Ironman Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

James J. “Jamie” Maguire Jr. is a man who has spent his life running. Running toward the next horizon. Running toward the next goal. Running for fun. Running for achievement. But always running.

A need for constant motion is what drives him to compete in triathlons, including two Ironman World Championship competitions. It’s what has helped fuel his climb to the top post of the Philadelphia Insurance Cos., a $1.25 billion specialty insurance provider with locations in 41 cities nationwide.

But everything — the triathlons, the business life, all the running — nearly came crashing down around him during a morning work-out in 2001.

While bicycling in the street, Maguire was hit by a car. He broke his neck, his jaw, both kneecaps and a hand. He spent six months rehabilitating.

“Just when you think everything is fine, that’s when you should worry the most,” Maguire says. “That’s generally when the rug gets pulled out from under you, when you think everything is fine and there won’t be any issues.”

At that point, Maguire’s life wasn’t about running. He says it was about climbing, about rebounding, about forming a determination to come back stronger than ever, both as a triathlete and as a businessman.

These are the business lessons he learned along the way.

Long-range vision

The Ironman World Championship is held each fall in Kailua-Kona, on Hawaii’s Big Island, and it might be the most grueling endurance test in all of sports.

Participants must swim 2.4 miles through Kailua-Kona Bay, bike 112 miles across fields of lava rock, and then they run a marathon-length race along the island’s coast.

You can’t possibly complete the race, Maguire says, without looking ahead, knowing your strengths and knowing how hard you can push yourself. You need the same sense of what lies ahead in the world of business, too.

“There are a lot of similarities between the Ironman and the business world,” he says. “The same characteristics, the same traits that are needed to successfully complete an Ironman are needed to successfully compete in business.

“You have to persevere in the Ironman, you have to persevere in business. You have to be disciplined in your training for the Ironman, and you have to be disciplined in business. You have to have fun in the Ironman, even though it’s a lot of work and suffering, and you have to have fun in business.”

When Maguire took over at Philadelphia Insurance Cos., first as president in 1999 and then as CEO in 2002, he wanted to focus on managing the company’s long-term growth, which he felt was essential to perpetuating its success.

Maguire sat down with his senior management and identified three areas he felt were essential to the long-term health of a business.

First, he wanted to manage his company’s growth. Second, he wanted to improve its technology platform. Third, he wanted to perpetuate the culture.

He says a big part of managing growth is to have the right people on the job. Just as a triathlete must be fanatical about training and preparation, a business leader must be fanatical about research, preparation and finding people who share that fanaticism.

Maguire tries to find those kinds of initiative-takers among his company’s ranks.

“We get opportunities thrown at us all the time,” Maguire says. “We get them from our independent agents, from our employees, from our insurance partners. We have a products committee that consists of a variety of different members, who look at all the opportunities on a regular basis. A lot of research is done into the products to determine whether or not they make sense.”

When it comes to research, Maguire says the best perspective is the one you probably haven’t heard yet, so he goes out of his way to bring together employees from different levels of the organization when researching a growth opportunity.

“In the insurance business, sometimes you don’t know if you have a problem for 12 or 15 months after you launch a product,” he says. “Only after the losses start coming in will you find out if it was a good decision. So before getting into a new product, you want to make sure you do your homework, you get as many different opinions and perspectives as possible. Then, based on everything you hear, all the information you garner, make the decision.”

Another stated goal of Maguire is to create a system that allows employees to get work-related information anywhere at any time. Again, the importance of looking ahead and preparing for the future became evident to Maguire as he led his company away from its legacy information systems that had been in place for years, and toward an entirely Web-based client data system that could be accessed by associates all around the country.

It was an important step because the new system could be scaled as his company grows. Maguire says if your company is growing, you need to be able to see your company not just as it is, but also as it could be with continued growth. Then, you must put in place systems and procedures that can grow with your company.

“I realized that, with 41 offices, we needed the kind of performance across our network that is good not only for 1,300 employees right now, but for 5,000 employees as we grow,” he says.

Perpetuating the culture

Maguire says he caught the triathlon bug about 15 years ago. Growing up, he was always active in sports, playing football and tennis in high school. He swam as a child, took bike trips around the country with his family and took up distance running after graduating from college.

At one point, he decided to put it all together. “I had run a number of marathons and had tried my hand at my first Olympic-distance triathlon in Chicago,” he says. “That’s probably when I caught the bug.”

As Maguire got more involved in endurance competitions, he says he began to see parallels between the culture that exists around triathlons and the culture that exists in successful businesses.

Both value perseverance, dedication, a drive to succeed and a desire for continuous improvement.

In other words, the characteristics Maguire wants to exemplify when training for a triathlon are the same characteristics he wants to see throughout his work force.

Maguire says the only way you can teach your employees to display the cultural characteristics of your company is if you set the example first, then reward employees who carry the torch and perpetuate your culture.

He says it all comes back to a single principle: You must communicate thoroughly, transparently and often.

Before they know the culture, employees have to know you. “I go to all of the offices and visit with employees,” he says. “They get a sense of who I am, and that really translates into what the company is. I have town-hall meetings on a quarterly basis where I give a state of the state in terms of where the company is, then I take questions and give answers to employees in an open forum. It’s an interactive process.”

He says finding the time to get out and visit your field offices is a matter of prioritizing. You have to make up your mind that in-person engagement of employees is important and put it on your schedule ahead of other tasks.

“Staying in touch with our employees is the lifeblood of our organization,” says Maguire. “I’d say I spend 40 percent of my time communicating with employees. There are a lot of demands on my time and the time of senior management. But I think it’s important to not lose touch with what has made us great and hearing the issues and concerns of our employees.”

But, even if you are the world’s greatest corporate communicator, chances are you won’t be able to become a corporate version of the mythological Greek god Atlas and lift the task of building and maintaining your culture entirely onto your shoulders.

At Philadelphia Insurance Cos., Maguire gets a large communication assist from the people he calls “culture carriers.” They are the employees who have been in the company for 15 years or more and are thoroughly indoctrinated in what the company is all about.

He says your culture carriers are probably your managers and executives, and all the hours they’ve spent learning and internalizing your company’s culture can bring you benefits that are worth reaping.

“It’s through (the culture carriers) that I really try to perpetuate the culture and have them reward newer employees for embracing and carrying out our culture.”

Maguire says a culture is the product of a company’s people, not the other way around.

In much the same way that a triathlon course would be nothing but pretty scenery if no one was there to run, bike or swim through it, Maguire says a culture is nothing but a set of abstract principles if people aren’t there to live it.

Your employees are going to be the ones to bring your culture to life, and as such, they need to be encouraged for the work they do in maintaining the culture.

Maguire rewards employees with spot bonuses, a reward points program and company-logo merchandise. But, as in endurance races, Maguire says the true value of a reward isn’t in the item handed out. It’s in the acknowledgement of an accomplishment.

“Employees like notoriety,” he says. “They like to have their co-workers see that they’ve done a good job; that they’re valued by the company. A lot of times, money doesn’t do that.

“It’s almost like a paternal or maternal relationship. It’s not enough just to be given breakfast, lunch and dinner. You have to have that intangible — that caring to help you feel like you are an important and meaningful part of the company.”

Hanging tough

A year after his bicycle accident, Maguire competed in a triathlon. Two years later, he competed in his first Ironman championship in Hawaii. He competed in his second Ironman last year.

If his accident taught him to be aware of the possibility of getting struck down when you’re at your zenith, it also taught him that no hole is too deep to climb out of.

Six months of painful rehabilitation helped Maguire become a more dedicated triathlete and a more dedicated businessman.

After he went through it, he says he knew what type of adversity he was capable of facing and overcoming.

“It took a lot of work and discipline and effort to recuperate from my injuries and get myself back into shape,” he says. “But it taught me that no matter how down you are, you can always come back. As bad as things may seem, they really aren’t that bad if you apply yourself, work hard and persevere through the situation.”

HOW TO REACH: Philadelphia Insurance Cos., www.phly.com