Delta Dental after 13 years as president and CEO. Most recently, Russell was CEO of TMG Financial Services, the credit card arm of The Members Group. On the weekends, Russell is often on a sports field, coaching one of his children’s teams. He enjoys reading, but he also wears a Nike FuelBand on his wrist to track his daily activity level.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in journalism, Drake University; graduate courses, University of Iowa and Harvard Business School.
Family: He and his wife, Lisa, have three children: Ben, 12; Alex, 10; and Meredith, 7.
Is this position a fairly big shift for you from your previous field?
I think there are a lot of similarities to it; (health insurance is) a highly regulated industry and it’s going through a transformational shift in terms of what regulation is going to do to the market. In banking and financial services, we did that in 2008 to 2012, and it’s still happening to some extent. In health insurance, it’s happening now.
You’re following a long-tenured CEO. What are the challenges or advantages of that?
I think Donn left a great organization – strong management team, great financial performance, good brand reputation and service quality. My challenge, and I think our challenge, going forward is how do we adapt to a really changing world.
How will dental insurance be affected by federal health care law changes?
Certainly there are changes to stand-alone dental policies and the rules around pediatric dental coverage. And we will be part of the exchanges. ... Coming from the outside, I think it’s interesting that if you look at the kind of things health care reform is trying to do – the move from a reactive to a proactive perspective as a consumer – that has really been a part of dental (insurance) for a long time. If you have dental insurance, you see your dentist a couple of times a year to make sure everything’s OK, not just when you have a toothache.
What were your career goals initially coming out of Drake University?
I’m a journalism grad, so the first thing I realized was that to be in your profession, you’ve got to be married to it. What I realized I like to do, and that I think I have a skill at, is helping companies to go through changing times. This was a great opportunity to do that. I had a great run with my former company; I think I counted that I had something like 10 jobs there in the past 22 years.
What other challenges are you looking forward to?
The regulatory environment, I believe, will create a market change. Employers will react differently; providers will react differently; the insurance companies will react differently. I really see that the consumer is going to have more choices in the way they purchase their health insurance ... and there will be more of a need for educating consumers. It will be much like the change from defined benefit to defined contribution plans, where individuals have have much more control over their retirement savings now. While we have a large market share in Iowa, there are a lot of people who just don’t have dental benefits. ... It’s a great opportunity to have a really different conversation.
What types of things are you involved with lately in the community?
Right now, I’m the president of the Rotary Club of Des Moines - A.M., and I’m chairing the steering committee for a Rotary riverwalk playground down by the Center Street bridge. I’m also on the board for Habitat for Humanity - Iowa, which helps local chapters like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids really continue to thrive. I coach a lot of youth sports; I spend a lot of time with my kids and their friends in that.
What are some good books you’ve read lately?
The best book I’ve read lately is a book by Nate Silver, “The Signal and the Noise,” about how you use analytics and data everywhere from baseball to politics and online gambling. The thing that I learned from that book is that if you’re playing poker and you don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you. I just got done reading “Team of Rivals” about Abraham Lincoln after seeing the movie. That was really fascinating about Lincoln’s ability to create a vision and get a lot of big-ego, strong-willed people on board. And I’m reading a book by Ray Kurzweil about brain cognitive science and how that is potentially going to interplay with technology. I kind of have eclectic reading tastes.
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