Alan Jay Kaufman, chairman, president and CEO, Burns & Wilcox
Nobody in Alan Jay Kaufman’s field is looking for the insurance industry to develop the same professional glamour appeal as a movie star, professional athlete or international spy — but they are looking to get on the same recruitment footing with banking, finance and just about any other area of business.
The insurance industry is fighting that kind of an uphill battle. It’s primarily because college students, in many cases, don’t view insurance as an appealing career choice, which hinders the recruiting efforts of firms such as Burns & Wilcox, a 1,000-employee insurance brokerage, which Kaufman leads as chairman, president and CEO.
“The effort from our industry to go to universities looking for the best and brightest isn’t there,” Kaufman says. “It’s also not a profession that universities are encouraging people to go into. They think about banking, finance, marketing but not insurance. It’s not emphasized as a great opportunity or a great career.”
But without attracting, training and retaining great talent, a business in any field can’t hope to flourish. So Kaufman and his staff must swim against the recruiting current, challenge the preconceived notions about life in the insurance business and give bright, talented people reasons to want to come to work at Burns & Wilcox.
“That’s my biggest challenge,” Kaufman says. “We need to acquire the best and brightest talent that can take the company from one good level to the next higher level. And after you’ve acquired them, after you’ve trained them, you face the issue of retention. How do you retain the best talent you have so that you can continue to improve your team?”
It has required Kaufman to help spearhead recruitment efforts and formalize training programs, all with an eye toward making Burns & Wilcox not just an attractive place to work but an ideal place to build a career.
Find your selling points
To understand how your company can best appeal to potential employees, you have to understand what sets your company apart from the competition. You have to know what you can uniquely offer to the people you recruit.
If you are aiming to hire young talent, as is the case at Burns & Wilcox, you have to develop programs and facilitate opportunities that appeal to recent college graduates who are mobile, both in a geographic sense and corporate-ladder sense. Young employees value career advancement, and many of them also value the opportunity to live in different areas of the country and world before settling down.
It’s something Kaufman and his HR staff have carefully considered as they have built their company’s recruitment and training programs.
“The recruits we’ve brought in have been impressed with our training, that we have a course that helps them get their careers off the ground,” Kaufman says. “We can move them around to different regions. They can spend some time here in our corporate headquarters in Michigan, and we can move them to different offices where we have training programs operating. They can understand how the office in Atlanta works versus the office in Dallas or Los Angeles.”
Not every office in the Burns & Wilcox system is set up for training but enough are equipped with training staff and capabilities so that a newly recruited employee has an opportunity to experience living in different cities and learn about the work environment in various company offices.
Kaufman and his team have developed the company’s recruitment and training platform, in part, by observing the competition and analyzing the holes that competitors weren’t filling in the recruitment game.
“We don’t necessarily react to what the competition is doing, but we do certainly pay attention to it,” Kaufman says. “We’ve realized, for example, that our competition has been more focused on compensation, as opposed to training and career advancement.
“I believe that the right leaders are going to realize that compensation is important, but training and providing promotion opportunities is more important to career advancement. We do meet the competition as far as compensation is concerned, so I’m not trying to undermine the fact that compensation is important, but the education and training aspect is critical.
“I’d like to see more of our competitors in the industry implement some programs for advanced training. It would be better for us and better for the industry. I consider it a weapon in our arsenal, but it’s not a secret weapon.”
Build a training program
To sell recruits on your company’s ability to advance their careers, you must develop a comprehensive and formalized training program that lays out a process for how your company can help its employees achieve their career goals.
At Burns & Wilcox, the company formalized its training program under the acronym KELP — the Kaufman Emerging Leadership Program, which is administered by Burns & Wilcox’s parent company, Kaufman Financial Group.
“We formalized the program to a greater degree by actually hiring a recruiter internally, just for university graduates, just for the program,” Kaufman says. “We have one person on staff who is devoted to that. That’s all she does. We’re constantly trying to improve our formal approach through the KELP program and other programs that we have. That’s one way we have of searching for the best talent — and I emphasize ‘best,’ because it’s not just a matter of hiring people. We need people who fit the insurance culture, who will embody the best aspects of our company.”
Employees in the KELP program have usually graduated college within the previous five years. The three-year program is selective, with approximately 30 people gaining admission each year.
“We hire many people with the hope that they’ll get into the program, because it’s not guaranteed that they’ll get entrance into the program,” Kaufman says. “We first hire them, then after a period of time — maybe six months to a year working for us — they can potentially get entry into the program.”
But the size of a training program is less important than its quality, measured in the success rate of its graduates. A successful training program is usually successful because the leadership of the company committed resources to it and made it an organizationwide priority.
To build great leaders, they need to be taught by great teachers who understand the principles of effective leadership and how those principles fit into your company’s culture.
“It certainly has to start off with the right leadership in the training program, and the company has to put that on the list of priorities,” Kaufman says. “You can’t have an internal program without the support of the senior executives and management, which is why we always try to involve the best leaders in our company in the implementation of the training program.
“For two weeks, we bring our best leaders into the program, people who work in various disciplines throughout the company — whether it be underwriting, brokerage, property, professional liability or any other area. Without the support of those people, the program wouldn’t be successful, and the company wouldn’t be as successful.
“If you look at the people in our company, the people who have historically been the most successful are the people we have trained.”
And that training has to be open to all areas of the company. You might have certain departments that you view as more essential to your company’s success than others, but the next great leader could emerge from a department that’s on the edge of your radar screen.
“Open your training to people in every area,” Kaufman says. “Our training program also includes assistant underwriters and other people through all levels of the company. It’s across the board because you can’t just train certain individuals. You need to have a macro approach. And that goes back to having someone on staff who is entirely devoted to training on an ongoing basis.”
Consider other factors
Your recruiting efforts can get talented employees in the door, and your training programs and compensation packages can get them to accept the job. But once you have them, how do you keep them? That is a question with a multipart answer that involves additional factors, including the work environment, networking opportunities and the way in which the job contributes to — or detracts from — quality of life.
“There is not a magic formula, but those items are all part of the formula,” Kaufman says. “How you balance it and mix it is an ongoing process. It’s never perfectly right, so you just have to keep looking at the ingredients.”
It’s why Kaufman makes it a point to personally keep his finger on the recruiting pulse of Burns & Wilcox. He empowers his HR staff to do their jobs but remains in tune with the company’s ongoing recruiting efforts.
“I participate in recruitment and the interviewing process,” he says. “I interview hundreds of people a year and certainly anyone on the management level. And I expect that standard of other people in our regional offices. You need to maintain a strong leadership team that works together and comes to a consensus on what to do. You want a consistent approach.”
How to reach: Burns & Wilcox, (248) 932-9000 or www.burnsandwilcox.com
The Kaufman file
Alan Jay Kaufman
chairman, president and CEO
Burns & Wilcox
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned? The lesson I learned from my father (Kaufman Financial Group founder Herbert W. Kaufman) about his door being open to anybody. You didn’t have to go through different layers to get to him. That is the way I am, and I encourage my executives to be the same way. If you want to know something, you have to go right to the source, and with our management style, you can talk to anyone in the company — and our employees do that. Regardless of your size, you want your company to keep that part of the culture, keep that feeling that people can talk to anyone.
What traits or skills are essential for a leader? Humility, honesty and hard work. That, and you have to lead by example. I can’t expect someone else to work hard if I’m not working hard. I set the pace for everyone, and I expect, from my level on down, to keep that pace. As an example, I expect everybody — clients, insurance brokers, agents — to understand our history and what we’re selling.
What is your definition of success? The quality of the team around you. The better the team you have, the more it will be able to carry you through thick and thin. A company isn’t one or two people; it’s the total team. A great team leads to success — it’s true in business, it’s true in government, just as it is in athletics.
Sell recruits on your company.
Build a strong recruitment strategy.
Formalize your training program.