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Pioneer

Pioneer

A Pet Project

Laura Bennett, FSA, CEO of Embrace Pet Insurance, has given the actuarial world reason to "paws" and take notice. Her company, which provides one–of–a–kind pet insurance, is growing exponentially.
By Sam Phillips

The Actuary recently asked Bennett some questions about her unusual use of actuarial training and how she manages to keep everything on a leash.

Please give an overview of what your company does and why it is different than others in the same field. Embrace Pet Insurance Agency is a technology–enabled direct–to–consumer insurance agency, based in Cleveland, Ohio. We design, market, distribute and service pet health insurance policies for cats and dogs in the United States. We are underwritten by two underwriters at Lloyd's of London to bring both customization and value to pet health insurance.

We differentiate ourselves by our customizable policies, our pet insurance expertise and our open and honest approach to pet insurance. Our customizable products allow "pet parents" to make their own trade–offs between price and coverage to choose a policy that suits their needs best. I am the only full–time pet insurance actuary in America, enabling us to craft and implement a customizable product that is unique in the market. Pet parents are looking for a knowledgeable and trustworthy company, staffed by people just like them, to provide a pet insurance product that gives them exactly what they need; we provide exactly that through our product design, Web site presence, CEO blog and Customer Care "Embracers."

What part of a start–up business is the most satisfying and/or challenging? The thrill of creating something from nothing is incredibly satisfying and equally challenging. The first time I came up with dog and cat morbidity tables based on adjusted veterinary data and used them to price a policy, I nearly fell off my chair–the premiums actually seemed within reason! Now we have a sophisticated educational and e–commerce Web site, seven employees, and we sell policies in our sleep. You've got to love that.

What has been your biggest challenge/most memorable achievement on the job? It took us over two years from being introduced to our lead Lloyd's syndicate to selling our first policy, which drove me and my business partner, Alex, completely mad. Our timetable was clearly different than theirs, but we made it through the due diligence, product redesign and paperwork in one piece, and I managed to have two babies during that time. I'm glad I didn't know how long it was going to take before I started, but we made good use of our time in the meantime.

How do you personally measure success? To what do you attribute your success? How does your background as an actuary figure into the equation? It's such a cliché to say it, but making a difference in other people's lives is how I measure success. Having someone notice something I did or I helped create is pretty satisfying. Being an actuary allows me to do something totally unique that directly affects pet parents and their pets, our investors, our staff and northeast Ohio.

Describe a great day on the job.

  • 6 a.m.–wakey, wakey.
  • 7 a.m.–one–hour grueling workout (if I'm lucky, I get this in twice a week).
  • 8:15 a.m.–get into work.

After checking our overnight policy sales, e–mail and my to–do list, I could be doing any number of things. Generally, it's some combination of the following activities:

  • Check in with our call center (our Embracers as we fondly call them) and see what callers are talking about recently, what interesting questions are coming up, brainstorm some finer points about our policies and poke my nose in at our office hamster who keeps the call center honest.
  • Phone calls with any of our potential investors (I like to hear "yes" but even if I get a "no," I know the next "yes" is around the corner), current investors, Lloyd's underwriters or advisors or board members. I might be interviewed by a journalist or network with potential marketing partners. As a bonus, I call some recent policy–holders on the weekend, thanking them for buying an Embrace policy and generally chatting about pet insurance. I love those calls.
  • Ongoing banter with the management team (we share an open area) about the latest marketing campaigns, pet trends, the funny things our kids are doing these days.
  • Breakfast or lunch meetings with potential investors (my current focus).
  • Meeting with my claims manager to discuss high payout claims or unusual situations, or with my new part–time CFO to discuss our finances or our new accounting package.
  • Fuel: a sandwich, apple and two high– intensity coffees, maybe a pot of decaf Earl Grey tea and probably more than a handful of chocolate–covered raisins.
  • Avoid: formal meetings–and since I'm the boss, I pretty well get my way with that!
  • 5:15p.m.–leave the office to pick up my two girls (age 18 months and 3.5 years) from day care, feed them, eat and chat with my husband, put the girls to bed by 8 p.m., then work until midnight, writing blog entries, chit– chatting with my team via e–mail (yes, most check e–mail in the evening; some work nights with me too), scanning what's going on in the world (using my RSS reader and Google Alerts mostly), or tweaking forecasts, our policy wording or anything else that needs my attention.

A great day would include selling a record number of policies, raising a million dollars (or a few hundred thousand), securing a key partnership and getting an article about Embrace in The New York Times–not all of that happens on any one day though.

How has your background as an actuary positively impacted your career? Being an actuary has given me a core set of skills that can be used in any position: a focus on achieving goals; an understanding of how to efficiently process information and make decisions without all the facts; a keen eye on risk management in business.

But of course, I couldn't create a unique pet insurance policy from nothing if I wasn't an actuary; it just wouldn't be possible without the technical actuarial skills I've gained. So yes, being an actuary has been immensely important to where I am now, CEO, of the most innovative pet insurance company in the world.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in business? To never, ever give up on something you really want. There's more than one way to skin a cat (pardon the pun) and plan B, C or D are not shameful, just resourceful. An equally important thing to me is that the smallest kindness without thought for yourself in business goes an incredibly long way and it more often than not brings you benefits you could never have planned for.

What are the three things an actuary should do if he or she wants to start a business?

  1. Find great mentors–pick them because they are engaged in you and for a specific purpose. They can come and go over the years but make the time with them count;
  2. Listen carefully to others, but believe in yourself; put your own ego aside, but don't allow everyone's comments to water down the sparkle you bring to the table;
  3. Don't wait until all your ducks are in a row–they never will be.

What is your favorite hobby? Why? Traveling to off–the–beaten–path places. I just love seeing the world from other perspectives, which visiting other cultures gives you. And I love the beauty of nature, which you see wherever you go. I'm also a "foodie," so food always holds an important place in our travels (some may say the sole focus of our travels).

What are your future plans? To get more sleep. To redefine the pet insurance market in the U.S. and bring pet insurance out from its niche to the everyday world. To grow Embrace into the U.S. market leader (in terms of quality, value to our pet parents, and word of mouth–not necessarily in terms of policies in force) and to give our investors more than they imagined possible. To help my children to become the incredible women they are destined to be. Travel more. Build more new businesses.

Laura Bennett can be reached at: lb@embracepetinsurance.com.

Sam Phillips is associate editor for the Society of Actuaries.