Grange Insurance’s Thoughtful Disrupter: Tim Cunningham

Tim Cunningham has moved Grange Insurance’s tech team from maintenance mode to innovation and, in doing so, re-energized an organization

Thoughtful Disruption

The bang of a rocket meant just one thing. Six bulls had been released onto the narrow streets of Pamplona, Spain. Tim Cunningham—a CIO from Columbus, Ohio—made a mad dash, making his way through Santo Domingo and across the Old Town Hall square as the one-ton beasts chased after him. Friends and family members called him crazy for participating in the run, but Cunningham knew the risks. After all, this wasn’t his first run-in with the bulls; he participated two previous times in the festival of San Fermín.

Today, Cunningham is the new CIO at Grange Insurance, where he enjoys working as a “thoughtful disrupter.” Cunningham wasn’t an insurance industry insider. He can ask a lot of questions. And he can challenge company leaders to take chances in a predominantly risk-adverse environment. To do so, he shares his experiences in Spain. “I did my homework before I ran with the bulls,” he says. “There’s potential for disaster, but I took the right precautions, got prepared, and put myself in the best position for a successful outcome.”

The passionate technology leader began his career at Bank One in 1987 and spent the better part of three decades in the financial sector. But when Grange Insurance—a regional leader in personal, commercial, and life products—called on him to replace a retiring CIO, the opportunity to make a profound difference outside of banking was compelling. As a result, he left a CTO role behind at JPMorgan Chase to join Grange in early 2016.

He immediately noticed several key differences. In moving up the management ranks at JPMorgan Chase, he, along with other leaders, were willing to try new approaches and embrace frequent changes. Insurance, on the other hand, is well-known for being risk-adverse and slow to adapt. Wall Street pros encouraged Cunningham to take risks, fail safely, and then move on. In contrast, the insurance industry seemed paralyzed by extensive analysis, overly comfortable with the status quo, and hampered down with a general fear of failure.

Despite the inherent challenges associated with a new industry, Cunningham remained energetic. After all, he had been brought in to do a specific job. Grange’s leaders knew their systems and processes needed a refresh—and they knew the entire organization would benefit from a new CIO who could leverage wins from another industry to develop new digital products and reach a shifting consumer base. At the bank, Cunningham was one of about 250,000 employees. At Grange, he’s one of roughly 1,500 employees. He shares a hallway with other company executives and has information and decision-making authority within his reach. Approvals come more quickly, and changes take less time to implement. Grange leaders asked Cunningham to modernize the company’s technology by bringing best practices from the fast-paced, competitive, and innovative financial industry to a regional insurer, so it could move significantly faster with less complexity.

“A great tech leader looking to make a positive impact needs to be a truth-teller.”

The Two-Part Playbook

To deliver though, he would need to develop a playbook. He would also need a strategy to execute in a new environment that would enable a CIO to more directly influence outcomes and see results. The strategy contained two main components. First, Grange’s tech team would develop and enable new products and services more rapidly in alignment with a defined architecture. Second, IT would support and meet the customer’s changing expectations with modern solutions.

It was a broad goal, and Cunningham knew he would have to dive deep into the specifics. But first, he set out to manage expectations and create a grounded awareness of current affairs. “A great tech leader looking to make a positive impact needs to be a truth-teller,” Cunningham says. “It was important for me to promote collaboration, work in a transparent way, and execute on early wins to demonstrate the capability of operating a new model well.” He described his plan to anyone willing to listen, celebrated wins, and translated the message into a personal choice so all involved understood the value associated with possible outcomes. For Cunningham, that started with his IT team.

He began hiring new associates while cross-training existing employees to deliver better results faster. While he brought change to the department, he was careful to reinforce his approach. “I reminded all IT associates that we were investing in them and their futures,” he says. “Our people are developing new marketable skills, and those skills bring new innovative solutions to the company. That drives opportunity for newer products and capabilities and revenue growth for Grange.”

Grange has a rich history that goes back eighty years, but what got the company to where it is today won’t necessarily help it to thrive in the future. “We have to be open to new ideas, approaches, and solutions that benefit the independent agents, the company, and the policyholders,” he says.

To develop and enable new products and services, his team introduced an architecture framework that leverages a robust middleware layer. The solution makes changes and updates faster and allows for standardization and reuse across the enterprise. Now, IT is working to introduce cloud-based solutions and layer new services on top of this architecture.

Leading and Winning

These changes are especially important for Grange because insurtech providers are changing the industry through innovative and efficient tech solutions. Those who insist on business as usual will be left behind. To stay relevant, Grange must be nimble enough to meet the demands of a changing demographic. When Grange started, insurance was sold face-to-face. Now, customers search, compare, and shop online or with a mobile device. “If we can’t serve a customer when and how they want, they’ll move on to another company that can do what they expect,” Cunningham says. As a result, he’s leading IT to develop relevant digital platforms. The goal is to improve digital quoting and rating systems to increase accuracy and decrease cycle time for the underwriters and agents.

With his transformation plan in place, Cunningham is focused on execution. As he and his associates move forward, they will modernize core systems, mature a robust middleware layer, and help all employees embrace the changes. Additionally, Grange is hoping to uncover new ideas with an innovation incubator scheduled for 2017. “If we inspire new behaviors and creative abilities, we’ll help take Grange well into the future,” he says. “We won’t just be surviving; we’ll be leading and winning.”