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Alan Jay Kaufman of Burns & Wilcox on leadership and education in insurance

5 min read

Modern Money

Alan Jay Kaufman is chairman, president and CEO of independent wholesale insurance brokerage Burns & Wilcox, as well as Kaufman Financial Group, its parent company. He recently answered SmartBrief’s questions about leadership, continuing education and other issues in insurance.

How would you describe your leadership style?

It is framed from a variety of experiences. I learned a great deal from my father, the late Herbert W. Kaufman, who founded Burns & Wilcox in 1969. I find that my work ethic, leadership style and entrepreneurial spirit are complemented from years as an attorney in private practice.

My father built Burns & Wilcox into a nationally recognized wholesale broker and underwriting manager. When I took over the leadership of the company, my focus was the future growth of Burns & Wilcox and the Kaufman Financial Group. We expanded internationally and added other leading companies that deepened our expertise and made us more globally competitive.

My team would probably tell you that I lead by example. This is a relationship business, and I am often on the road visiting our 45 offices throughout the U.S., Canada and U.K. Each visit includes meetings with our clients, the brokers and agents who rely on Burns & Wilcox and the Kaufman Financial Group companies for our exceptional expertise and partnerships with insurance companies. Despite the conveniences that technology allows today, I firmly believe in the power of face time.

How has your experience in the legal field influenced you in your role as an insurance executive?

I took over the leadership of the Kaufman Financial Group following an accomplished law career and understood the value that outside perspectives could deliver to our business. I built my management team by bringing together the insurance industry’s top talent as well as senior executives with management consulting and international finance experience. Today we continue to recruit well-rounded people whose unique professional backgrounds help to deepen our expertise.

Additionally, I see a real gap in how the insurance industry recruits and develops talent compared to the legal world. Law firms fixate on talent. The best firms maintain close relationships with the top universities, never losing sight of the need for a constant influx of excellent people. And they typically have extensive programs in place to grow and develop their prized recruits. In insurance, there simply is not the same level of commitment. I applaud industry associations that have embarked on basic talent development and continuing education initiatives, but greater investment is required to meet the demand.

You founded the Kaufman Institute to provide continuing education for insurance professionals. How great was the need to provide more continuing-education opportunities? Does the institute offer courses for professionals at different levels and across various lines of business?

The cost of the talent gap within the insurance business is enormous. Few of the leading undergraduate and graduate business schools offer insurance-related coursework, which means that qualified students repeatedly choose other careers in business such as accounting, finance, banking or consulting. The insurance industry then finds itself with a limited number of top performers who are frequently poached, forcing firms to advance mediocre professionals. Ultimately, it raises the likelihood of costly mistakes, the burden of which is shouldered by our companies and clients.

The Kaufman Institute, coupled with our leadership and executive-education initiatives, is working. To date, more than 10,000 Kaufman Institute courses have been accessed by our team. We find our employees are enjoying more clearly defined career paths, and they are emerging better-equipped to serve our brokers and agents. As retention rates show, these professionals are also more likely to stay with us.

It has been such a good experience for our team members that this spring we will re-launch the Kaufman Institute to make these sought-after courses more widely available to the industry. The courses in general business, insurance and risk management, which have previously been provided to the more than 1,200 Kaufman Financial Group employees across North America and Europe, will become available to the entire industry via our online corporate university.

The curriculum reflects our broad and deep industry expertise and affiliations with a number of academic institutions. We have designed courses to benefit all insurance professionals, from those seeking leadership roles in their organizations to individuals who simply need their licenses renewed.

You serve on the legislative committee of the National Association of Professional Surplus Lines Offices. What are some of the biggest issues facing the surplus-lines market?

Regulation will continue to be one of the biggest issues facing the surplus-lines market. Surplus lines actually thrive with less regulation because the market can be flexible enough to provide coverage for risks that cannot be handled in the standard market. We refer to it is as the freedom of rate and form and are against any regulation that would impede the continued flexibility of the surplus-lines market.