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The Complexities of Complexion - Risk Management Magazine
by Jared Wade
Marvin Kelly has worn many hats in the risk and insurance industries. In addition to becoming the first black president of the Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters Society (CPCU) in September, he has been a commercial underwriter for two large insurers, the risk manager for the cities of Beaumont and Austin, Texas, and he is currently the executive director of the Texas Property and Casualty Insurance Guaranty Association, an Austin-based nonprofit association of Texas property/casualty insurers that guarantees policies if a company fails.
For Kelly, this long journey all started at an early age. As a teenager growing up in Pittsburgh, he got involved with A Better Chance, a nonprofit organization with the mission of finding high-quality schools for underprivileged kids. "That's what they called the poor," says Kelly.
Soon after, he and six other kids from cities including Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New York left their urban lives and moved to the well-to-do community of Simsbury, Connecticut, where they enrolled in a high school that was "99.5% white," according to Kelly. It was here that he was first exposed to the world of insurance.
"All the executives of the big Hartford insurance companies lived in Simsbury," says Kelly. "I went to school with the sons and daughters of the insurance company leaders."
Rubbing elbows with those in his community, he was shown a world that few outside the industry are aware exists. He learned that insurance was more than the Hollywood depiction of unglamorous door-to-door salesmen and dissatisfied life and auto policyholders. After high school, he left Simsbury to attend the University of Hartford. While studying accounting his freshman year, Kelly was convinced to major in insurance by his roommate, a New Haven native and the only black student in the program.
His roommate had been involved with an organization similar to the A Better Chance program Kelly had joined, but his had been sponsored by the University of Connecticut and maintained by the distinguished insurance professor David Ivory, who incidentally joined the University of Hartford insurance faculty just as Kelly switched his academic focus. Through coursework and personal connections, Ivory quickly became a mentor to Kelly, initially in his studies and later in his professional development. "I've asked him before every career move I've ever made," says Kelly.
The first move came in 1980 when Kelly became the first black commercial underwriter ever hired by the Hartford office of Transamerica Insurance Company, an insurer that specializes in life but also writes commercial lines and provides financial services. "I've been the first and only African-American in every position I've had," says Kelly.
After several productive years at Transamerica yielded only limited advancement, it was a colleague, rather than Ivory, who provided the advice that helped him realize that this was not the place for him. "I'll never forget him, an Irishman who had been there for 20 years," says Kelly. "He asked me what I was still doing there. 'Do you see anyone that looks like you? Do you think you're going to get promoted here?' I wasn't mad until he told me."
With pressing family obligations also arising in Pittsburgh, this was enough to prompt Kelly to head home, where he took a commercial underwriter position with Chubb & Son Insurance, becoming the first black professional in that role for yet another office. He stayed 14 months.
Though neither the position nor the office environment at Chubb & Son met his expectations, Kelly was able to use his time there to focus on career development. "I had one supervisor who was sort of intimidated," says Kelly. "I had an AU and was working on my CPCU, and he didn't have any of that."
Finding few challenges and an awkward relationship with his white boss, Kelly approached the department manager, another white male, who suggested Kelly forego his immediate supervisor and report to him directly when uncomfortable situations occur. Kelly, a (since-retired) Army Reserves officer, told the manager he respected chain of command and desired a better working relationship-not a work-around.
As fellow Pittsburgh natives, Kelly and the department manager maintained good rapport, but little changed. "He was from a neighborhood I wasn't even allowed to go into when I was a kid," says Kelly. "I think they felt they had to treat me differently. At the time, Chubb wasn't big on diversity."
Before long, Kelly received a call from an Army buddy who was an assistant city manager in Beaumont, Texas, and had thought of him for the town's newly vacant risk manager position. Kelly had never heard of this small, coastal oil town located near the Louisiana border, but he was eager for a new challenge and particularly excited to get into risk management. Before taking the job, however, he asked Professor Ivory for advice. "He told me Beaumont wasn't ready for me," says Kelly, who soon agreed after arriving. "It was like going back into the 60s in terms of race relations."
The cultural challenges of moving to a small town of 16,000-one infamous for its historic Ku Klux Klan ties and race riots in the summer of 1943-were palpable. "People who found out I was the risk manager of Beaumont would look at me and say, 'What? You?'" says Kelly.
One time, for example, Kelly unknowingly made history when he spoke to the "Petroleum Club" of Beaumont, a professional network of local oil executives. "I was told it was a 'traditional' club," says Kelly. "I didn't know it at the time but I had integrated the club."
In the early days of his tenure, there was also a continual need to prove himself and overcome the other bureaucrats' and professionals' unfamiliarity with him even being in the room. "People weren't used to seeing a black man in a suit," says Kelly. "I can't hide the fact that I'm black. I have to make them comfortable with who I am, and make it so by the time they're done working with me, it's the last thing they are thinking about."
He was able to successfully navigate the political landscape, however, and make great strides for the city through a series of initiatives. "We got so many things done," says Kelly.
Despite his professional satisfaction, Kelly's tenure in Beaumont came to end based on his solution to rising health care costs, which were exacerbated by the petroleum refining town's high cancer rates. In the late 1980s, Kelly worked closely with hospitals to create a managed health care program, which at the time was controversial and upset many of Beaumont's movers and shakers. "They told me as much, so I knew it was time to leave," says Kelly.
Fortunately for Kelly, he got the opportunity to become the risk manager of Austin, a city that was much more receptive to his style of risk management-and he to the capital's more progressive cultural leanings.
In time, the city gained national recognition for the managed care program he helped implement, and Kelly also convinced Austin's mayor that if the city purchased the insurance on publicly funded construction projects instead of having them included in the contract bids, they could save a lot of money. Other initiatives such as a successful surety bond program, helped mark a new level of both professional and personal fulfillment for him in Texas. "It was like coming to the modern day," says Kelly.
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