When Kristen Bessette joined QBE North America as chief actuary in January 2018, she quickly realized that the insurance company needed to modernize its IT platforms and data analytics systems. At the time, QBE was behind the industry in data transformation and there was no set leader with ownership for an organization-wide data strategy. While she didn’t know it at the time, but she would soon become that owner and spearhead the transformation, taking on a career-defining challenge.
Before joining QBE North America, a division of the international insurer headquartered in Australia, Bessette had a lengthy stint with US insurance giant Liberty Mutual in various roles as a leader in the actuarial realm. While she had participated in and led similar projects, none of those experiences approached the scale and complexity of an organization-wide data makeover.
She made her case to corporate leadership for a major investment. It would be a crucial competitive step for QBE so that the company could benefit from advanced data analytics and better serve customers, she explained. Top corporate leaders not only agreed but also said to Bessette: “Let’s do it—you’re in charge.”
Four years into a five-year digital transformation plan, Bessette and her team have made great strides. New systems have been built, and the data housed within is used throughout the organization. New capabilities have greatly sped up access to data for call center personnel and are powering the next wave of digital transformation. And the foundation for advanced analytics has been laid.
Great progress has been made and while there’s more work to be done, Bessette (who now serves as chief actuary, data, and analytics officer) has already gained key insights into digital transformation that other executives can learn from.
To start, Bessette and her team faced a critical challenge: QBE’s technology environment was a hodgepodge of disparate systems. The company had grown via acquisition, and many of the legacy systems of the acquired organizations were still in place. Company-wide, this varied architecture and the multiple different approaches to data capture made for inconsistent data analysis.
“You could ask two different people the same question and get two different answers,” Bessette says. She and her team needed to make data more consistent and upgrade analytical capabilities, and the best way forward was to scrap most of that older IT and construct a new cloud-based infrastructure. Though costly, that infrastructure would be a giant leap forward in usability and functionality.
Bessette felt strongly that this project should proceed with less long-range planning than typical technology projects. There would be too many variables and changing business requirements as the project evolved. If planning were to include every detail, “we would waste time on constantly revising the plan,” Bessette says.
The project had a few overriding principles at the outset. The development process would be iterative with a lot of adjustments expected as features were rolled out. Business continuity was a must—there could be no interruption of vital services. And project managers would have to build trust with business partners by working closely with them, being transparent about progress, and addressing concerns promptly.
Planning and development required close consultation with representatives from all major user groups. Once the infrastructure strategy was in place, development work kicked off in 2019, and weekly meetings including all project team members (as well as a weekly managers’ meeting) have been held ever since. Brevity is key to making these interactions effective and efficient, Bessette says. Long meetings are a drag on productivity.
To business managers looking to partner effectively with technology personnel, Bessette’s advice is simple: “Ask a million questions about technology.” This brings out the key issues for decision-making, and as understanding grows and goals align, tighter ties between business and IT specialists form. Testing newly developed features and systems before going live has been another critical practice that has been crucial to meeting the business continuity imperative.
With the project still underway, multiple benefits have already been realized. For example, a new data bot allows call center representatives to access data much faster. Also, underwriters have much less manual work to do to access key data, resulting in faster decision-making and better customer service. Currently, work is progressing to create sophisticated data analytics for actuaries.
This vital capability will allow actuaries to better understand risks in underwriting commercial customers in multiple industries with many risk variables. For instance, a one-hundred-site restaurant chain may have varied risks across its portfolio based on the nature of each site.
The hours during which each restaurant sells alcohol, for example, are an important factor and can vary widely among the same chain depending on local regulations. Underwriters must access that information, along with many other data sets, to come up with a competitive premium package for the whole chain.
While the ambitious project has been a serious challenge for the team, their hard work is in service of an accomplishment that will be a career highlight, Bessette says. “It’s part of a true change story,” she says. At the individual level, team members know listing such a project on their résumé is a valuable badge for career progression. That helps individuals push through when things get tough.
Outside of the office, Kristen Bessette shares a passion with her husband for rescuing dogs—specifically the Greater Swiss Mountain dog breed, also known as “swissies.” Bessette says, “We take in dogs that are hard to place because of medical or behavioral problems.”
Swissies are a large breed that can tip the scales at up to 140 pounds. “It’s like having extra people in the room,” she says. Bred as farm dogs, they were often used to pull carts of milk cans. The couple adopted their first swissie in 1998 at a time when the breed was fairly rare in the US, Bessette notes.
“They are big-boned, good-natured dogs,” she says. “We now have two. Four is the most we’ve ever had.” The couple has also taken in animals that are blind or need a wheelchair to get around. Bringing home the “hard luck cases” has been fulfilling for her, as she has always had a soft spot in her heart for animals.
Why swissies? “As a kid, I always liked the brown, black, and white coloring, and they have a great personality,” she says. “They are pretty independent-minded, and that can be good and bad.”