When the phone rings in the Crisis Management Operation Center within Aon Corp.’s headquarters in Chicago, it’s typically not someone calling with good news or to say, “Have a nice day.” Chances are the caller is someone having a bad day, someone who ran into trouble while traveling abroad, someone in a crisis situation who needs help. The call is answered by a member of a unique crisis team that is staffed entirely by veterans, several of them wounded warriors. These insurance warriors include Michael Kiewski, Chad Watson and Yesenia Ortiz. They, and all the members of the crisis center operation, are U.S. military veterans with expertise in intelligence and tactical planning and real experience working under pressure.
Kiewski, Watson and Ortiz bring the same core values they learned in the military to their new insurance jobs, including an awareness that when something needs to be done, it needs to be done right away and done right the first time. There’s no time for errors or excuses.
This 24/7 crisis center is part of a platform Aon launched last year called WorldAware, a program based in the United Kingdom that among other things tracks global travel hotspots, kidnap and ransom activity, and even merchant ships that may be subject to piracy. Its services are expanding.
As one of their assignments, the Chicago veterans advise and protect corporate executives and employees traveling abroad. They supply clients with risk assessments of locations they are planning to travel to and make recommendations regarding the trips.
“Then when the individual travels to that particular country we will track them the whole time they’re there and if they do have a personal crisis, they fall and break a leg, they lose a passport, they miss connections, we jump into action immediately and work with them to get them out of harm’s way if necessary and, most likely, get them connected with the local consulate or police departments or other security groups that will assist them in their time of need,” according to David Dahler, director of human resources for Aon Corp.
“It gets a lot more, let’s say risky, when the travel is to other parts of the world. The Middle East is a good example. We have clients who need to travel to some of these countries to do business. We will assess the risk and even if it’s a very high risk we’ll make that recommendation but if they do end up traveling, we will absolutely track them.”
Dahler cited last year’s riots in Cairo as an example. “At that time we contacted every single one of our clients who were in Egypt at the time and we directed them out of harm’s way so that they would be safe. Someone blows themselves up in a market area in a city, we can immediately jump into action and, again, take those people out of harm’s way and make sure they’re all safe. We notify their companies, their families, and then work with them directly to get them to safety,” he told Insurance Journal.
The people who run the WorldAware program in the UK are themselves veterans of special forces who, Dahler said, recognized the need for military-like expertise in the Chicago-based operations center as well.
“They identified immediately that a military background is the perfect background for manning the crisis operations center. These guys have been there. They’ve had bullets flying over their head and they’ve seen roadside bombs explode, etc. So when these kinds of events occur they don’t panic at all. They know exactly what to do and they do it quickly and they do it efficiently so that the traveler is immediately taken out of harm’s way,” the HR executive said.
“Every member of the staff in WorldAware is basically a veteran and five of the staff are alumni from the Wounded Warrior Project. It’s probably one of the most incredible groups of people we have in our entire organization.”
Kiewski, the director of the crisis operations center, is a 22-year veteran of the Air Force. He served 16 years on active duty and then with the Michigan National Guard. He has served all around the world in seven different campaigns in law enforcement operations and crisis management. After he came off of active duty in 2008, Kwieski took a job working for the Navy in a civilian capacity, managing a regional operational center. That contract was expiring when he learned through the Wounded Warrior Project about Aon’s desire to set up a crisis operations center. He contacted Dahler, was interviewed, and then hired as the director for the new center. He has since helped recruit others through the Wounded Warrior Project.
Watson came to Aon after serving five years in the Marine Corps. His biggest deployment was to Fallujah, Iraq in 2006. While there, in November, 2006, he was hit by an IED (improvised explosive device) and lost his right leg above the knee. He then spent the next 17 months in Walter Reed Army hospital. He also served with the intelligence agency while he was still in the Marine Corps. When he came home, he began working for the Wounded Warrior Project in Chicago as the Midwest outreach coordinator for six states. That’s when he first met Aon and Dahler and learned about the firm’s interest in hiring veterans. Two years later he heard about the WorldAware program and decided he wanted to become part of it.
Ortiz started in the United States Army, where she served four years active duty as a counter-terrorism intelligence analyst and a security manager. She is currently a reservist out of Fort Sheridan. Ortiz learned about the Aon opportunity through a fellow naval intelligence officer who now also works at the crisis center.
According to Kwieski, because not all customers have the same level of experience with international travel, some of the issues the team deals with may seem more important than others but the team takes every call seriously.
“We could be looking at a lost passport. That could be a crisis to you, whereas to me, it really wouldn’t bother me. But we treat every call the same, as they come in, with the same urgency and care as if it was a medical emergency. We look to stay with that individual until we resolve that crisis, no matter what it could be,” said Kwieski.
The call could be about something as simple as lost luggage or as serious as a medical emergency. “If an individual falls off a platform, hurts himself severely, and they need to be medically evacuated, we have the resources to do that,” he said.
Kwieski is proud of his all-military team.
“We are 100 percent manned by United States veterans representing all branches of the military. I believe we have approximately 140 years combined experience. We represent law enforcement operations, crisis operations, emergency management, Army intelligence, Naval intelligence and combat field operations. So we have a great skill set that we have learned and accumulated over the years. And now we’re bringing it into one group combined,” he said.
Even though the team members have come out of different branches of the military, their “core values are the same,” Kwieski said.
That’s also how Watson experiences it. “We all understand each other. We all come from the same background. We know that when something snaps at us, it’s meant to be done with a sense of urgency,” Watson told Insurance Journal.
“When something needs to be done, it doesn’t need to be done tomorrow; it needs to be done right now. That’s not a problem with our team because they all understand that.”
“It needs to be done right the first time that you do it,” said Kiewski, finishing Watson’s thought.
In addition to these core values, the veterans believe the skills they honed in military intelligence, planning and operations transfer well into their new environment.
Watson points to their attention to detail as an example. “We want to please our customers and clients. We want to get things done as rapidly as possible. But they need to be accurate, because if they’re not accurate, if we give the wrong coordinates to somebody, that person is not going to get the help that they need at the location that they need it, when they need it.”
In addition to this attention to detail, Watson thinks the veterans in the operations center share a personality trait. “They’re not all wounded warriors but at the same time, they’re all veterans, and they’re all driven to succeed and they want be the best at their job. There’s not a single person in there who is just very lackadaisical about something. They strive to be the best,” Watson said.
Dahler said the team members not only work well together but also with others and the team makes a tremendous impression on clients.
“These guys make presentations all the time to clients, and prospects and our biggest and our best clients,” said Dahler. “When they meet this team, partly because of their military experience and partly just because of their outright professionalism, there’s instant respect and credibility. Once they meet a member of this team, the sale is well on its way. They work well within the military group but they also can communicate and create the value to the clients that is so critical in a program like this.”
Following its launch last March, the Chicago team hired 13 veterans in the first six months. The company actually has a waiting list of disabled vets wanting to be hired for the team.
“We get an unbelievable amount of referrals. We have a number of veteran organizations that are working with us. When they get candidates who have intelligence backgrounds and operations backgrounds and backgrounds that are directly applicable to this particular initiative, we get resumes right away,” Dahler said.
“We think that for this application and many others, these veterans are among the world’s best talent and they recognize our position in the industry as well. It’s almost a perfect marriage, actually. ”
Asked to lend advice to other veterans looking for employment, Watson said he thinks many vets struggle with translating military experience into terms and skills that civilian employers understand.
“I think resumes are the biggest thing. We see lots of them come through here, and learning how or have someone advise you to learn how to express what you bring to the table from your resume,” said Watson.
For example, a veteran might refer to Alpha 11 Charlie or 11 Bravo, or may have held various jobs and even won a Purple Heart. But a civilian employer is wondering, what are these things?
“You have to explain these types of things to them because they don’t understand them. Explain the job in detail, what you did, and how to translate that into the corporate world, private sector,” Watson said.
Kwieski said he thinks all veterans should try to have a mentor, someone in private industry who can help them learn the ropes.
Ortiz advised veterans to be open to new experiences like the corporate sector.
“I would say definitely don’t be discouraged. Just be very confident because everything we absolutely learned in the military, just every single thing can be transferable,” she said. “Just be confident. Be bold… and be very open because there are good things out there. There are good companies like Aon out there to help you out.”
To hear Kiewski, Watson and Ortiz in their own words, click here.
More from P/C Insurance Mission: Military-Friendly Recruiting
Insurance Journal set out to learn more about how the insurance industry is turning to veterans as part of its strategy to win the talent war and how veterans are turning to the insurance industry for new careers. Insurance Journal asked several veterans who have transitioned to careers in the insurance industry to tell how they got into insurance, how their military training has been an advantage and how they made the transition into the private sector.
In the coming days, Insurance Journal will publish stories from a veteran who is now a vice president of underwriting, former soldiers who are now members of a unique global crisis team and a Coast Guard veteran who is now a Main Street independent agent, along with a story about two agents and their dream of building a program to employ disabled veterans in virtual insurance jobs. Watch for: