We recently sat down with Marla Peters to discuss her current role at American Specialty, as well as the journey that took her from college graduate to EVP and Chief Underwriting Officer for a company she loves.
First, what does your job as EVP and CUO entail?
I’m responsible for driving our underwriting results with our carrier partner, Arch. The majority of our premium writings are in the delegated authority part of our business with Arch. That’s what falls under my responsibility. So, I work with our team to decide, “Where do we want to grow, and how will we get there? Where do we want to put on the brakes? How much should we be charging? Are we using all the tools we have at our disposal?” We are sports and entertainment specialists including commercial lines— property and casualty in all 50 states.
The other piece that falls under me is our policy services team. Within that delegated authority, we issue our own policies and maintain our own forms library.
How long have you been at American Specialty?
I’ve been here a long time, since 1995, with a two-year hiatus. This was actually my first real job out of college. I graduated with a liberal arts degree, so insurance was completely new to me.
I started out issuing certificates of insurance and answering insurance coverage questions for youth baseball teams and bicycle clubs. That was a great way to learn about insurance coverage and policy language quickly.
I initially worked on the client services side of the business, which includes our sales team. I spent many years on that team as a relationship manager, managing large strategic accounts like the National Collegiate Athletic Association and Special Olympics.
I also worked in our risk services and loss control area for a while, helping establish consistent practices for onsite evaluations, making sure the different inspectors were looking at the same things and analyzing them similarly.
I came back to American Specialty in a program development role, looking at potential new programs to see what we could add, or what existing programs we could expand, or the opposite: should we be restricting coverage or appetite in certain programs. That was my entree into underwriting, because it involved reviewing our portfolio, understanding underwriting guidelines, and researching rates.
When our CUO retired in January 2020, I took over the CUO position—right before a pandemic. Not the greatest timing, but it pushed me to get up to speed quickly! Our team did a great job of persevering through a challenging time and coming out stronger.
How have you been tapped as an SME (subject matter expert)?
First was my opportunity to become involved with Opt-In. It’s been fantastic, just to be able to be part of Opt-In for networking purposes. The first year I attended in person without any specific role. The next year I was part of a committee focused on an underwriting roundtable. At that point I was new to the CUO role and explained that I’d prefer not to be one of the panelists because I was still on a big learning curve. So I told them to ask me next year, thinking I would be off the hook. But Lisa Stahl remembered; and the next year she asked me to own the underwriting session as the facilitator. That was in 2021 when Opt-In was still virtual. And then last year I participated in-person in the leadership style session as a panelist. That was really fun.
I’ve also been a participant, not in a leadership role, in Brown & Brown’s women’s team resources group, The Power of She. They’ve had great content and it’s just nice to have this group promoting women in leadership. I haven’t had female mentors in my insurance career, so I’m very excited that Brown & Brown’s investing in the group. I’ve encouraged others to join in; some of the presentations have been really impactful, such as the one in July featuring PCLs Dhara Patel, Patty Templeton-Jones, Bresch McCarthy, and Jessica Getman.
Away from work, I’ve always volunteered at non-profits, either on committees or as a board member. It’s a great way to gain skills and confidence. Early in my career, I helped form a group called Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana and served on their board. Later I was a board member of the Embassy Theatre Foundation, a local non-profit theater that hosts concerts and performances. I was also their board chair through a capital campaign to renovate the upper floors of a historic hotel into a ballroom and a rooftop venue.
Then I worked with an organization called Our Turn to Serve that provided service dogs for veterans suffering from PTSD. Originally, it was a family-run business, and I helped expand and diversify the board and create infrastructure, which ultimately allowed them to merge with a larger non-profit serving a similar cause.
What steps have you taken to advance your career?
For the past couple of years, I’ve worked with two coaches. One’s an executive coach who I’d known earlier because we were in a young leaders group locally and had kept in touch. I watched her business grow from just herself as a coach, to hiring more coaches. Now she works with several Fortune 500 executives.
Our time involved doing a 360 review that included her interviewing people that I report to, my direct reports and my peers. Then I got the results, which reflected what I’m doing well and what I could do better. Of course, you try to focus on both parts – not just the bad part, but it’s human nature to kind of obsess on the bad. That’s why it’s important to have a coach to guide you on the next steps.
My coach didn’t just provide the feedback and say, good luck. In the ensuing months she’s helped me dig in and figure out how I can become better in the areas that needed work. This was very helpful to me because I hadn’t led a team of this size previously. I had been in leadership positions, but this was my first time as a department head with this many direct reports.
I also separately started working with a strengths coach who I found on LinkedIn; I told both the coaches about each other because I didn’t want conflicting advice. Her program is based on the CliftonStrengths Assessment, a Gallup program. It names 34 strengths and ranks yours in order for you. She focuses on your top five. Frankly, I didn’t know what my strengths were! You simply take them for granted because they come so naturally to you. That means you may miss the opportunity to play to your strengths. She is an amazing coach, and I have continued working with her past the initial “strengths” training. These two coaching opportunities really helped me grow my confidence in my new CUO role in the last couple of years, learning to be more effective in what I’m trying to accomplish.
What do you like best working as a CUO? Working at American Specialty? Being part of Brown & Brown?
What I like best about the CUO role is being a big part of influencing our success as a company and also giving people on our team opportunities to grow. All the things I’m investing in myself I try make available to my team so that they can improve and expand their skillset.
One of my strengths from the CliftonStrengths Assessment is a being a “Relator,” which means I like to invest in deep relationships with people. As CUO, I get to do that through mentoring, collaborating, working together to problem solve and make our processes more efficient. In addition, the CUO role is analytical and strategic and gives me endless learning opportunities. I like the idea that I can always be learning. I’m never bored, always learning.
Working at American Specialty is a joy because we serve an evolving industry. We have so many different programs, and our customers and their needs are so disparate. It keeps things interesting!
Probably my favorite thing about Brown & Brown is working with Shared Services team. It’s the coolest thing—the networking and realizing you’re part of a much broader organization, that you have a whole network of people that can lend a hand. Getting to know people and problem solving together makes the work rewarding.
How has your role changed you personally?
Underwriting in the entertainment industry has definitely changed how I experience entertainment activities. For instance, when you develop a movie theater program, next time you go to the movies, you’re looking at the lighting and stair hazards.
Last year I attended the Blueberry Festival. It’s a giant festival in Indiana. Instead of focusing on all the good things to eat and how much people are enjoying themselves, I’m pointing out how the vendors are packed in closely together and I’m thinking, gee, a huge COVID risk and slip and fall risks everywhere. I have to remember friends and family may not relish itemizing all the risks at the fair. On the one hand, insurance has made me more aware of these things, but I have to admit, I am also drawn to insurance because I’ve always had my eye on risk. I know that risk is part of life and can’t always be avoided. I have to remind myself often that it’s essential for growth and the reason I’ve had a great career.