Executive Q&A: Stephen A. White President/CEO, Milliman

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

YOUTH: I was born in Oregon but came to Seattle when I was 4. My dad was the city manager of Mountlake Terrace for over 25 years. I was the numbers guy in the family. I went to O’Dea High School, then the University of Notre Dame, where I was a walk-on on the football team. I got to play a few games. I majored in math and joined Milliman right after graduation.

ACTUARIES: The actuarial profession really interests me, with its combination of business and math. What we do is put a present value on liabilities with uncertain futures. It’s like accounting with a futures bent to it. In accounting, you’re saying where things are today; the actuary tells you what a retirement plan or a life insurance policy is going to cost in the future. If a company changes the deductible in a health plan, for example, how much is that going to cost?

CAREER: When I joined Milliman in 1985, it had maybe 1,300 employees, about half of what we have today. After a couple of years working in Idaho in-house for Boise Cascade on its pensions and other actuarial needs, I returned to Seattle and got involved in management. I became a principal in 1993 and an equity partner in 1997. I worked with union funds jointly trusteed by labor and management. I also managed pension plans in which we evaluated the liabilities but also took over the administration with a call center and website for participants.

MILLIMAN: In terms of revenue, we are among the top three or four [actuarial firms] in the country. We have four business areas. We are probably second or third in the country in property-casualty, sixth in pensions, and first in life insurance and health consulting, where we work with hospitals and clinics on the best practices to deliver care. We have some of the best claims data available on cost experience for different claim types.

CULTURE: Milliman [founded by Wendell Milliman] first opened in 1947. When they added other offices in new locations, they decided to let those offices have control over their own destiny, with a separate profit structure. Even today, each practice elects its own equity partners, who share the profits of that office. One office might be quite a bit more profitable than another and the range of income for equity partners is also quite wide, but everyone is OK with that. That’s part of our culture.

TALENT: We attract people who are talented and want to have control and want to work hard and reap the benefits. That culture kind of feeds itself because the people who like the structure tend to be ambitious people who keep it going. We are very much into quality control with our work. We have a detailed peer review process in terms of who gets to be an equity partner, who has the authority to assign work. We also do a lot of collaboration on technology investments. IT and legal work are very much centralized and organized.

MARKET POTENTIAL: Our job is to help clients manage risk, and risk isn’t going away. The financial market is one area where there’s been a lot more volatility. That affects pensions and it affects life insurance in a big way since a lot of them have annuity products with minimum guarantees. Low interest rates are also a real struggle for those companies that have to provide those minimum guarantees over the long term. Our Chicago office works with many of the large insurance companies to provide hedging so that if the equity markets go down, the hedges can provide a backstop. That’s been quite successful. It really helps insurance companies take a lot of the risk out of the products they are offering.

INTERNATIONAL: This is another area that has accelerated, primarily in the insurance market. Big companies like Met Life and Munich Re are global and they are looking for expertise from a single company that can offer it across broad international markets. Right now, we have 55 offices and about half of them are outside the United States—maybe a dozen in Europe, a couple in Latin America, a couple in the Middle East and four or five in the Far East. We don’t expect to add a lot of new offices internationally, but we do expect each office to grow quite a bit. In Europe, regulators have added new, complex requirements for companies to prove their solvency. You have to do a lot of simulations: What happens in this or that situation? That has created more opportunities for actuarial firms.

COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE: Our culture attracts more than its share of the high-level people. Another important advantage is the IT expertise we’ve developed over the past 15 to 20 years. Technology has become a big part of what we do. We have several hundred people in IT. A lot of it is based in Seattle because of the talent here. We developed a system that allows our insurance customers to do very intensive actuarial computations in the cloud. We were recognized by Microsoft as one of its technical partners of the year for that project. The group in Chicago doing the hedging work is also very IT focused. On the property-casualty side, we’re using IT to handle analytics prior to underwriting insurance. If you put in information like how old the house is, how far it is from the coast and what the zip code is it, the analytic tools can do more detailed calculations about the risks involved.

THE FUTURE: We’ve typically grown our revenues about 10 percent a year. We have a map for what we have to do differently as we become a $1 billion company in the coming years. Most of that growth will be organic. The CEO role at Milliman is not a traditional CEO role. Most of the strategy comes up from the individual practice areas. My job is to make sure we have quality people, maintain the culture and protect the brand—the reputation and the long history of quality. That’s a delicate advantage and we have to work hard to keep it.

SEATTLE: At the headquarters office in [downtown] Seattle, we have 400 to 500 people, including about 80 people who are focused on providing finance, taxes, legal, marketing and IT services for the whole firm. But we want to maintain our decentralized structure. It reduces bureaucracy and allows for more autonomy and flexibility. An expert on professional services firms brought in 20 years ago told us that while our growth was impressive, it couldn’t last with our decentralized structure and that we would have to change as we got bigger. They were wrong. We’ve still very decentralized and we’ve grown five times since then. But we do have to find ways to encourage more collaboration between offices.

Three Investors Who Believe in the Innovative Capabilities of Local Entrepreneurs

Three Investors Who Believe in the Innovative Capabilities of Local Entrepreneurs

Meet Matt McIlwain, Nick Hanauer and Dan Levitan.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

As much as we’d like to think otherwise, Seattle is not yet a hotbed of venture capital activity. Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff said as much in an interview earlier this year with The Seattle Times. While discussing the healthy state of the region’s tech business, Rascoff observed, “From a technology landscape standpoint, I’m pleased with the vibrancy of the startup community, [but] I still think … Seattle needs more institutional venture capital. The fact that we have really only a handful of venture-capital firms based here is going to hold the region back from fulfilling its potential.”

Still, without capital from local investors, many of the companies that now form the backbone of the Puget Sound economy — from Amazon to Zulily, from Julep to Juno Therapeutics — might not exist, or might exist elsewhere.

So here’s to the venture capitalists who call Seattle home and who find promise and potential profit in betting on companies like Apptio and Avvo. Dato and Drugstore.com (acquired by Walgreen’s). Front Desk and FanNation.com (acquired by Sports Illustrated). Isilon Systems (acquired by EMC) and Insitu (acquired by Boeing). Moz and Modumetal. Redfin and Rover.com. Shippable and Spaceflight Services. Trupanion and Talyst. And plenty more.

On the pages that follow, we feature three prominent members of Seattle’s venture capital community who believe in the region’s ability to create viable, sustainable businesses here. Two have made Forbes magazine’s annual Midas List of the top 100 venture capitalists in the world. The other has become a civic activist dedicated to addressing — and solving — economic inequality.

DAN LEVITAN
Dan Levitan cofounded Maveron with Howard Schultz in 1998. Since then, he has been the key player on many of Maveron’s home runs, including Zulily. In 2014, Forbes magazine named him to its Midas List of the top 100 VCs in the world. Levitan is a graduate of Duke University and has an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School.

Investment you’d characterize as your biggest success.  Zulily and eBay 

Company you passed on and now wish you had invested in. Blue Nile

Most important things to look for in a startup. The entrepreneur and his/her team; the size of the market; and a differentiated product/service

Best location for closing a deal. The CEO’s office

Kinds of companies you’re looking for and why. We specialize in identifying, financing and mentoring highly disruptive and immersive, consumer-facing companies. We love — and invest in — companies that integrate into the lives of consumers and make the world a better place.

The most effective entrepreneur you’ve encountered. Howard Schultz [of Starbucks], because he built one of the most respected brands in the world. 

Top two deal makers. Awesome entrepreneur, insanely driven to succeed

Top two deal breakers. Anything outside of consumer or anything too small

What do you do for fun? I go to Duke basketball games.

What kind of car do you drive? Tesla Model S 

You might not know. Levitan has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Rainier. He found a mentor in Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who taught Levitan the central lesson of Maveron’s consumer-focused success: Always ask, “Do you love your team?” 

NICK HANAUER
Nick Hanauer is an entrepreneur with a broad range of experience across manufacturing, retailing, e-commerce, digital media, advertising, software, aerospace, health care and finance. In 2015, he also founded Civic Ventures, a small group of political “troublemakers” devoted to ideas, policies and actions centering on significant social change. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Washington.

Investment you’d characterize as your biggest success. For sure, aQuantive. I founded it and funded a big part of it and sold it [to Microsoft] for $6.4 billion. Also, Amazon as a first-round investor.

Company you passed on and now wish you had invested in. Rich Barton asked me to invest in Glassdoor, but I was too lazy to do anything. That was a screw-up.

Most important things to look for in a startup. My first screen is “Nick’s rule of transformational value.” Every great business is predicated on a product or service that creates what I call transformational value — that is, it is either 10 times better or 10 times cheaper or, ideally, both. Second, of course, the quality of the people. Bad people can kill a great idea but great people can evolve a mediocre idea.

Best location for closing a deal. My office.

Kinds of companies you’re looking for and why. My partners and I look for very early-stage-ideas companies. We try to be hard core about them being headquartered locally, but have made exceptions for entrepreneurs we already knew and trusted. We are somewhat agnostic to industry, reasoning that it’s the stuff you have not considered before that may be the biggest opportunity. For example, one of our best and most exciting investments was Insitu [acquired by Boeing for $400 million], and they made drones before anyone knew what drones were. 

The most effective entrepreneur you’ve encountered. It’s hard to beat [Amazon’s] Jeff Bezos. My pal Rich Barton [of Zillow] comes close.  

Top two deal makers. Simplicity and focus

Top two deal breakers. Complexity and confusion

What do you do for fun? What don’t I do for fun? I believe that one of my finest and rarest qualities is my ability to efficiently convert money into fun.

What kind of car do you drive? Tesla Model S P90D

You might not know. Hanauer is a co-author (with Eric Liu) of two best-selling books in the political genre, The True Patriot and The Gardens of Democracy. He has been featured in two documentary films on economic inequality — American Winter and Inequality for All.

MATT MCILWAIN 

Matt McIlwain joined Madrona Venture Group in 2000 and focuses on a broad range of software-driven firms. Current investments include Apptio, Envelop VR and Smartsheet. A graduate of Dartmouth College, he holds an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  He was named to the Forbes Midas List in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

Investment you’d characterize as your biggest success. Isilon Systems [acquired by EMC for $2.25 billion]

Company you passed on and now wish you had invested in. Airbnb

Most important things to look for in a startup. Customer-driven problem/need; differentiated and technology-driven solution; compelling founding team that can build a great company

Best location for closing a deal. Coffee shop or a great restaurant

Kinds of companies you’re looking for and why. Virtual reality/augmented reality companies and “application intelligence” companies that leverage machine learning to make apps smarter

The most effective entrepreneur you’ve encountered. Sunny Gupta [of Apptio] is world class at customer focus, attracting great people and product-market fit.

Top two deal makers. Great judgment, passion for the opportunity

Top two deal breakers. Not focusing on the customer’s problem, lack of transparency

What do you do for fun? Travel, play (and watch) sports, discuss policy issues

What kind of car do you drive? 2011 BMW 535i

You might not know. McIlwain came to venture capital investing from an unlikely place: the Genuine Auto Parts Company in Atlanta, Georgia, which owns NAPA Auto Parts. He ended up spending a lot of time with venture capitalists and venture-backed companies that were interested in investing in the sector. He worked with Madrona on some projects and joined the firm in 1999.