Kellogg World Alumni Magazine Spring 2006Kellogg School of Management
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Theory: A delicate balance of self-confidence and humility defines true leaders
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Alumni Profile: Tom Wilson '80
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  Thomas Wilson '80

Alumni Profile: Thomas Wilson '80

Slow-growth shake up
People-first policy lets Allstate COO Wilson keep pace with hurricane-force challenges and drive innovation in staid insurance arena

By Kari Richardson

As an executive at a longstanding firm in the conservative insurance industry, it might be relatively easy for Thomas Wilson '80 to embrace the status quo.

But Wilson, who is president and COO of The Allstate Corporation, is a self-described change artist whose career has spanned investment banking, operations and senior management, to name a few. He's not one to neglect personal development or to let things grow stagnant at the company he helps run.

"If you are not growing and changing as an individual, you cannot expect your business to change," the Kellogg School alum says. "And I thrive on change."

Wilson joined Allstate more than a decade ago, beginning as its chief financial officer and, ultimately, going on to serve as the firm's president and COO. His current job includes responsibility for all the company's insurance operations and comes with a mission defined by Wilson himself: to prove that a giant with $35 billion in revenue and an 11 percent market share in automobile and home insurance can innovate much the way startups do.

"I don't believe that just because you are in what many regard as a slow-growth category you have to be a slow-growth business," he says, citing Allstate's new breed of auto insurance. "Gold" and "platinum" levels offer customers new options, such as the ability to drop their deductible if they go accident-free for a certain period.

Wilson's penchant for leading change will no doubt be tested as insurance executives and government leaders ponder life after a year of hurricane devastation in 2005. Wilson is well aware that many scientists and environmentalists say changing climate conditions are to blame for greater numbers of cataclysmic weather events.  Indeed, eight of the 11 most expensive natural disasters occurred within the last four years, according to insurance industry data.

At minimum, the world is in a 20- to 30-year cycle of more frequent and severe hurricanes, Wilson says. Adding to the dilemma for insurance executives is the fact that home values have spiraled upward and that many people choose to live where they are vulnerable to such disasters as earthquakes and hurricanes.

"We lost a lot of money on hurricanes last year," the Allstate president says, adding that privately funded state and national government catastrophe funds must be established to provide more protection at lower costs for consumers. "We still made money, but we cannot continue to shoulder these kinds of losses. Consumers need to be better prepared and more protected."

Since assuming his current role, Wilson has perhaps worked hardest to strengthen relationships inside the company and out. Three and a half years ago, relations with agency owners who sell the company's products were at an all-time low and there were calls to unionize.

Today, Wilson says, a self-survey of agency owners ranks relations with Allstate at an all-time high. What's more, he says, those positive feelings have resulted in an expansion of licensed sales professionals in agency offices.

Echoing his "people first" theme, Wilson has directed additional resources toward developing and training employees and strengthening relationships within the community. He's also increased funding for The Allstate Foundation from $6 million to $18 million — dollars that flow into the community from some of the 2,000 agency owners with hands in the community.

Much of the giving, he says, is directed to programs that promote teen driving safety, empower victims of domestic violence and address other community issues.

"People are the most important asset we have," Wilson says. "In our business, we have people and money, some buildings that we lease and a bunch of computers. It is the people who will drive our success."

That lesson harkens back to Wilson's days at the Kellogg School, where projects in celebrated professor L.G. Lavengood's class were just some of the tasks that taught him that "people, personality and personal objectives can help you achieve your results."

"One of the reasons I was attracted to the Kellogg School," he says, "is that I saw professors thinking about business in a broader sense. They included the skill of successfully interacting with people, which is something I valued — and still value — a lot."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University