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.

The Outsider’s Perspective at Bartell Drugs

The Outsider’s Perspective at Bartell Drugs

Brian Unmacht, the first non-Bartell to run Bartell Drugs, knows his mission is to keep the family-owned business relevant in the face of stiff competition.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Brian Unmacht spent six years working at his father’s drugstore company and, after college, 27 years at REI, before becoming only the fourth CEO in Bartell Drugs’ 126-year history. Now he’s intent on using local partnerships to make Bartell a strong competitor to the national drugstore chains. 

FAMILY: My father had been an executive at the Bon Marché. In the 1970s, he formed his own chain of small drugstores in rural areas. I spent six years in high school and college working for my dad and eventually managed one of his stores. We were a $20 million business and I computerized the record keeping and did the finances and everything. It was a sort of love/hate thing because you could never separate the business from the family. But I appreciate having had a chance to work with my dad. In 1980, 19 percent interest rates and the recession did us in. We had loyal customers, but customers still went for price and selection when grocery stores started competing with us.

TRAVEL: After college, I spent a year backpacking in Nepal and Pakistan and skiing in Europe. When I returned, I had no money, so I went to work for REI. They had seven stores and a catalog and were beginning to expand beyond the Northwest. I managed the Tempe store in Arizona, opened the Chicago store and then worked on the store in Japan as vice president of international. That was an exciting time.

RETAIL: In the ’80s, it was Walmart that dramatically changed retail as it sourced overseas. In the last 15 years, it’s been Amazon. You’re always going to have disrupters. It comes down to how do you keep yourself relevant? In the recession of 2009, the number of paddling and canoe shops in the country dropped to 1,500 from 2,500. With fewer distribution points, vendors like North Face were trying to increase web sales. At REI, our value proposition was to provide expertise and credibility. North Face would give REI an exclusive for a certain time because of that. It was a win-win.

BARTELL DRUGS: I’ve come full circle. Now I am back in the drugstore space. We are up against $120 billion retailers like Walgreens and CVS. How do we find unique products and services that they can’t carry in their 8,000 stores? We offer assortments of local candy like Theo or Seattle Chocolates. We partnered with Snoqualmie Ice Cream to sell our own brand. At our Bellevue store, we offer scooped ice cream. If you go to Fourth and Madison downtown, we have a partnership with Caffé Vita for the espresso, and with other local vendors for sandwiches and other food offerings.

BEER: Bartell always sold beer but it tended to be Budweiser and Heineken. We put in a beverage buyer who had a passion around craft beer and empowered him to form partnerships. Now we have a partnership with Two Beers Brewing Co. to do a Tangerine IPA limited run. Last year, we did Bartell Spring Elixir with Fremont Brewing. We have 150 partnerships with other locally owned firms.

FAMILY BUSINESS: There have only been three top executives [before me] at Bartell’s over 126 years and they were all named George Bartell. Being family owned, we’re part of the community and take the long view. I tell employees that’s not enough to be relevant. There are a lot of family-owned businesses that fail. 

OUTSIDER: The family put together an outside board five years ago to get a wider point of view and I was put on the board. The family recognized there was going to be a gap before the five cousins in the fourth generation were ready to manage the company. That’s why they brought me in as the first outside manager. With revenues of $500 million and growing, management was also getting more challenging. Evelyn Merrill, the oldest of the cousins, is senior marketing manager. She has a lot of good ideas and is challenging the third generation in terms of her view of the brand.

STORES: We have 62 stores. We are talking about adding two to three stores a year. Today, we’re primarily in King and Snohomish counties, but I want to look at Whatcom [County], Bellingham, Poulsbo, Bainbridge Island and potentially farther south. With the Walgreen/Rite Aid merger, some Rite Aid stores will probably be divested. If the right stores came on the market, we would be interested. The Greater Seattle area is still booming, and with more density there is room to put a lot more drugstores in convenient places. 

HEALTH CARE: We do flu shots now, but we are looking at providing other immunizations as well as testing for strep throat or flu so that you don’t need to go to your primary care doctor every time. Because of our concentration of stores in Greater Seattle, our share of the pharmacy business is right up there with Walgreens. It’s important that we have that scale to work with the insurance plans. We had a pilot program to have Group Health clinics in 25 of our locations, and Kaiser [which is acquiring Group Health] seems interested in continuing the concept.

COST OF DOING BUSINESS: I worry that in five years, if Seattle’s not booming anymore, what does it mean if you’ve raised the fixed cost [by raising the minimum wage]? But I worry less about the minimum wage than the growing congestion issue. I have 2,000 employees who live all over the Puget Sound region. We have to move freight around. Congestion is a bigger and bigger issue. 

EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.