“Be optimistic and be indefatigable.”
Charles Chamness, president and CEO of the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, carefully pronounces each syllable of the last word as he recalls the way in which one of his former bosses, Jack Kemp, delivered the advice. Chamness served as deputy assistant secretary for public affairs for the former HUD Secretary Kemp (under the first Bush administration) for 10 years prior to joining NAMIC.
For a journalist who has covered Chamness’ activity in support of the positions of the mutual insurance segment of the property/casualty industry for almost all of the 24-and-a-half years he’s been involved with NAMIC, the word indefatigable couldn’t seem more appropriate. “Persisting tirelessly,” “energetic,” “dynamic” and “enthusiastic” are just a few of the descriptions you’ll find beside the dictionary definition. So, the news that Chamness is retiring, officially announced today on the last day of NAMIC’s 124th annual meeting, feels incongruous with memories of the seemingly tireless advocate of industry positions who has testified before U.S. House and Senate committees on topics such as the impact of the Dodd-Frank Act on insurance, the U.S.-EU covered agreement, the industry’s response to Hurricane Katrina and countless others.
But “retiring” for Chamness isn’t about being tired. It’s about moving on and leaving his organization in a position of strength. “We’ve had a great run, and NAMIC has never been stronger or in a better position with its members and in the industry than it is today,” said Chamness, known as “Chuck” to NAMIC members and throughout the industry. “For NAMIC, I’m only the fifth president in 125 years. And I tend to be, like our members, very stable, planful, long-lived,” he said. After leading a team that he views as “successful in our service to the mutual insurance industry and our work as their advocates and providers of services that they need,” Chamness is ready to pass the reins. “It just feels like the right time,” he said.
“We have great opportunities. We’ve taken advantage of great opportunities and made great strides over these years—and there’s no reason to not be positive about what the future holds,” Chamness said, summing up how Kemp’s guidance applies to his own situation today.
“It’s about the mission. Every time I talk with a new team member here about what we do, I can tell them that we work for member companies who have a worthy mission—putting people’s lives together after catastrophe and catastrophic loss. And they operate in a heavily regulated environment. So, they need us to be successful on their behalf,” Chamness said.
“Really that goes for our very largest members, household-name national companies, to regional one-state writers and our smallest mutual members out in the rural Midwest. Each of them depends on NAMIC to be successful on their behalf so they can operate in an environment where they can serve their policyholders, which is what a mutual insurance company does.”
“That mission is key, and it’s part of what drives each of us who are lucky enough to work at NAMIC.”
Tackling the Issues
Flood insurance, TRIA reauthorization, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act are just three of the items that emerged on NAMIC’s agenda over the years. Does tackling any one issue stand out as a real success story for Chamness? Are there any that he still agonizes over?
“The financial crisis was a challenge for everyone in financial services…As people around our industry know, it was not an insurance story, but we were quite properly concerned that the regulatory backlash could include insurance and essentially also make radical changes to our regulatory structure that would be detrimental to our member companies and their policyholders. So, I am proud of our success in basically emerging from the financial crisis and the Dodd-Frank period unscathed and helping Congress understand properly that we, our industry, was not a problem that they needed to solve and they should focus on those other areas of financial services, which they did,” he said.
While helping policymakers determine how to help our economy address the risk of terrorism with TRIA authorization in the wake of the 9/11 attacks ranks as an achievement, five-year reauthorizations mean that, even now, NAMIC needs to advocate for continuance. Next year “we’ve got to get TRIA reauthorized, and we will. But that’s been a consistent and ongoing battle over the years,” he said.
A unique chapter in his tenure as CEO occurred in the aftermath of a different tragedy: Hurricane Katrina, when Chamness had to take on a battle with former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott. “Yes, I would count that also as a significant accomplishment that probably illustrates the challenge around doing what’s right, even when it’s hard,” said Chamness, when asked to recall the details. “Senator Lott did call me and threatened to take down the industry by all means available to him. He announced he was planning to run for re-election to carry out this mission. He followed through.”
“I sent him a letter quoting his statements to me, which I thought were not appropriate.”
Lott threatened to repeal the McCarran-Ferguson Act, the U.S. federal law that grants a limited exemption from federal antitrust laws to the business of insurance. “His actions to try to carry that out were defeated, in large part because his [real] motivation was shown through our efforts,” Chamness said, referring to the fact that Lott actually issued his threat because he was dissatisfied with the handling of an insurance claim on his beach home, which was destroyed by the force of Katrina.
Chamness still worries a bit about the ongoing threat of international regulation. In the post-financial crisis environment, “the heads of the largest economies, G8, G20, talked to their central bankers and regulators and said, ‘We need to make sure that regulation is improved so that we never again have a financial crisis like this,’ and at that point, the International Association of Insurance Supervisors started to work to harmonize regulation.”
“The problem is [that while] we have an imperfect system here, state regulation,…it is time-tested and stress-tested. Overall, it works pretty well for us. Our members support its preservation and improvement. But it’s not compatible with the models that the IAIS and others, particularly in Europe, would propose for our industry.”
“I think we’re winning at this stage. It’s been a fairly dramatic shift since several years ago, when it really looked like we were going to have to be forced to change quite a bit,” he said, while noting that it’s an ongoing issue that NAMIC under his leadership and the next CEO will continue to face.
Asked to share his ideas about specific skills he believes the next CEO should possess, Chamness put a “passion for the mission and the members in this association” first on his list. “You don’t have to have it coming in, but you have to be able to capture it once you’re here,” he said, after emphasizing, however, that the ultimate decision about who the next CEO will be rests with NAMIC’s board of directors.
Chamness also thinks advocacy needs to be part of the skillset. “Back in the early 2000s, Washington was less important to our industry. Being state-regulated, we had the luxury of not focusing on our nation’s capital much. I’d say that has changed. And while we’re still state-regulated, I think it will be the new executive’s role to continue to work to represent our members with that policy objective.”
What about leadership skills?
“Leading the incredible team that we’ve assembled here, that’s an easy job because each of them ‘get it’ in terms of what our mission is and what we do for our members,” said Chamness, who was mission-conscious even back during his college career, serving on the Indiana University Student Foundation Steering Committee.
Chamness subscribes to the servant leadership model pioneered by Robert Greenleaf, who Chamness noted is coincidentally, like himself, an Indiana native. “I think our industry—our mutual insurance industry—is full of servant leaders. Many of them, working with these 100-year-old companies, consider themselves stewards of their companies, basically leading for the benefit of the next generation of policyholders. For NAMIC, it’s the same,” he said, summing up his leadership style using words of a Grateful Deal song. “You who choose to lead must follow,” the self-proclaimed Dead Head said, reciting a line from the song Ripple.
He continued: “You can’t just jump out in front of the parade. Being a listener and a follower and then eventually a leader is what it’s all about. I’ve had great mentors and role models from a young age, through the 10 years I spent in Washington, D.C., in my experience at NAMIC and continuing today from our members. I can always learn from our board of 20 mutual insurance company CEOs and the way they approach their jobs every day. Certainly the chairs that I have worked with over the years have all taught me something,” he said.
Cathy Imus, who serves as vice president of Public Affairs for NAMIC, has witnessed the servant leadership style firsthand. “As a relative newcomer to NAMIC when I joined the association almost five years ago, I was particularly nervous taking over as vice president of Public Affairs since that’s the position my boss, Chuck, had held for several years. It’s always a bit intimidating to come in knowing your boss knows more about your job than you do. But Chuck couldn’t have been more welcoming and more supportive as I learned my way around NAMIC. I’m incredibly grateful for all the support he’s shown me through the years, and I will miss him when he leaves next year,” she said.
Asked about the lessons passed on from his predecessor, Larry Forrester, Chamness said, “Listen to the members, find out where they’re experiencing challenges, and try and solve their problems.”
Among the problems Forrester helped solve was the lack of professional liability insurance available to member companies during the casualty insurance crisis of the late 1980s, leading to the creation of a new insurance company, NAMICO, devoted expressly to that purpose.
St. Baldrick’s Chairman of the Board
Since 2003, when he took over the CEO role at NAMIC, Chamness has served as chair of the NAMICO board. And 10 years later, from 2013-2016, Chamness also served as board chair of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization that funds more pediatric cancer research grants than any other organization except the U.S. government. During his term, the organization raised more than $100 million.
His devotion to the charity has personal meaning and ties to the NAMIC story as well. Chamness recalls his involvement in the association, which started in 2005—two years into his tenure as NAMIC CEO—when his eight-year-old son Joey was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a malignant tumor of the bone in his leg. “That was a challenging year and one where I felt the amazing support of hundreds of NAMIC members and people around the industry. It was also the first year that I shaved my head for St. Baldrick’s,” he said, referring to one of the ways in which St. Baldrick’s raises money in support of cancer research and helps children like Joey feel better about becoming bald during chemotherapy treatments.
“St. Baldrick’s has always been supported by our industry more than any other,” he said, noting that the charity was actually founded by three reinsurance executives. (Read about the founding in the article, “Unsung Heroes of the Insurance Industry“). With NAMIC officially designating St. Baldrick’s as its charity, the association raised more than $3 million in NAMIC-related events since that time in 2005, Chamness reports, noting that he and other NAMIC members continue to shave their heads for the cause each year.
As for Joey, the cancer survivor who majored in finance at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business started his first job at American International Group as an investment analyst in August.
“He’s now part of our industry’s challenge in filling the talent gap and creating a new generation of people around it,” his father said.