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Brighter Days By the Light of Perfectionistic Curiosity

Robert A. Kerzner came aboard as LIMRA’s CEO and helped the research association restructure, turn a loss into a large surplus in short time, merge with another association and start a new division devoted to one of the key issues in America today – retirement.

He is not satisfied with any of it.

Kerzner is not disappointed — he’s just a few clicks short of satisfaction. But dissatisfaction might be his happy place.

“I wish we’d done so many things just a little better,” Kerzner said. “On so many fronts, I feel like the puzzle was started but it wasn’t finished. So across the board, I just wish that on 20 initiatives we had moved a little further than we did.”

Relentless pursuit is perhaps Kerzner’s exercise program. To see him during LIMRA’s annual meeting is to witness a man hustling from event to event, intent on the next thing, often with co-enabling perfectionist Public Relations Director Catherine Theroux in stride.

But more than his drive to go is his quest to know, always asking why, said Theroux, who is also an assistant vice president of LIMRA.

“Over the past year, as people talked about Bob’s future retirement, many mentioned his innate curiosity,” Theroux said of Kerzner’s retirement at the end of this year. “He likes to learn. No matter who he’s talking to — researchers, members, executive board. It’s not like an achievable goal. It’s an ongoing living experience.”

That drive to know a little more, to push a little further and never rest served him well in his previous “retirement.”

From Hartford Into The Fire

In 2004, Kerzner had announced his retirement from The Hartford after 30 years of working his way up from agent to executive vice president in charge of the individual life division. That same year, the chief executive position opened at LIMRA, where he was a board member.

Jose Suquet was a previous chairman of the board who served on the search committee for a new CEO. The committee members knew they needed someone who not only understood insurance marketing and distribution but also could run a profit and loss statement. In other words, LIMRA needed someone who could run a business.

“It wasn’t just about the research that LIMRA put out, but it was about straightening the ship and getting it sailing in the right direction,” Suquet said. “We needed somebody who could do that. Bob checked all the boxes, as far as I was concerned.”

LIMRA has been around in some form since 1916, evolving from insurance marketing into more of an industry researcher. Its members are insurance companies with a vital interest in understanding consumers to keep the industry relevant and vibrant. But by 2004, the organization had become a sprawling academic institution.

Kerzner knew his way around executive management, and he had significant experience expanding The Hartford’s individual life business, Suquet said. And healthy expansion was exactly what LIMRA needed in 2004. Besides stopping the hemorrhage of red ink, the new CEO would need to be able to scout out new opportunities, such as merging with another association.

Kerzner was familiar with LIMRA’s problems from serving on its board.

“A number of people approached me and said, ‘If you’re retiring, why don’t you think about CEO at LIMRA? Right now they could use you,’” Kerzner said. “Quite candidly, at that time, the board was having a discussion about how many years until lights out.”

So he figured he would help out for a little bit, maybe six months. More than 13 years later, Kerzner was looking back at a second career that produced a larger, healthier LIMRA.

360 Again and Again

The first step was to look at the state of LIMRA.

“There was some broad perception in the industry that we had become somewhat irrelevant,” Kerzner said. “That LIMRA had become a little too academic and not as current as it needed to be. Some of the core products had not been modernized. Sales and margins were declining quite rapidly. Frankly, LIMRA had not been run enough like a business. It hadn’t changed enough during a period of rapid change similar to what we’re experiencing now. And it needed to be looked at very differently than it had been.”

The Big Picture

Simply put, the industry needed a more modern market scout. The pace of change was accelerating every year, and LIMRA was not keeping up. Insurance companies needed better intelligence on consumers and their products’ impact in the marketplace.

“The mission of what the industry needed had changed somewhat, and we had not changed enough at that point to be viewed as the go-to institution at the time,” Kerzner said.

All he knew was where LIMRA was and the perilous path it was following. He didn’t know exactly where the organization should be going. Like any good captain, he started with a chart. In fact, it hangs on his office wall to this day.

The chart illustrates the principles that guided the association’s assessment of all its components. The operation had to pass three tests. It needed to have member value, be an enduring business model and provide a solid future for employees. That helped staff and members set the direction.

“We had to get a lot of the companies to tell us what they thought we should be doing. The chart was called Compass, with the idea that it would give us a direction for the future,” Kerzner said.

The staff re-examined the member value of the research and other member benefits through the lens of the strategic direction. They also looked at operational improvement. That involved image, expenses and sales.

“We really had to relook at every single expense, every dollar being spent,” Kerzner said.

Kerzner quickly realized that although LIMRA was far smaller than The Hartford, it was complex. Besides the research, it had a constant stream of conferences, training, study groups, committees and other businesses. There was a flood of information to take in, while making decisions quickly to stop losing more than a million dollars a year.

That effort led to a key part of Kerzner’s diagram — Fill the Buckets. That divided LIMRA into four quadrants: assessment, development, consulting and networking.

“For each of those quadrants, what did we offer?” Kerzner asked. “There had to be this clarity of what our mission was, then ultrafocusing on where we could move revenue quickly and what wasn’t core, getting rid of those expenses. We were able to do it mainly by reallocating resources. That allowed people to do different jobs but not make tremendous changes in our staffing, although there were some senior management changes.”

In the first year, 40 percent of the employees held a substantially different job than what they had previously. And the bottom line turned black. The association went from a $1.7 million loss to a $1 million surplus in that year.

The image problem was going to take more than a year to fix. But realigning the operations toward member value went a long way. So did ambitious projects. One of those projects was a merger of LIMRA with LOMA, an association that focused on training.

“When I was at The Hartford, I was very involved in a $1.1 billion acquisition, and it taught me a lot about synergies,” Kerzner said. “There really can be synergistic mergers, acquisitions that can be game changers.”

As Kerzner scouted other organizations for merger candidates, he got to know the CEO of LOMA. This organization focused on training, while LIMRA was all about research. After some discussions, both leaders created committees to consider merging their organizations.

Kerzner used some of what he learned from the The Hartford acquisition to examine synergies. 

“Sixty-five to 75 percent of mergers and acquisitions fail,” Kerzner said. “So we felt if it was going to work, we really needed to figure out how to make it synergistic and not just talk about it.”

They identified more than 100 areas where the merger would make the result greater than the individual parts in the two associations. They took the result to their boards, and they officially merged in 2008. Suquet said the merger helped not only the members of LIMRA and LOMA, but the industry overall.

“Even before I became chairman of LIMRA,” Suquet said, “there was a real interest from the industry perspective to merge the two organizations and reduce the number of industry organizations overall.”

The Retirement Convergence

The other key advance was the Secure Retirement Institute. LIMRA had been angling more of its research toward retirement for a decade, but even its own members were not recognizing the effort, much less the financial institutions in the retirement field.

So the association created the institute in 2013 to refine the focus and to distinguish it from the insurance research organization. The effort brought a new type of member under the LIMRA/LOMA roof — financial companies such as Black Rock, LPL Financial, T. Rowe Price and Charles Schwab.

“When you look at how much it’s become recognized in a short period of time as a go-to for retirement research, it’s really been a good success story,” Kerzner said. “We’re recognized now and quoted in governmental publications. We weren’t previously. So I think it’s really, as we talked about that transition of our image, that now we’re seen much more broadly as credible across an array of both life insurance and retirement.”

The effort not only brought more credibility to LIMRA, but also it solidified the greater convergence of insurance and finance. The life insurance industry cannot remain an island, Kerzner said.

“Life insurance has seen steady growth, but slow growth,” he said. “Companies have to be diversified in other parts of the business, and they recognize that. They have chosen different areas, from pension transfer to others very much in the plan space. They all are making bets in other parts of the business, too, but two clearly stand out.”

Those two are asset accumulation and distribution businesses, Kerzner said.

“Because there’s so much money out there that needs to be saved for retirement or that the baby boomers need to reallocate,” he said. “And how do we get to be a bigger player in the distribution of assets in retirement? The income space. And that certainly is where it must play out in the next decade.”

Those areas are among many Kerzner said that LIMRA will have to take up with its next CEO.

Looking back at his LIMRA career, Kerzner pointed with pride to the association’s turnaround and key initiatives, however unfinished he believes they are.

But his most fulfilling memories come from how free a rein he was able to give his curiosity.

“I tell people all the time I’ve really led a charmed life,” Kerzner said. “Thirty years with one employer, 14 years at LIMRA and LOMA that were never expected to be a second career. I’ve gotten to work with so many senior executives in North America and globally. I’ve gotten to see inside companies and understand how different executive management teams come to different conclusions. Few people ever get a view into so many companies, so many cultures and so much strategic thinking. There are not a lot of people who have been able to have this much fun in their jobs.” 

Steven A. Morelli is editor-in-chief for InsuranceNewsNet. He has more than 25 years of experience as a reporter and editor for newspapers, magazines and insurance periodicals. Steve may be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @INNSteveM. [email protected].

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