TechLifeColumbus continues its interview series, titled “Five Solid Questions with ….”. Steve Gruetter, Director of Market Strategy at Expedient and dedicated supporter of TechLifeColumbus and the Central Ohio IT community, is leading this effort.

This month our series of “Five Solid Questions with …” continues with an interview of John Kessler, CIO of Motorists Insurance Group. If you would like to see past interviews with Brian Shea, Ron Frissora, Denise Zabawski, Mike Rosello or Ben Blanquera, please see the links at TechLifeOhio.

STEVE GRUETTER: Today’s interview is with John Kessler, Senior Vice President and CIO of Motorists Insurance Group. First off, I want to say thank you for your role in organization of the 2017 CIO Tomorrow event. I also understand that the Virtual Tomorrow event the night before will be quite the event as well.

JOHN KESSLER: All right. STEVE: John, you are exceptionally involved in the Central Ohio IT community, hosted Tech Strategy, you are running the CIO Tomorrow event and have served on the organizing committee in the past. You serve on it just about every year. Why do you invest your time with the local IT community?

JOHN: Well, the answer is two-fold. One, is because I want to stay active in the Central Ohio IT community, and because I want to see where I can add value and create value for others, and CIO Tomorrow is a perfect example of that. I am clearly trying to create a forum that provides thought leadership for the entire IT community. Whatever I can do to contribute to that, and play a role in that, I’m jazzed by that.

And the other reason is that there’s a selfish reason to it, Steve, and that is that working for the same company for 32 years, there’s a lot of goodness to that, but there’s also a lot of challenges to that. There are gaps. When you work at the same company for 32 years, you realize that you know actually everything about nothing. There is a part of me that always admired and somewhat envious of these other IT leaders in the community that have moved around throughout their career that have got the depth and breadth of experience from different industries, different companies, etc. I think, ‘How great is it to have such a rich background experience.’ Here I am, I’ve spent my whole career within the same proverbial four walls. Knowing that, again, I realize I know everything about nothing, and so it’s so important for me to be an effective leader for Motorists to get outside of these proverbial four walls and spend time with a lot of people who are a lot smarter than me and a lot of people who have that rich background and experience, so that I can learn from them. That is why I’m always active.

STEVE: When you’re active with your peers, you can learn something new every single time out there. As I understand, one of the best sessions with the CIO forum is when our IT leaders are just kicking ideas around. So, when you are facing an issue today, you can see how someone else may be facing a similar issue and how they are looking to resolve it. You can hear about paths to resolution that you like and quite honestly, paths that you don’t like.

Maybe you see that person A has got a great solution, and person B is really fouling it up.

JOHN: No doubt, it’s a tremendous learning opportunity to be involved in the Central Ohio IT community. And it’s again, it’s a tremendous opportunity for me to give back and do what I can to contribute to forums for others to learn from.

STEVE: So my question off of this is, what’s the best aspect and the top challenge in being in IT leadership in Central Ohio?

JOHN: Oh, the challenge is just making the time. Because everybody is so, so crazy busy. I know how busy we are here at Motorists, and we’ve been fortunate to get a lot of press recently about our transformation that we’re going through, which started five years ago. And with this transformation, I’m as busy as I’ve been in my entire career. But I say that because I know everybody is that, everybody feels that. The pace of change is just exponential and it’s incredible what every company, every industry is going through.

Which is why, by the way, we’ve gone to the theme of transformation for this year’s CIO Tomorrow event. Because there’s not a company, there’s not an industry out there that’s immune to the pace of change and immune to the disruptive technologies and immune to everything that we’re going through. So anyway, I know everybody’s crazy busy, and so freeing up time to immerse yourself into the Central Ohio IT community and make time for all these different things we’re talking about is probably the biggest challenge.

STEVE: And the top advantage?

JOHN: I think what comes up for me is what better place to be than Central Ohio and be a part of the IT community. The innovation that’s taking place in Columbus, and surrounding areas, is incredible. And we always point to Silicon Valley as kind of the benchmark for innovation and innovative thinking and big thinking. But in reality, I think there’s more of that taking place here in Columbus and Central Ohio than anywhere in the country. And so, this is the place to be.

STEVE: I would agree with that. Where is there a better communication setup that we have here? We are talking about what we have with our CIOs, what we have with our CIO circle for the smaller organizations, we have a network built that at any point in time, and almost anybody in leadership can reach out to somebody else. And they might not get the callback on the first call, but they’ll always get the callback by the second call, and the answer is normally is ‘how can we help?’ I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I think we fostered a real sense of community here.

JOHN: That’s well said, because I think whenever somebody new comes into our community, and comes into our network, meaning an IT leader or CIO that’s come from another part of the country, it seems like every time I hear them acknowledge how open we are as an IT community. And they’re amazed by how open we are and how much information we share, specific to our industry, insurance. That’s happened a couple of times here within the past couple of years where our peers, our competitors have hired this guy from outside of Columbus, and outside of Ohio. And to a tee, they remark on how amazing, how amazingly open we are in terms of being collaborative and sharing and networking and things like that. They’re just not used to that.

We take it for granted because it’s the culture we’ve created in Central Ohio, and it seems like that’s the way we should behave, and that’s the way we should share and treat each other. But I think we take that for granted because it doesn’t happen everywhere.

STEVE: Think about your industry specifically. You can’t throw a stone without hitting an insurance company in Central Ohio. We are run by insurance, banking and healthcare, that’s who we are. So, I’ve always joked that we can be leading edge here, but we cannot be bleeding edge here, because those three industries have got to build themselves supported by 100% reliable technologies. Because you can’t make a mistake in those three industries, you just can’t do it. Let some other industry make a mistake, because banking, insurance and healthcare can’t.

JOHN: I agree with that, however that’s changing a little bit though. I can only speak for the insurance industry. I can’t speak to banking or healthcare, but what you said really resonates when I think about those two. Then I think about our industry, insurance, yes – you can’t make a mistake, however I think our industry has been guilty of delayed perfection and continues to ‘prove it in the past.’ I know that at Motorists, we’ve been guilty of that, slow to innovate, slow to change and move, because we are so caught up in delayed perfection. So now we are starting to change in our culture, we’re now starting to pivot to really embracing continuous improvement, embracing an agile mind set, and recognizing that if we don’t adapt to change quickly, we’re not going to be able to survive. The insurance industry is so woefully behind other industries that it’s going to come back to haunt us. So, I see that changing in our industry.

STEVE: You’ve got a really interesting, small firm starting up here. The team at Expedient spoke with Root Insurance a couple of weeks ago. A kind of remarkable organization, no agents or anything like that, all online. An interesting business, and they have Drive Capital behind them, so they have some legs there.

JOHN: Our whole industry is being disrupted, no doubt, by those types of start-ups, and that type of innovation. There’s a whole community out in Silicon Valley, insurance/tech that is really looking to and focusing on the insurance industry. So we’re going to see disruption coming fast and furious.

STEVE: And that’s obviously why you’re taking on your transformation project, so you can stay ahead of disruption. How do you measure the success of your IT organization?

JOHN: At a higher level. I think one thing to look at is how are we able to retract and retain top talent. I see us doing that now more than ever before, and to me, it is important. Our industry was viewed as archaic as extremely conservative, traditional. Our company, Motorists Insurance, was clearly viewed as being ultra conservative and not very innovative. Motorists IT, then in turn, was viewed that way as well. For the longest time, we had a hard time attracting top talent, attracting ‘innovative thinkers’ type of talent.

These are people coming out of college, people with a couple of years’ of experience in the city. We had a hard time attracting them. In the last five years, because we’re going through this cultural transformation and because we have all the good things going that we have and that we’ve been blessed with getting some recent publicity around, we’re seeing our position change where we’re able to really attract and retain top talent.

I think it’s interesting, again, I can only speak to what I experience within the Motorists four walls, but for a lot of the talk out there and a lot of the things I read around the millennials, I don’t necessarily see those issues with the millennials that we have here.

STEVE: At Expedient, we are seeing some of the same things as well. It’s that there’s a reputation that’s out there, and I do not see it at our shop. We’ve got some outstanding, very young professionals, we’ve hired in our Operations Support Center that are so dedicated to becoming better, and they take on the training. They don’t look like everyone else, and there might be a lot more facial hair than what we’re used to. There might be a lot more tattoos than what we’re used to. But we’ve got some really driven young IT professionals and the future is bright.

On the talent aspect, the No. 1 answer that we hear from the CIOs on what’s the biggest challenge in town is attracting the talent, because it’s tough because these .Net developers, they can name their price, and they are not tied to a firm, they don’t have the loyalty to an organization, they have a loyalty to what they’re creating.

Just to layer that in, I recently heard of a really interesting concept to attract talent. Expedient is working closely with the City of Dublin and Dublink, and I know you know Doug McCollough. He wants to create an enclave of engineers that live in Dublin because it’s a great place to live, and then attract the companies that need to have locations in and near Dublin so they can be near this enclave of engineers. Which is a pretty interesting social engineering aspect, and they know what they are doing – and doing it well.

JOHN: It’s a great idea. They totally flipped that because we’ve been conditioned to think just the opposite. The talent will go to the companies wherever they are, so he’s flipping that.

STEVE: Circling back to your point on disruption – especially in this industry, how do you see technology changing over the next three years? And what will it mean to this organization?

JOHN: I think the biggest change I see – and it’s so hard to avoid buzzwords – but digital is what comes to mind. We are moving closer and closer over the next three years to a digital business model. Motorists traditionally has been a high-touch organization, we’re relationship-based. I don’t see that changing, but I see relationships kind of being redefined to incorporate high tech into it, more so than ever before. We’ve had a mantra of being high touch, high tech, but candidly, I think it was more of a wishful mantra, but now we’re starting to live it.

I think implementing more of a digital business model and digital customer experience is going to be a big part of Motorists in our strategy over the next few years. And clearly, so much is happening under the guise of Smart City. To me, Smart City is a transportation play, and it’s also about connected living, connected communities and centers everywhere.

STEVE: Agreed.

JOHN: And I think that clearly is going to disrupt and impact Motorists, and our industry in general over the next few years. Driver-assisted cars are what’s next before totally autonomous cars.

STEVE: We’re talking about autonomous cars in relation to Smart Corridor. I think you’re right about Mobility as a Service, it’s going to be transforming here, in Central Ohio, in the Smart City and the Smart Corridor. And right here in Central Ohio, we’re going to be on the cutting edge of all of that here.

JOHN: That gets back to one of your earlier questions about what’s so great about being part of the IT community here in Central Ohio. You’re right, we’re going to be on the cutting edge, and I think that we’re going to be like what Ben Blanquera articulated at the last Tech Strategy meeting. His prediction was, ‘We’re going to be the IoT capital of the world.’ It’s a bold statement, but there’s no doubt we’re on the cutting edge.

I don’t know how fast that’s going to happen? You asked me about what is coming within the next three years. I think that the pace of change is just accelerating more than ever before, and there is a chance we’ll see that in the next three years.

And then just connected communities, connected living sensors in the home – we’re talking about things that truly are going to turn the auto and home insurance industry upside down. And clearly, commercial lines is not isolated from that either. I mean, if you go autonomous vehicles on the road, then undoubtedly you’ve got autonomous trucking, and the new aspects of insurance that this type of mobility will introduce. That’s going to impact commercial lines insurance industry, and having sensors everywhere will also impact the industry. I see some impact on Worker’s Comp as well, so I just think it’s this digital transformation in the internet of everything is going to impact Motorists and our industry more than we probably can see right now.

STEVE: That makes sense. So here is a fun question to wrap up our TechLife Ohio interview. Professionally, who do you rely on for advice?

JOHN: Professionally, probably the biggest mentor that comes to mind is Dave Kaufman. I have that kind of relationship with him. I’ve been reporting to him for more than a decade. So, he clearly has been a professional mentor for me, and I’m not sure when you asked the question if you’re thinking specific to technology, specific to IT.

STEVE; Not necessarily.

JOHN: Dave’s been a tremendous leader for me both personally & professionally. No. 1, his intelligence is off the charts. No. 2, he leads with humility. And No. 3, he’s anchored with solid core values and beliefs. He’s just an easy guy to follow. So, that’s the first person that comes up for me. And I would say, outside of him, I’m not sure there’s any one individual that I turn to.  Depending on the circumstances, it’s more situational coaching that will lead me to different people I’ve established relationships with throughout my career.