For many people in IT—particularly those in the insurance industry—a job with Progressive Insurance is considered a dream opportunity because of the value the carrier places on technology.

Bryan Fowler, who spent 12 years with Progressive before moving to Oregon Mutual Insurance, described the experience as like working for a start-up company within a successful business.

“It was a lot of fun; a lot of energy and a lot of high-tech talent and focus,” he says. “Especially the start-up of the Internet business. That was my gig for a long time.”

Nearly two years ago, though, Fowler left his position, having been a director of IT at Progressive, to try something new.

“I had a good 12 years at Progressive, but when you are with a big company like that—even if you rise up to a high level—it’s still a niche job,” he says. “The culture changed and it wasn’t as rewarding as it used to be.”

(Read more about all our 2012 Insurance IT All-Stars: Peter Moreau, Thad DeBerry, Rich Pederson, and Rick Roy.)

Fowler went from being part of a respected IT department—with 3,000 people—to an Oregon Mutual IT shop that has 45 people and didn’t have a good reputation within its own four walls.

“IT did not have a very good relationship with the business because we weren’t delivering,” says Fowler. “Part of the problem was we said ‘yes’ to everything and when you do that you’re really saying yes to nothing because you can’t deliver everything.”

Fowler didn’t believe Oregon Mutual’s IT personnel were the source of the problem, but he felt IT had to become more responsive and a better partner with the business. The business also had to recognize that they are part of the equation, he adds.

“You can’t keep changing priorities,” he says. “There’s also a thing called supply and demand. No one had ever talked about that because IT kept saying yes, but there are only so many people working in IT. We introduced prioritization, supply and demand, transparency, and began business conversations. It’s not all fixed but it’s a lot different than it was.”

One of the first steps was to envision and start laying down an enterprise data architecture, according to Fowler, something that is being accomplished with the help of a vendor partner, Millbrook. Fowler believes this will be the foundation of everything the carrier does going forward.

“Data is at the center of our business. We will have an enterprise data architecture now so we won’t have tangled systems; they will talk through data and services,” he says. “Whenever we want to do something new, we have a buy vs. build vs. cloud vs. outsource decision to make and using data as our connector makes those decisions flexible. We will have more choices, more agility, and faster speed-to-market. We have to be more agile so if we don’t like a certain technology or want to get into a new line of business we can make changes because the data allows us to.”

Fowler explains that Millbrook and Oregon Mutual developed a plan to get important data into the hands of Oregon Mutual’s marketing staff so when they visit the offices of their independent agents, the discussion turns to how the two sides can improve business for each other.

The Oregon Mutual marketing staff is now armed with iPads and a mobile app called MiAgents that puts agent performance data into their hands and highlights key action items.

“We never had true business conversations before with the agency channel,” says Fowler. “We sell exclusively through independent agents and they don’t want us to waste their time.  MiAgents puts the business partnership with our agents front and center. On the flip side, we take what were formerly known as trip reports and turn them into quantifiable analytical information that we can act on.”

As Oregon Mutual and Fowler look at the technology tools they need, Fowler admits he has become a fan of cloud computing.

“My first order of business when I look at the next thing we need to take on is what is out there on the cloud,” he says. “A lot of companies are nervous about the cloud and for good reasons. I recognize the same land mines, but I have seen how it can work very effectively.  It takes a lot of detailed work and planning, but it can work.  I have less angst about the cloud.”

The issues can be worked out if carriers have the right partners, technologies, and controls, points out Fowler.

“It’s an interesting challenge, particularly for companies our size. We don’t have much in the cloud now, but I know we will going forward.”

What lies ahead for Oregon Mutual is executing its plans, finding innovative ways to execute them, and going beyond modernization to what Fowler calls “futurization.”

“It’s too late to catch up,” he says. “We must leapfrog.  MiAgents is the beginning, but there’s some great stuff still to do.”

Oregon Mutual also is making some investments in the IT staff.

“When I came here, no one had the word ‘test’ or ‘quality’ in their job title. We never had real project management,” says Fowler. “I’m investing in some key positions in IT.”

Oregon Mutual is located in McMinnville, Ore., 35 miles southwest of Portland, and Fowler explains that finding talent is one of the biggest challenges he faces.

“It’s not just getting people to McMinnville that’s a problem,” he says. “It’s finding strong talent to begin with. I’ve got a lot of résumés across my desk, but because we’re small we can’t just hire an average player.”

Making the adjustment is also a factor when selecting technology partners as well.

“At Progressive, vendors clamored to get on my dance card,” he says. “Big budgets attract vendors, of course. Now I call and tell them I’m from Oregon Mutual and they say, “Huh?”

Fowler is joking there.

“It’s not that bad,” he says. “We’ve had some good luck in selecting partners, but we have to be creative about it.”

 

 

An inside look . . .

Not many CIOs for insurance carriers have bachelor degrees from performing arts schools, but that’s just one of the things that make Bryan Fowler, vice president and CIO of Oregon Mutual Insurance stand out.

Fowler actually began his career in technology before college, as a member of the United States Marine Corps, but after leaving the service he followed his passion for the arts. Passion doesn’t always put food on the table, though, so after moving to Ohio with his wife, he graduated from the executive MBA program at Kent State University and went to work for Progressive Insurance for 12 years.

Nearly two years ago, Fowler left Progressive for the decidedly smaller Oregon Mutual Insurance. There he runs an IT shop of 45 people. The change appears to be successful; earlier this year the Insurance Accounting and Systems Association awarded Oregon Mutual its Technology Innovation Award.

Karen Furtado, partner with the consulting firm Strategy Meets Action, describes Fowler this way: Bryan Fowler has created a focus on impactful change since joining Oregon Mutual in 2010.  His focus on developing a modern architecture and implementing solutions that directly address business strategies is game changing for Oregon Mutual.  One example of a recent impactful change was the MiAgents application, which changed the conversations with their independent agents and positioned the carrier to drive growth and improve retention.  This implementation recently won the IASA Technology Innovation Award.  Bryan embraces innovations in the market and is charting a path forward creating a service-focused IT organization.