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

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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.

Executive Q&A with Gus Simonds: Building Resilience

Executive Q&A with Gus Simonds: Building Resilience

The president and CEO of MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions likes adventure. His background in selling (and sailing) has helped him steer a confident course.
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Gus Simonds and his management team took the helm at MacDonald-Miller in 2006. The Great Recession hit two years later. By focusing on services and increasingly complex projects, the mechanical contractor survived, then thrived, doubling business since 2012. 

The company now has 1,000 employees and boasts $260 million in annual revenue.

EARLY YEARS: I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago. My father worked as an insurance executive. He’s a natural leader and taught me to sail. Mom was an award-winning botanical artist. She grew up in Chelan, and visiting Washington state got me hooked on the adventure the wilderness offers. I often went bird watching with Mom. I was a bit of a science nerd and would devour nature books and field guides and collect small creatures as pets. 

EDUCATION: Lured by the West, I went to Washington State University to study environmental science. I drove my 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass back and forth from Pullman to Chicago many times. The WSU experience taught me self-reliance and the power of perseverance. I was 2,000 miles from home, and there was no electronic banking or texting. When your car broke, you fixed it.  

CAREER: After college, I tried finding a job in hazardous-waste management — sexy stuff! — but ended up with a sales job at Honeywell selling building mechanical systems, service and retrofits. Other people hated cold calling; I thought it was fun. You get paid to make friends — sweet!

MACDONALD-MILLER: Five years later, in 1989, I wanted to get back to the Northwest and took the first job I could get in Seattle doing service and special projects sales at MacDonald-Miller. I hadn’t planned to stay, but once I started at the company, I could tell MacDonald-Miller was a special place with great opportunities.

THE BUSINESS: We make buildings work better by designing and installing or retrofitting HVAC systems [for heating and cooling], plumbing systems and control systems so that buildings can keep operating at peak performance. We are also doing a lot more building efficiency analysis to help owners evaluate the cost and benefit of improving their systems to save on energy bills while also increasing tenant comfort. 

CHANGE: When the recession hit, for five years it was the school of hard knocks. With a diverse range of clientele, we began focusing on services. Since 2012, we have grown by about 20 percent a year. This year, with more than 1,000 employees, we will be twice the size we were in 2012.

CULTURE: Our company culture is our internal brand — it’s what makes you want to come to work at MacDonald-Miller. You look for ways to put a smile on the faces of your customers and colleagues. We have 40 shareholders who all work at the company and are required to sell their stock if they leave. We preach silo busting and collaboration daily. The goal is having long-term employees who can see how what they do can make a difference to the company and to our customers. 

TECHNOLOGY: There are huge IT opportunities like finding new uses for 3D modeling and better managing our mobile workforce of several hundred. Putting new systems in place is a challenge, so we hired a CIO last year to take that on. We now see IT not as a cost but as a way to provide a competitive advantage.

FUTURE: We are now in the early stages of involvement in two of the largest projects Seattle has seen in its history — the expansion of the Washington State Convention Center and the transformation of Swedish Medical Center First Hill. Both projects will be completed in the next four years. Our strengthened “big project” reputation hopefully will help us win other signature projects. We are also putting a renewed emphasis on energy efficiency and building performance. That work has taken us to other regions, like Canada and the Caribbean. I think we could do well in San Francisco. 

COMPETITION: I have great respect for McKinstry and some of my other competitors. We all run on thin margins, especially compared to the risks we take around the accountability of system design, long-term performance and cost. In some projects, we may have 10,000 water-pipe connections. It’s a big problem if there is even one leak. One thing McDonald-Miller has become known for doing right is having teams from across all trades that can execute on the most complex systems. It goes back to culture and attracting and keeping the best talent. 

MANAGEMENT: My worst mistakes came from thinking that people could evolve into a new role because I wanted them to rather than really testing their ability and vision first. Those mistakes are always messy for both parties.  My proudest achievement was staying financially healthy through a very long recession. We learned a lot and became a better company through that experience. 

EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.

TAKE 5: Get to Know Gus Simonds
1. GO-TO GETAWAY:
The Lake Chelan area. “It’s my launch pad for adventure. Nothing beats a glass of wine at a winery while you plan your next adventure.” 

2. FAVORITE BOOK: Lake Chelan: The Greatest Lake In The World by John Fahey.

3. MOST ADMIRED PERSON: Richard Branson. “He puts his culture and employees up front as part of his brand. He bucks tradition. He’s an adventurer. He sucks the marrow out of life!”

4. I LOVE: Mountain biking, golfing, fly fishing, backpacking, snowboarding, collecting antique beer cans, playing guitar. 

5. CURRENT WHEELS: A Chevy Volt, a Toyota pickup and a 1973 455 “big block” Hurst/Olds. “I’ve had an Oldsmobile since high school, including several Cutlass 442s, and it’s a bit of my personal brand now. There’s no substitute for cubic inches.”