David O'Maley grows Ohio National Financial Services Inc Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

When David B. O’Maley joined Ohio National Financial Services Inc. 15 years ago, the company was viewed as a regional enterprise in an industry that hadn’t seen a lot of growth.

“The challenge became one of achieving a reasonable enough scale and financial dimension to be considered an enterprise that could survive for the long term,” says the chairman, president and CEO. “The forces that were at play caused us to think differently about where the company needed to be in order to remain a viable independent enterprise over the longer term.”

And that wasn’t easy for a company that was already more than 80 years old at that point. Now, as the insurance and financial services company celebrates its 100th anniversary, O’Maley says it is better positioned for the future, including the economic challenges the industry has faced in recent years.

“The challenge for us was how to reassess the company and recraft it so that it could achieve growth sufficient enough to let all of those things happen,” he says.

The solution was a new vision that would help keep the company focused and invite feedback from its 850 employees.

Set a vision

O’Maley’s first step was to develop a vision that positioned the company for future growth and that the management team could accept and embrace.

“If you don’t have a sense of where you want to go, you’re liable to end up somewhere else,” he says. “We started with setting forth and trying to articulate a vision (that) was clear and understandable and upon which we could build some strategies that were growth-focused.”

He had an off-site meeting with a group of senior managers to talk about the company’s current position, its strengths and weaknesses, and the environment it was operating in.

O’Maley says you have to be open during that process and be willing to admit that you’re not great at everything.

“You do a hard self-examination and lay it out through a matrix process, talking about characteristics and self-evaluate,” he says. “There are some things we do well, and some we’re not good at. You do a strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis and separate those into tiers.”

While O’Maley says the SWOT process can be tedious, you come out of it with a vision that is clear, actionable and consistent.

“Our vision acknowledges that we can’t do everything,” he says. “The SWOT helped us examine what we do well and how we can do it better while reminding us of the areas where we have room for improvement.”

Once the vision was developed, O’Maley set out to communicate it to employees, which he says was a labor-intensive process. He tried to keep a sense of transparency when communicating the vision, from starting the process by including senior management down to giving employees opportunity for input.

“You have to have lots of sessions where you give people an opportunity to talk about the business and the company, marketplace and share back and forth so there is a real understanding communicated,” he says.

He discussed the vision in officer meetings and used an outside consultant to meet with all employees in small group sessions to give them an opportunity to be participants in the process.

“This gave everyone a chance to be involved, express themselves and gain an understanding through the communication process,” O’Maley says. “It took a lot of time and effort, but it paid off well.”

The vision statement has been revised twice since the original one was written in 1994 to accommodate changes at the company. When a new vision was developed in 2005, O’Maley had a special meeting where the primary focus was how Ohio National could build a culture of value and performance into its second century of business.

“The relationship with our associates is so important that it’s part of the vision; we want to make it clear,” he says. “The vision says, ‘Build strong business relationships with our sales, home office and distribution associates, recognizing that our mutual success is inseparable, and promote an environment which encourages excellence in performance and results.’”

O’Maley says the vision development process at Ohio National was successful because it was specific to the company. You need to find a process that will work best for your company and employees.

“Those processes were both organized and deliberate, and while there are definitely some object lessons that others could take from our model, each organization is so different,” he says. “There is no one, single strategy that works for everyone. Each organization has to develop its own unique positioning. There’s no cookie-cutter approach that will work.”

Stay focused

One of the keys to growth is staying focused on the vision you create and what you do best as a company.

“We need to stay committed to our strategy and not try to be all things to all people, and take our strengths and exploit them effectively,” he says. “It’s better that we tell you we’re unable to address your need than take on something that we can’t handle and isn’t in our scope of the business. We’re very good in businesses we’re in and successful in staying out of the businesses that are not consistent with our strengths.

“There are companies that are successful and have built tremendous brand recognition but blew it by venturing off into some exotic area that’s not within their framework.”

Use your vision to stay focused. It involves continually questioning yourself before you take any action. Ask yourself if the action is consistent with your vision, strategy and value system and if it’s going to move you forward or will eventually move you further away from the strategy.

O’Maley says there are times when you will be tempted to step outside the box and try something new. There have been several times when he has been approached to develop a product for a client, but in the end, it wouldn’t have been consistent with Ohio National’s core strategy.

“If we don’t do it well, we won’t be serving anybody well,” he says.

Mistakes can be made if you try to step outside what you do best and venture down a different road.

“You can’t do everything,” O’Maley says. “What you want to do is do what you know how to do best and do it well. That is part and parcel of focusing on your strategy.”

Having a good vision in place to start with makes it easier to stay focused in the long run.

“When you have a clear, simply stated vision in place, it enables you to stay focused and execute day after day, week after week and year after year,” he says.

Connect with employees

When it comes to growth, O’Maley isn’t shy to seek out employee feedback and advice and use it in developing new ideas.

Early on he developed the “Hey David” card. He invited any employee to write him with ideas, concerns or complaints that he or she may have.

“My commitment was that if you wrote me and signed your name, I would get back to you, and I answered every one,” O’Maley says.

He says people were hesitant at first to open up to him. He talked about the card every chance he got, but even with all the discussions, people were still leery about sharing.

“A fe

w people will try it out, and there are a couple of things you have to do,” he says. “You have to reply back. You have to respect their concerns that they might have — that they might be going over their supervisor’s head, they might be raising an issue that management doesn’t want to hear about, and they need to feel comfortable that there’s no negative backlash that comes their way as a result of opening up and sharing.”

Most of O’Maley’s follow-up was on the phone or through written communication, but occasionally he went out and met with the employee in person. Later on, as e-mail started to become more popular, he started following up with e-mails. It doesn’t matter which way you follow up though; it’s just important that you do it.

“Opening the discussion is a big pro for communication, but if you don’t close the circle and follow back up with associates, you undo all the good,” O’Maley says. “You have to be frank and timely. By doing so and being straightforward, we’ve been able to execute on associate ideas and have delivered with programs.”

If O’Maley receives a question that he is unable to answer, he copies a member of the management team on the response to the associate and lets them know that this person would be better able to help him or her with the concern.

As more people started sharing and realizing that O’Maley was paying attention to them, more and more employees were willing to come forward with comments or ideas. This helped build trust between management and employees.

One example of where an employee suggestion made a difference was in Ohio National’s on-site café. Employees receive a 10 percent discount if they use their ID badge debit card. When the price of gas went up over the summer, O’Maley decided to increase the employee discount from 10 to 30 percent. If employees went out to eat lunch, they would be spending more on the meal and gas than if they decided to eat in the cafeteria because of the higher discount.

“It was well received,” he says. “It showed that management was thinking about them as much as management was thinking about the business.”

You need to remain open in order to build that trust and always deliver on your promises.

“Don’t promise things until you’re pretty confident you can deliver them,” O’Maley says. “If you treat people that way, it will come back. Then it just takes time. Trust is not something you get in a week or with a speech or a single event, it just takes time.”

O’Maley has certainly accomplished what he set out to do 15 years ago. The company has been in the 11 to 14 percent range for growth in metrics such as assets, revenue, earnings, capital and equity during that time period. It recently posted 2008 total GAAP revenue of $1.24 billion, an increase of 5.5 percent from 2007.

He says to keep the business focused and on course, it’s important to view your role as more of a teacher instead of a dictator.

“Together we can accomplish the things we set out to do,” O’Maley says. “I see myself as not just the leader who helps set the vision but also as a teacher who guides and directs our associates and stakeholders through the process.”

How to reach: Ohio National Financial Services Inc., (513) 794-6100 or www.ohionational.com