Interview: Public Affairs ‘Ironman’ Kevelighan Takes Helm at I.I.I.

Committing to a few extreme physical fitness events every year keeps Sean Kevelighan honest.

“That, for me, is the incentive to insure that I keep my training going. It’s really good for your health, obviously, mental health and physical health,” says the man with the strength and endurance to compete in Ironman contests and run in marathons.

In his nearly two decades in government and business, Kevelighan has had his public affairs fitness tested in high-profile situations, most notably working for the Treasury Department and as press secretary for the White House Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush. He was also tested as group head of Global Consumer Banking Public Affairs for financial giant Citi during the financial crisis. Most recently he was global head of Public Affairs for Zurich Insurance Group, where he helped set the corporation’s global public policy and corporate responsibility agendas.

Along the way he trained in jobs in legislative affairs on Capitol Hill and public relations at Edelman.

Now he has committed to being the heavyweight spokesperson for the world’s best known public information organization for the insurance industry, the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.). He is taking over as president and CEO from Dr. Robert Hartwig, an economist who served in the post for 18 years and raised the stature and profile of the organization considerably. Hartwig is heading off into academia.

“The search committee screened dozens of high-caliber candidates, but the final vote was unanimous. Sean is an ideal fit for the CEO role due to his success as a media spokesperson in both corporate and government settings, as well as his international insurance industry experience,” Bruce Kelley, president and chief executive officer of EMC Insurance Companies and chairman of the I.I.I.’s board of directors, said in announcing the hiring.

Kevelighan reports directly to the I.I.I.’s board of directors; reporting to him are the executive vice president, chief economist, chief actuary, and chief communications officer.

His Road to the Institute

Kevelighan, who is only 43 years old (he’s not the youngest to lead I.I.I.; Hartwig was 42 when he took the helm) in an industry not known for youth at the top, expects this new adventure to be a marathon-like, sustained run after a career with 12 different public affairs and relations jobs and promotions in 18 years.

He’s lived in Washington, D.C., New York and Zurich and has now moved his family back to New York into a new apartment in the same building they lived in last time they were there.

Sean Kevelighan
Sean Kevelighan

“I think you could parcel out my career in two parts, almost. The first part was a lot of time spent in the Washington D.C. area, primarily. What happens often in Washington, D.C. is you spend your time figuring out all the various elements of what I call the public affairs machine,” he told Insurance Journal in an interview a few weeks before he started his new job.

“You’ve got your government side of it with policymakers and regulators. There’s a business element to it, whether the individual businesses or the trade associations. You’ve also got that ‘relevant expert’ group out there in academia, or think tanks. Then the media is also a big component of it. I spent a lot of time in the first part of my career really trying to understand and work in and work with all those various elements.”

He left Washington, D.C. and moved to New York to work for Zurich, where his focus was on the business side of the “public affairs machine” for the first time, then later at Citi, using the experience he gained in Washington, D.C. and applying it in public affairs in a corporate setting.

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Audio: I.I.I. CEO on Mentors in His Career

When the I.I.I. opportunity came around, it promised to merge several elements he had been working with.

“The uniqueness about the I.I.I. is that it plays into both the business elements, as well that ‘relevant expert’ element. It acts as a trade association, as well as a bit of a think tank, at times. For me, it was a very interesting and distinguished opportunity that I wanted to take a hold of, really get into that public affairs mechanism, but it’s really at the top of the food chain, as well” he said.

There are not too many high-level executives in the property/casualty insurance industry in their early 40s. For Kevelighan, personally, the time is right to hunker down.

“[A]t this stage of my career, I really do want to sink in and use all of that expertise and understanding that I learned in the first part of my career, and begin to apply it for more longer‑term,” he said. “With my age now and how the I.I.I. operates, I think it’ll be a good match for that, in terms of being able to look at a longer‑term view for the industry and this position, as well.”

Strengths He Brings

Kevelighan considers the two years he spent in the Bush Administration to be his strongest learning experience and a turning point in his career. His job was to explain and defend the president’s budget, actually speaking on behalf of the leader of the free world.

His experience at Zurich gave him exposure to global public affairs, as well as seats with the defense think tank Atlantic Council and Blue Marble Microinsurance, while his experience at Citi during the financial crisis put him right in the middle of one of the biggest economic stories of his generation.

He says he has been able to take away something from each of his career stops to become a better executive and leader:

“I think each one of those positions I had…. I tried to understand who the leaders were in that particular setting, and how they were operating, and what was making them successful. I really tried to focus on that throughout my career, how they handled themselves,” he said.

He believes his ability to think strategically and execute tactically is one of his strengths.

One of the things that I try and do is apply everything from a strategic viewpoint and understand what strategy needs to be applied to an organization or a certain campaign and how can you directly, tactically get there, being able to tactically execute whatever the strategy is for the organization, or communications program,” he said.

He values “hands on work with the team, rolling up my sleeves myself and working together on the execution” of a plan.

“That, to me, has been something that’s always helped me in my career, and I’m hoping to bring that to the I.I.I., as well.”

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Audio: I.I.I. CEO on His Strategic Viewpoint

He also believes he has learned how to explain things to various constituencies, including major media, in ways they can understand. Having to understand, explain and defend President Bush’s budget in all of its details and complexities taught him how to do this in pressure situations. He found he actually enjoyed it:

“That, in itself, understanding all the various elements of the budget, dealing with the media that want to cover the budget broadly, but also want to get into the particulars or a certain healthcare program… All of that, making sure that you’re giving the media what they need, when they need it, in a timely manner, and being a spokesperson for the president of the United States is, in itself, a pressure job, but one that I feel like I excelled at and had a lot of fun with.”

That experience has served him well in the insurance business and he expects it will continue to come in handy while he is at the 110 Williams Street home of the I.I.I.

“As you well know, insurance isn’t always the easiest to understand. The neat part that distinguishes the I.I.I. is that that’s the mission, helping people understand the value of insurance. I do think that’s something that I have focused on throughout my career,” he said.

Passion for Insurance

In the I.I.I.’s press release announcing his hiring, Kevelighan is quoted as saying: “Insurance is the life blood of any economy, as it enables individuals to be better prepared for the unexpected, and in turn, to live more freely. Over the years, I’ve truly grown passionate about insurance and quite frankly feel it deserves more credit for the value it brings to society.”

Kevelighan readily admits that he, like most people, used to view insurance as simply a “grudge purchase,” one that is hard to understand and appreciate.

But now he has a loftier view:

“What’s there and what’s happening is allowing individuals, companies and organizations to actually live more freely in the world and in the economy.”

Where did the Ironman gain this passion? It came to fruition after 9/11 when he was in Washington working on legislation known as TRIA, the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, and saw in New York how the construction industry shut down almost immediately because insurance was not available.

“In a place like New York, where construction is everywhere, the dramatic impact of not having insurance on one of the most major cities in the world was striking to me. I think I understood that it’s not necessarily just this grudge purchase. It’s actually making an economy work,” he recalled.

Thus he came to understand and appreciate how insurance is often misunderstood and underappreciated.

As bad as it was for the country and the world, the financial crisis gave the property/casualty insurance industry an opportunity to somewhat demonstrate its financial stability and necessity. But there is “still a big void” in terms of people understanding insurance, which, according to Kevelighan, has real consequences.

“As a result, regulatory trends and policy trends have often lumped insurance into other financial services. As a result, there’s not an appreciation there for how insurance works, and thus how policies should be derived and regulations should be derived,” he said.

He believes the I.I.I. has set the foundation under Hartwig to “proactively promote the industry in a way that makes people understand what value it’s bringing” and it must continue along this road.

“As we’re moving into what you would call a next generation, an area of technology and visualization, this is going to be even more important, increasing the communication, increasing people’s understanding,” he said.

The core of success in the new age is going to be the ability to strike a balance between innovation and customer protection, according to the youthful CEO.

“In a digital society, you’re going to see things like trust be an essential element for striking this balance. That, again, is going to be an area where the I.I.I. can take the reins and begin to promote and be an information source, as we’re moving into a bit of an era of uncertainty, change and disruption,” he said.

Clear Mission

The I.I.I.’s current mission is straightforward: to improve public understanding of insurance, what it does and how it works.

“I think the mission is a great illustration of exactly what the I.I.I. does to benefit its membership, as well as the broader societal understanding of insurance. I don’t see that mission changing,” the new I.I.I. leader said. “It’s succinct, it’s clear, and it’s easy for people understand. Now it’s just our job to articulate it.”

Just as he’s not about to announce any change in mission for the organization, Kevelighan is also hesitant to announce any changes in the I.I.I.’s membership, operations or reach.

“I really want to take my first few months and actually meet with and speak with the membership and get their thoughts, get their understanding of where things are,” he said.

“I do think that the I.I.I. has done very well in understanding how much it should be doing and doing that very well. I hesitate to say that there will be major exchanges one way or another in terms of the strategy before I’m actually able to take some time.”

He will be spending time on the road, meeting with the I.I.I. board, other members and other stakeholders of I.I.I. to better understand their concerns.

“I’ve always said the definition of being the best is always look at ways to improve. I think that’s what I’ll be trying to have a focus on as I begin to meet with the team and members of the organization,” he said.

Members behind I.I.I. include more than 100 large insurance carriers from AIG, Chubb and Lloyd’s to State Farm, X.L. and Zurich, as well as others including Grange Insurance, Hanover, Ohio Mutual, Partner Re and Westfield. Members also include insurance brokers such as Arthur J. Gallagher, Lockton, Marsh and Sullivan Insurance Group along with various academic institutions including Babson College, Beihang University (China), Cornell University, Eastern Connecticut State University, Florida State University, Fudan University (China), Georgetown University Law Center, Glasgow Caledonian University (London) and the universities of Alabama, Central Arkansas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Iowa.

While he will wait to see what future issues I.I.I.’s members see as priorities, Kevelighan believes there are always immediate issues that need addressing.

“You’re always going to have some of those bottom‑line issues. I think in the auto industry in particular you’re seeing, for example, the increase in severity and frequency of automobile accidents and what that means. Also workers’ comp type of issues,” he said.

The I.I.I. has been centered on the U.S. and going global is not on Kevelighan’s radar at this point.

We obviously have global members but the focus has been on the U.S. I know Bob [Hartwig] has always made a good point, though, to have a good understanding of the global issues out there should the membership want to understand them more from the I.I.I., but at this point that’s all I would say that we’re focused on.”

Tech Startups

Asked if technology-focused insurance startups might be members in the future, Kevelighan did not know for sure but indicated that he believes it is important for the industry to embrace changes taking place.

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Audio: I.I.I. CEO on Disruption in Insurance

“It will be interesting, and I do think it’s going to be important for the industry, because change and disruption is inevitable. I think the question will be how much and when. That will truly play out based on how much the industry embraces the new era that we’re getting into in terms of digitalization,” he said.

“From my standpoint, I’ve always seen it being a positive for the industry to continue to be engaged and look at where the changes are and what may or may not be needed to adapt.”

I.I.I.’s Constituencies

In addition to its members, the I.I.I. serves and works with other constituencies, interests that Kevelighan identifies as part of the “public affairs machine.” They include the broader business community, academia, think tanks, the media and government policymakers and regulators.

“I.I.I. is right in the middle of them,” he says.

I.I.I. has historically kept its distance from government, agreeing to testify and provide information but never lobbying. Kevelighan does not see that stance changing.

There is an abundance of information-oriented groups offering research and safety, business and consumer advice, and policy perspectives. Increasingly more corporations are acting like think tanks, publishing their own research and white papers. So how does I.I.I. fit into this smorgasbord of information providers?

Kevelighan has an answer:

“I think I.I.I. has always had a reputation of providing objective, thorough facts, credible information. That is something that really maintains credibility and speaks to the success of the organization, and I think that’s going to continue.

“From my standpoint, what I spoke about earlier in terms of having the right strategy, making sure that you’re tactically executing on it, being proactive, those are the ways that you’re going to stand out as an organization.”

Kevelighan respects Hartwig’s legacy.

“Bob has served I.I.I. and its members very, very well in the years. He and the team have really built a solid foundation. I consider myself lucky in the fact that I’m going into an organization that does have such a strong foundation,” he told Insurance Journal.

“I’m hesitant to speculate on any changes that may or may not take place. Obviously my background is vastly different from Bob’s [Hartwig’s]. I come more from a public affairs background, and Bob is an economist. We’ll see where that takes us.”