For Susan Daniels — the insurance industry was pretty much love at first sight.
Most people who find themselves in the industry have worked elsewhere before changing careers, but that wasn't the case for Daniels. “After graduating with a degree in health care administration, I started pursuing a Master's degree in public health administration, and undertook an internship in the health field,” she explains.
Started as a workers' comp trainee adjuster
When the internship wasn't the challenge she’d hoped, Daniels started watching for job openings and applied to be a workers’ compensation trainee adjuster with an insurance company. Insurance ran in her family as her father had spent more than 30 years as a multi-line adjuster, working as a workers’ compensation claims manager at Northern Adjusters.
“My dad put out an inquiry about the job and called me back to say that as long as I could spell ‘insurance,’ they welcomed me to apply,” recalls Daniels.
She spent the next year working as a trainee adjuster at the insurance carrier, when her father passed away unexpectedly due to a reaction from the chemotherapy he had just started. “Because the folks at Northern Adjusters were family to me, I reached out to offer help, presuming my offer would be evenings and weekend help,” says Daniels. “The leaders met with me and offered me an adjuster position. Over the next month, I changed employers, studied and secured my adjusting license, and I took over my dad's claim load, minus a few gnarly files. My mom thought I was nuts to walk directly into such a loss. For me, it was a way to honor his legacy and be in community through the loss.”
That was in 1993, and for the next 24 years, Daniels would continue to hone her understanding of the insurance industry, expanding her knowledge of workers’ compensation and taking on new leadership roles as she went from supervisor, to workers’ comp unit manager and then manager, to vice president, president and eventually owner of Northern Adjusters.
First woman to lead the NAIIA
Her leadership roles weren't confined to her company either. She also became involved in industry groups including the Alaska Adjusters Association, the Workers’ Compensation Committee of Alaska, as well as the Affiliated Adjusters. Realizing the value of contributing to an industry that had given so much to her personally and professionally, Daniels attended her first meeting with the National Association of Independent Insurance Adjusters (NAIIA) in 2000, when Past President Dane Havard took her to a meeting in Keystone, Colorado. This month, she became the first woman to lead the organization as its president.
Daniels serves in the these organizations because she believes that “each of us have talents, skills, [and] strengths, and are designed for a purpose to function together in community to contribute something bigger and better than we can do on our own.”
While her accomplishments are recognized and appreciated by numerous women and men in the insurance industry, it is the support that is a lot closer to home that really matters. “Personally, I’m touched by the feedback from my daughters and other professional women,” shares Daniels. “My daughters have expressed that my accomplishments in leadership, and even power lifting, have given them the courage to go after their goals, to dare greatly and pursue their dreams, and believe they can impact the world.”
Daniels and her family. (Photo: S. Daniels)
Claims adjusting in Alaska
Sometimes it is easy to forget the challenges that insurance adjusters encounter daily, but some locales provide a little more challenge than others, and Alaska definitely offers a few that most insurance professionals cannot even begin to comprehend.
Geographically, the state is larger than Texas, and travel time between claims can be significant, which surprises desk adjusters not familiar with the terrain. “We have big scenery, landscapes and wild life,” describes Daniels. “We have a need to help communicate our vastness when discussing our environment. For us, a total loss dialogue may mean presenting the difference between the local repair costs in a remote, one-shop village versus waiting until spring for the rivers to thaw to ship a vehicle to Anchorage for alternative shop repair. Cold weather can be a significant element in our claim handling, including sub-zero temps, where exhaling can ruin a good picture, and pen ink actually freezes.”
Traveling to claims can be its own adventure. “Besides challenges with extreme cold and seasonal darkness, our field adjusters may have to use two to three modes of transportation to get to a loss,” explains Daniels. “This may include commercial airline, followed by bush plane, and even a ride by snow-machine or 4-wheeler into a loss community.”
Adventurous on-site investigations
The actual claims can be pretty interesting too. Daniels describes a significant claim requiring an on-site investigation on an off-shore oil rig. She volunteered to take the claim, knowing there was a very good chance she would get weathered in at the site.
“I travelled by large commercial plane, followed by a smaller plane, and finally donned a full-body emergency suit to ride by helicopter to an off shore oil rig in severe winter weather and blowing snow,” she says. “The rig had been shut down in the aftermath of this serious loss and while an investigation was completed.”
Once on site, Daniels found that the company had a strong incident response plan in place. ”The rig leader did a phenomenal and compassionate debriefing with employees on the rig, with a healthy pause in operations to pay honor and respect in the face of loss. It was a great model of leadership and responsiveness to experience firsthand,” she says.
Daniels also got to witness the severe weather conditions oil rig workers face daily. There was hard-packed ice on the ground, blowing snow, darkness and blizzard conditions. Her helicopter was grounded by the weather and she spent two nights at the site, one of four women in a group of 104 people. “The experience gave me a unique perspective and a great respect and admiration for the work and working conditions endured by our Alaskan oil field workers,” she adds.
At one time, Daniels held four state records for power lifting. (Photo: S. Daniels)
Focusing on the future, but appreciating the past
As the new president of NAIIA, Daniels is definitely monitoring what is transpiring in the industry and how changes and trends will affect those who work for and support insurers.
“I recognize two significant challenges that remain at the forefront: growing consumer expectations and changing workforce demographics,” says Daniels. “Consumers’ expectations have grown in this digital age where information is at their fingertips. People want what they want, now. Consumers want digitally friendly, availability and responsiveness around the clock. We’ll continue to see consumer interests drive the need for relevant changes and adaptation, while we strive to establish new balance points.”
The other challenge involves the number of insurance professionals who are leaving the industry. “Every day in the U.S., 10,000 baby boomers retire. For the claims industry, our retirees represent a wealth of industry knowledge and expertise exiting our workforce,” Daniels shares, but she also sees the benefits that accompany a growing millennial generation. “This may create opportunities for those who are ready and interested to engage our youth to help transform business models and help drive value. The shift in demographics will press us toward new solutions for finding, training, and retaining qualified professionals.”
'Live out my values on a daily basis'
Daniels says the insurance industry has offered her a “legacy and lifetime of opportunity and challenge thus far. A career in this industry has offered me the chance to live out my values on a daily basis. These have included serving a noble and important purpose, and serving others through compassion and empathy, dignity and respect to bridge the gaps between loss and recovery.”
The chief influencers in her life and career have been her husband, JD, whom Daniels credits with providing her with stability and consistency, while keeping her grounded and encouraging her to pursue her personal and professional dreams. They celebrated 25 years of marriage this month and are raising three beautiful daughters.
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Daniels gives a lot of credit to her mom who was the one brave enough to follow Susan's dad to Alaska. Working as a dietician and doing research, she developed and taught classes in her field of expertise, and even starred in some television commercials. “She camped, fished and snow-machined right alongside my dad,” shares Daniels. “She was a working mom of four children with boundless energy and incredible resilience. She's modeled the courage and confidence as a woman to be seen, and heard at times, and to believe in yourself. She's not afraid to go boldly in causes she supports.”
Havard had a significant impact on Daniels professionally. Serving as a mentor, Havard was the person who encouraged Daniels into leadership positions with both Northern Adjusters and NAIIA. “Without Dane's mentoring, vision and support, I would not be receiving this distinguished honor as an NAIIA leader.”
Daniels embraces her life and the opportunities that come with living in Alaska. Her favorite outdoor activities include hiking, kayaking and fishing in the summer, and ice skating, cross country skiing and snow machining during the winter. But there have been some other adventures too, including red salmon fishing on the Kenai River, dog sledding outside of Willow, and even a glacier landing on Ruth Glacier. She also holds two state records for power lifting and is currently training for a triathlon.
'We are stronger together'
With NAIIA members representing more than 250 independent adjusting firms, Daniels is well aware of the responsibility and opportunity serving as president of the organization present. “My time in the industry has been made richer for the associations and friendships formed through the NAIIA. As an independent adjusting firm, it is these respected peers I call upon when challenges strike, when solutions are needed, and best of all, to celebrate together when times are good. I believe the principles we were founded upon are still true for us today and we are stronger together.”
Patricia L. Harman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor-in-chief of Claims magazine.