He spent 19 years preparing to be the leader at National Interstate Insurance

Tony J. Mercurio felt the change in how he was perceived before he officially took the reins as president and CEO at National Interstate Insurance.

“People pay attention to you a little more,” says Mercurio, whose role shifted on May 5 from president and COO to president and CEO at the specialty property/casualty insurance group holding company. “You need to be aware that you don’t just lead by what you say. You lead by your actions. I expect a lot from myself with regard to leadership. I also think, as a good friend of mine once said, ‘It’s easier to stay right if you start right.’”

The opportunity to lead the 730-employee company based in Richfield is the fulfillment of a dream Mercurio has had since he came to work at National Interstate in 1997.

“Within the first year of being employed, I thought I could do big things,” he says. “I would write down on my to-do list to become the CEO at National Interstate.”

Proving ground

One of the best opportunities to prepare for his new role came about when Mercurio became CEO at Vanliner Insurance Co., a St. Louis-based company that National Interstate bought in 2011.

“I got all of the autonomy that comes with a CEO role,” Mercurio says. “I had to make all the decisions that a CEO makes. It was an opportunity to learn how to be a CEO.”

So what is the difference between being a COO and a CEO? For Mercurio, it comes down to where your focus is directed.

“As CEO, you have to spend more time on vision and what this company will look like in five years,” Mercurio says. “What do we have to do now to prepare? As the COO, you’re really working in a strategy role. You have to worry about what the results are today, what the results are going to be two years from now and how you get there.

“As the CEO, you have a bigger role working on things like acquisitions and the long-term vision of the organization. The level of activity on the human resources front goes up in a big way for the CEO.”

Effective succession planning that allows for a seamless transition of roles and responsibilities comes down to the commitment you’re willing to make to do it right.

“You need to be willing to take time and make it a regular part of the process through a set of succession planning meetings,” he says. “We get our senior management team together two times a year and have an all-day succession planning forum where each senior executive is going through their organizational chart and where the chart needs attention or where we have good backup plans. Plans are initiatives to get people ready for key roles. We challenge each other.”

Off and running

The commercial auto insurance industry has been a challenging one in recent years as the severity of losses has gone up.

“We want to continue to improve our loss ratio,” Mercurio says. “As a CEO, you have to have a list. The list has to be a relatively small list of big items and you do your best to influence the outcome on those items.”

Whatever issues he takes on, Mercurio says he’ll be tackling them with his team right at his side.

“We bring a lot of different personalities to the table, but we have the same cause and the same mission,” he says. “There is a sense of selflessness. If all the players do their assignment on each play, you’ll achieve the desired outcome.”