When he was taking policyholder phone calls as a customer representative for a direct writing carrier 26 years ago, David Travers did not have designs on a position in the C-suite of an agency writer.
Executive SummaryDavid Travers, the chief operations officer of Farmers Group, explains how his earliest experiences donning a headset and his annual excursions into the Utah back country have prepared him for the position he has today. He also explains how a service professional can wrap his head around unfamiliar technology issues by getting IT team members to use backyard barbecue terms and to focus on how IT initiatives help Farmers’ customers.
This article is part of a five-part series of profiles of chief operations officers of P/C insurers.
In fact, the chief operations officer of Farmers Group, who has now carved out a new career path to carrier leadership for the countless customer-facing employees to follow, isn’t terribly wrapped up in the chief officer title today.
“If you were to spend time here [to] just walk with me [on] the operations floor, or interact with the workforce, you would discover…the culture that we’re operating in—and that the title, which might seem really important to some, to me is just a title,” he says.
“I would never disrespect it because I know those things really matter in corporate scorekeeping. But as it relates to my career satisfaction, and what really matters to me [and] my team, that title is a license to get things done and to be in a position to get things done for the workforce.”
Travers counts his early roots working in USAA’s contact center among the experiences that he says have given him an ability to really connect with the folks he leads on the policy service team at Farmers. When “I look in the eyes of an employee, we can have a conversation that is mutually beneficial. They know I understand the reality of what they’re doing,” he says. “I can walk away from that conversation confident that they are comfortable enough with me to tell me what’s really going on—what I really need to know.”
In a recent interview, Travers explained how the credibility he has gained from his headset-wearing days, the experience he gained from stretch assignments, and the leadership training he’s had from organized classes and from annual excursions into the Utah back country have groomed him for the chief operations officer role he holds today.
Q: Tell us about your background.
Travers: I was with USAA in San Antonio for 26 years. I started my career there wearing a headset, talking to customers, and did that for about five years. Then I worked my way up through the service side of the business. I was in training, I was in project management roles, and then ultimately I was their senior executive over all of their non-claims customer-facing operations.
When I came to Farmers, I joined them in a similar role. I was brought here to transform their non-claims customer-facing operations. At that time we were going to consolidate physical locations, modernize the technology platform.
Then fast-forward to last year—I became the COO and now have the service operations still reporting to me, and then all the other things that go with the COO role.
Q: In some companies, the COO title refers to chief operating officer. But your title is chief operations officer. Is there a difference between those two roles in your view?
Travers: Structurally, it depends on the company. COO will typically have finance associated with it; it will have more control over some aspects of the P&L perhaps.
At Farmers, this is truly an operations role. I don’t have oversight over finance from the CFO’s perspective. But I have a team that manages the operational finance component, and they interact with the CFO’s team. And I manage real estate and fleet and procurement, [in addition to] the customer-facing function, which includes in our model both our agents and our end customer.
I also have [responsibility for] the IT organization. IT, in our world, is a fairly sophisticated place. [We] deploy the technology supporting the agents running their small businesses. We also support their technology footprint that’s customer facing so that they [customers] can interact with us in a way that complements what the agent is doing.
Q: Did you always want to work in insurance—to wear a headset?
Travers: I can’t say that I always wanted to, [but] joining USAA was a really good fit. If you walked in their contact centers, you wouldn’t believe you were in a traditional boiler room sort of contact center.
USAA is in the relationship business, and they know that. So the kinds of things you’re held accountable for are not how many phone calls did you take and how many seconds did each call last…They’re really focused on why did the customer call, what did you do about it and is the issue resolved.
That really shaped my philosophy. So when Farmers approached me about joining the organization, the entire interview process was my belief about what it is we do in contact centers.
There was a great deal of alignment in our thinking, [which] made it easy for me to want to join this team, do the kinds of things I had been taught at USAA, and then work to expand that and take it to a new level on a different operating platform—because this is an agency-based organization and USAA was not.
Q: Can you talk more about your experience at USAA?
Travers: When I joined USAA, policy service was like it was in many organizations—sort of an asterisk to other parts of the business. They weren’t really sure where it belonged. At different times it was part of communications, or it would be attached to underwriting.
As I moved up in that organization, I became the first senior executive whose sole responsibility was running the policy service function. The kinds of things I was able to do created a reason to legitimize that role differently in their minds.
To be able to take a career from the headset, and then shape it into something the organization’s investing in, and then have another company look at that and say, “We’d really like to talk to you about what you’re doing there” has been fun.
Q: Do you think other frontline customer representatives can follow a similar career path?
Travers: Almost everyone on my team started as a frontline rep, either here at Farmers or at another company. It gives us credibility when we [interact with] the workforce, knowing that they know that we’ve done that job and we understand that job—we understand the complexity of it. And probably most important, we respect that job.
Q: What qualities do you think are required to be a chief operations officer? What types of people aren’t cut out for the role?
Travers: I believe with all my heart that you should never take this job if you do not like interacting with people.
Within my organization, we have a philosophy that says you’re really going to be defined by how you treat the “least important” person in the room—putting least important in quotes because everybody in the room is important.
We’re paid to be on our game—to manage relationships, and to do it in a way that gives comfort and security to the people that are counting on us. It’s a people job.
Q: Is there training that can help someone learn some of the skills necessary to be a successful COO?
Travers: Certainly there’s a level of technical capability that you need to have. For example, I’m not a real estate expert, but as I got into this role I have put myself in a situation where I’m interacting with real estate professionals and making sure that I have a working knowledge of what’s happening in that industry and how to think about real estate as it relates to a corporation this size. The same thing with IT.
But probably the things that have influenced my success the most have been the leadership training that I’ve had over the years and exposure to really great leaders. You can synthesize different inputs from different great leaders [and] create your own personal brand from that.
Working at USAA is a very unique experience because the senior leadership there is comprised of a mix of industry folks and retired military executives. There was a standout guy for me there, who was a four-star general when he was on active duty, and then he became president of a P/C company.
If you’ve been a four-star in the military, [it’s] the kind of role that you could get all caught up in your own ego and importance. [But] I learned more from him about how to be humble and approach the frontline employees with a level of regard and respect, which really took my game to a new level.
At Farmers, I’ve had a succession of leaders—starting with Paul Hopkins, who was the CEO when I got here—who are all very integrated into the social fabric of this organization. They do not stand apart from it. They do not run it at arm’s length.
Q: What about formal leadership training?
Travers: I’ve been to the Wharton Advanced Executive Education Program. The curriculum is good. But what really makes a class like that work is you’re out of the office for two weeks, you’re sitting up there on that campus, and if you put time and effort into interacting with the people that come into it, you can learn a lot in a short period. There’s lots of experience there and you’re not competitors.
The second dimension is the learning-on-the-job piece. Over the years, I’ve had people that have given me stretch assignments and pushed me into situations but done so with enough of a safety net.
[For example,] at USAA, the company asked me to go way out of my comfort zone—to leave San Antonio, where I was born and raised, to be part of the team that was going to launch a regional operation in Colorado Springs. Not only was I going to have to move, but I was going to go take on a role that I had never done before, which was essentially to go out in the field where we don’t really have an operation and stand one up—to be part of the team that went to get that done.
When you do something like that [and] you look back on it, then the courage to take on stretch assignments down the road builds. You start saying, “Sure, I’d like to do that.”
Q: You also have what you refer to as a hobby that you believe helps develop leadership skills.
Travers: There’s a group of us that goes out to Southern Utah every year, and we go into the back country, and we go Jeeping and hiking. This is probably my 35th year participating.
That is a leadership experience because you put yourself in a situation where you don’t really know what’s going to happen. You’re going to have to make decisions on the fly, and you’re going to have to build consensus with a group that doesn’t always agree on everything that’s going to need to be done. At times, you have very unexpected scenarios happen—complete vehicle failure and you have to figure out how you are going to get out of there, or no cellphone coverage.
Q: Back to the office setting. Tell us a little bit about your day-to-day activities.
Travers: This is January of my second year in this role [and] no two days are ever alike.
There’s a lot of strategic work—looking at the horizon 18 months to two years out as it relates to the things I’m doing.
For example, we’re in the midst of a fairly big real estate transition here where we’re going to relocate our headquarters in Los Angeles…We’re also working on IT transformation—the way that we’re marrying up what our contact centers do with the evolution of our business.
That’s the stuff that’s on the planner, and you walk in every day and say, “I’ll chip away at that.”
But then, on any given day, you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Today, for example, the weather is affecting our operations in parts of the country. They could not open. My team is on that. I don’t have to specifically be involved, but that’s a big impact for us…We’ve got customers in parts of the country where the weather is just fine, so they expect us to find a way around that. It has an impact on the IT part of the world. There are health and safety issues.
All those things flow through my world.
Q: You mentioned that you’re involved in strategic planning. It’s commonly thought that COOs execute the strategy of the chief executive. Do you see the COO role evolving in the P/C industry?
Travers: I would say that it’s not unique to the property/casualty industry.
The CEO of this company has got a team that works on strategy. And I report to him. I’m part of that team.
I don’t think it’s realistic for any of us to believe that somebody else is responsible for all of the strategy, and then I’ll just execute on everything that comes in here. The functions that report to me—the team and the CEO—are counting on me to be thinking about what does the future state need to look like. And one of the things that I’ve learned throughout my career that’s an absolute certainty is that the problems we have faced in the past are not going to be the problems we’re going to face in the future.
Part of my strategy is making sure that I’ve got a team that is learning-agile and that they can basically walk into an empty room, be handed a bunch of problems that they’ve never seen before, and figure out how to navigate and get it done.
That’s not just executing on an agreed-upon strategy. That is defining, developing and helping evolve the strategy as we go.
So I really believe that a role at this level demands that. You can’t hide from the strategy. You have to participate. You have to be accountable for helping shape it.
Chief Operations Officer David Travers
Company: Farmers Group Inc.
• 26 years with USAA, starting in an entry-level customer service position and ascending to the position of Senior Vice President, P/C Operations.
• Prior positions at Farmers include: Senior Vice President/Service Operations (2006-2010); Executive Vice President/Service Operations (2010-2013).
What has happened during Travers’ tenure?
• Consolidation of regional contact centers, started in 2006.
• Relocation of Los Angeles headquarters in progress.
What he thinks:
“Within my organization, we have a philosophy that says you’re really going to be defined by how you treat the least important person in the room.”
Q: You’ve mentioned managing IT a few times, but your background is in policy service. How do you get your arms around technology?
Travers: Let’s start with what I don’t do. I don’t try to be the CIO—the technical expert. I have people on my team that are really good at that.
But I do really work diligently to approach an IT conversation, problem, investment decision with the customer in mind, [asking] how is this going to translate into ease of doing business for the customer, or is it going to provide tools to our workforce that will enable us to serve the customer better?
I really believe in what I call backyard barbecue terms. So when I’m talking to technical folks, if they can’t explain it to me like they would be explaining it to their neighbor while they’re standing in their backyard over a barbecue, then I keep pushing until we get the conversation simplified. Then I know we can carry it out to the rest of the organization and get our heads around what we’re going to do or not do.
Anytime something is so complicated that people have trouble explaining it, then my red flags start going up.
Q: What are some of the most significant changes in operations that have occurred during your tenure at Farmers? What are you most proud of doing at Farmers?
Travers: The team I’ve built has two dimensions to it that I take a great deal of pride in.
One is they are a highly capable team that has taken the basic construct that we started with when we began—to consolidate the centers and reinvent ourselves—and they built it into something that is phenomenal in terms of the way it functions and operates from every dimension: training, recognition, rewards, career path.
I am also proud of the diversity on my team, and particularly what we’ve done with female executives in very senior positions.
Q: Tell us more about the consolidation of contact centers that started in 2006.
Travers: Over the years, Farmers had been regionalizing as the organization continued to grow. When I got here, we were at 11 regional centers. So we saw an opportunity to do a couple of things.
One was to get into fewer physical footprints, modernize those surroundings and simplify our organizational structure. But it also was a chance for us to build some larger centers where we could expand career paths and opportunities for the workforce instead of having many smaller operations distributed around the country.
When you have scale like that, you can provide amenities that are valuable to the workforce— onsite physical fitness capabilities and much improved cafeterias, for example.
After I joined the organization, later that year, we opened the first of the new big operating centers. Then we phased that in over the next five years.
Q: And you’re working on a relocation right now.
Travers: That’s specific to the workforce based in Los Angeles, so it doesn’t affect our whole workforce.
Farmers has been in the same headquarters building here on Wilshire Boulevard for many years, and through acquisitions and growth, we’ve reached a point now where we’re spread out in Los Angeles.
We’re taking an opportunity to consolidate some of our footprint out here in a facility that came with us as part of the 21 Century acquisition out in the Woodland Hills area. It’s going to allow us to get a significant amount of the Los Angeles workforce together.
Q: You mentioned that you’ll be reinventing the workspace in the new location.
Travers: When you look at what matters to employees today, a term that I think is expired is “work/life balance.” What matters now is work/life integration. People are trying to really conduct their daily routine in a way that allows their personal life and their professional life to coexist rather than compete.
So our facilities have WiFi for the workforce. We’ve got onsite physical fitness facilities; we bring healthy food choices in. We try to make sure we’re in locations where if you need to get off the campus for a little bit, you can get in and out of there quickly. And they’re safe, secure facilities. They’re well lit.
Probably the most important thing as we set up these new facilities is that instead of what you would think of as traditional office space, we’re really trying to deploy the office environments that everybody’s reading about—where you have lots of shared space and lots of networking spaces, so that people are interacting with each other throughout the day in ways that the space actually facilitates.
Q: What is the biggest lesson you learned in your time as a chief operations officer?
Travers: It’s not a big “aha,” but just that you cannot overemphasize the importance of listening to people rather than talking.
Answering the broader question— what’s the most important thing I’ve learned throughout my career that today serves me well in this role—it’s really asking questions of people in as open a way as you possibly can with a desire to learn.
In any organization, there is tons of talent, experience and capability. If you just ask people and begin to build relationships, the return on that is very, very high. When you work in a corporate culture like ours that is very people-oriented, people are generally very interested in helping their coworkers succeed.
So you get your little own life board of directors around you, you get some sharp people around you, and you’re willing to be vulnerable at times, telling them, “I don’t really understand this.”
It’s amazing what people will do to help, and that can significantly contribute to your success.
Certainly when I came to work here at Farmers, I had not worked in an agency-based model before. USAA was a direct writer. And at that time, the CEO, Paul Hopkins, had come up through distribution. In fact, he’d been an agent himself before he joined the company on the corporate side.
I just got comfortable telling him, “There’s a lot about this distribution world that I don’t know.”
I never once felt like there was an impatience—a need for me to hurry up and learn this. Instead it was more sort of this open experience that just went on and on. “Let me share with you everything I know. In the context of your job, you play some of that back to me, and I’ll tell you how I think it fits.”
That’s what I call mentoring. That’s what I call someone really investing in the next generation of leadership.
It’s my job to pay it forward and do it for my team.