Symetra CEO Margaret Meister Seeks to Leverage Sports to Bolster the Life Insurer's Brand

Meister is using sports-sponsorship deals to raise Symetra’s profile
  •  Meister is using sports-sponsorship deals to raise Symetra’s profile
IN THE ARENA. Symetra Financial Corp. CEO Margaret Meister says like the insurance industry, she also has a reputation for being competitive.

This article appears in print in the November 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Insurance brokers know all about Symetra Financial Corp. Most consumers don’t. Margaret Meister is out to change that.

Meister, Symetra’s president and chief executive officer, was the driving force behind two major sports-sponsorship deals the Bellevue-based insurer inked this year. The first was a 10-year branding deal with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. Symetra then signed on to sponsor Seattle’s new NHL team, the New Arena at Seattle Center and Northgate Ice Centre.

“Sports is something that brings communities together,” says Meister, a former competitive swimmer. “It’s a good way for companies to get their name out there and associated with things that people enjoy and like to be a part of.”

Symetra, which does business nationwide, was founded in 1957. It reported $2.3 billion in revenue in 2018, has more than 2 million customers and employs more than 1,000 workers.

Meister, a math major at Whitman College in Walla Walla, joined Symetra — then part of Safeco — as an actuarial student in 1988. She became the company’s first woman president last year. For two years, she even served as both chief financial officer and chief information officer. Meister also played a key role in Symetra’s 2010 initial public offering.

I’m a little known for my competitiveness. I try and keep it in check.

The Storm was a great starting point for us. It’s a natural fit. It’s a winning team. I think we have a winning team at Symetra. It’s women’s sports. It fits with our diversity, equity and inclusion work.

Stepping in with the NHL is new and exciting.

We’ve always had a bit of a sports play. We’ve had the Heroes in the Classroom program with the Seahawks. We’ve advertised in Sports Illustrated. We’ve sponsored Symetra Tour Golf for up-and-coming women trying to make it in the professional ranks.

Insurance is a competitive industry, so you have to look at ways to differentiate yourself.

Part of raising our profile is also acknowledging that we need to be part of the community and engaging in some of the bigger challenges we see in this region and where we have some of our other offices. What’s going on in the homeless area, what’s going on in transportation — stuff like that.

I started as a beginning actuary. I did not know what an actuary was. I just knew I was a math major and I needed to get a job.

I like what insurance does for people. It was just a fascinating job.

I wouldn’t have thought I was going to be the chief actuary when I started. I didn’t even technically understand what a CFO was until I’d been on the job for a while.

You have to be really good at the job that you’re currently in. You don’t focus on what’s next. You own what’s now.

I was intimately involved in selling the company when Safeco decided to exit life insurance, which was kind of scary because you’re essentially being told you’re fired.

Going public is huge. It’s a team sport big time. You have to set aside your definition of the role and be part of the team. On really good teams, everyone understands everyone’s role and respects and trusts everyone in those roles.

Once I became the CFO and Symetra was getting its feet on the ground, I could see myself being the CEO. I could do this.

When I was the CFO, I wasn’t Ms. Numerical Geek. I interacted with people and what they’re doing versus what it is that we’re supposed to be doing. And I could see what was going to happen with our financial numbers based on that. It’s really a measurement of human activity. That’s fascinating.

What’s been my biggest surprise as CEO? One is it’s fun. I expected the stress of the responsibility might take away the ability to feel a sense of joy, and that’s not the case, which is really awesome.

I’ve always had an opinion about how things should be done and what we should be doing. More than once I probably expressed myself and people were like, “Really? She said that?”

I’ve always struggled to describe my leadership style. I think I just have to be me. I’m open to hearing what people think. I try to lead by example, be clear with people about what I think we need to accomplish and honest about whether it’s happening or not.

Sometimes you have to be humble and say, “I made a mistake.”

Math is a language. You can speak any language in the world, and you start writing math on a board and everyone is going to be able to understand each other. It’s an amazing kind of glue, yet it’s the most hated subject out there.

Math is the underpinning of finance and insurance, of the engineering world, of the technology world.

What keeps me awake at night? One time on a business trip there was a big spider on the bed. That definitely kept me up all night. Like, how many more of those are here?

What really keeps me up at night is how fast the world is changing and our ability to move as fast as the world needs. Are we keeping up with it? I’m surprised at how much more intensely I feel that now than I did in the CFO position.

I unwind with exercise, going to sports games, watching too much sports.

I am outdoorsy.

In my own mind, I’m still kind of the goofy, bumbling junior high school student that everyone’s looking at.

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