COO Manages Strategic Initiatives, Costs and Tech

By Peter High
technology and strategy

COO Manages Strategic Initiatives, Costs and Tech

Barry Perkins is the chief operating officer for UK General Insurance and Shared Services, which includes commercial and personal insurance. He handles all the big decisions on run costs, strategic initiatives and technology, as well as overseeing the provisioning of management information.

CIO Insight: What are your primary areas of responsibility as the COO of Zurich UK?

Barry Perkins: My official title is chief operating officer for UK General Insurance and Shared Services. By way of background, UK General Insurance (GI) is a diverse area of the business that includes all distribution channels and most flavors of commercial and personal insurance with a Gross Written Premium (GWP) of approximately £1.6bn.

Specifically, I am responsible for managing approximately 40 percent of the expense base (approximately $200 million), the bulk of which is IT. That means all the big decisions on run costs, strategic initiatives and technology come through to me.

I’m also responsible for overseeing the provisioning of management information; our strategy on big data; ensuring that our BPO [business process outsourcing] operation in India runs smoothly; encouraging the use of lean techniques; running the central lean team to ensure operational efficiency; looking at strategic sourcing opportunities; ensuring our corporate real estate strategy is aligned to our business strategy; ensuring that our facilities are running smoothly; and driving the digital agenda.

The shared services part of the title points to the responsibilities I have for the services we share with our UK Life business—a separate entity within Zurich that shares services in countries where they make sense. This includes overall management of document logistics, supplier assurance, and our switch board. This part of the job gives me the opportunity to have an impact at the country level because of the scales involved.

Finally, I am also responsible for ensuring that the UK GI operation is in lockstep with the strategy and services of Zurich as a whole. UK GI's project spending plans must be approved by the group and fall in line with the overall group strategy. This brings some big challenges, but also some great opportunities to be part of a global group operating in over 200 countries, which means I have to have a strong voice at the table in the GI operations council with my international peers. 

Before taking on my current role I held the position of UK CIO, which felt very much like trying to drive the bus from the back seat. The COO role gets you forward a few seats, even if you’re not driving the bus directly!

CIO Insight: You are part of a growing trend of top-level executives who have risen through the IT ranks. How did your time as an IT executive prime you for your current role?

Perkins: I’ve always viewed IT as critical to the business of insurance. There is rarely anything of significance that happens in an insurance company—or any company really—that doesn’t involve IT in some way, be it front office, back office, sales, distribution, finance, etc. So it’s the perfect vantage point from which to get a good understanding of the business as a whole.

CIO Insight: What advice would you offer others who might want to walk in your footsteps?

Perkins: I am doing my dream job, but I didn’t get this role by carefully planning my career or being political. I’ve stuck with what I love doing—a combination of thinking strategically and hard core delivery.

My natural style is to be direct, and while I’m often required to take a more nuanced approach, I haven’t changed my core. On a few occasions I’ve even been willing to walk in the career wilderness if I felt it was the right thing to do. Luckily for me, things have always worked out.  

A friend once told me that there are no bad people at senior levels, but that there can often be bad fits. To find situations that play to my strengths—the right fit—I have been mobile, living and working in the United States and the United Kingdom. I am fortunate to have a wife and children who have supported me fully.

So my advice is: Do what you love, be true to yourself, and be prepared to move to wherever the right fit is for you.

COO Manages Strategic Initiatives, Costs and Tech

CIO Insight: You don't have a classic engineering or computer science background. Was the fact that you taught yourself IT advantageous in allowing you to see the bigger picture?

Perkins: Gaining technical knowledge and skills is fundamental if you’re in IT. You have to be able to understand the mechanics of delivery and speak with confidence about costs. You also need to understand infrastructure and service-level management. IT is a profession and, like any profession, you need the skills and knowledge of that discipline.

That said, too often we focus only on the technical skills as criteria for promotion, whereas at a management level, leadership competencies are the differentiators. The ability to master structured thinking and communication is a leadership requirement, and having a master's degree in economics has certainly been helpful.

CIO Insight: You also spent time as a consultant. How did that experience provide you with a different set of perspectives as an IT executive?

Perkins: I had quite an unusual IT consulting career, spending almost a decade on large-scale delivery programs with a single client (surprise, surprise, the U.S. Personal Lines business of Zurich). But I also got the opportunity to see all of the key U.S. players in insurance up close. To this day that means I focus as much externally—on benchmarking, competitor best practices and industry trends—as I do internally.  

Large companies often focus obsessively on their own internal practices and beliefs in an almost religious manner. The way to assure good customer outcomes is not to stare at your belly button, but to lift your eyes and look externally. I’m always interested in what my Zurich colleagues who work in different markets have done: It’s a ready-made innovation lab!

CIO Insight: Do you think the path from CIO to COO is going to become more travelled, and, if so, why?

Perkins: I can say with confidence that it’s already happening at Zurich, as we’re in the process of merging the operations and IT roles into chief operations and technology officer positions. However, as little as a year ago, when I was appointed, there was quite some discussion around whether an IT guy could be successful in a COO role. That discussion no longer occurs.

Why is that? I think that with the advent of the cloud and the move to data-center-less environments, the emphasis of the IT role is changing. There is a realization that the technology for major programs only gets you to the starting line.

It is the operational disciplines, such as lean and change management, that determine your finishing place in the race for good customer outcomes. Areas such as big data and digital cut across the traditional separation.

So, I think the combination of the roles will become more prevalent. But even if the roles remain separate in some companies, CIOs' skillsets will always make them a strong contender to travel the path to the role of COO.

CIO Insight: As a former CIO, how do you now interact with IT?

Perkins: Formally, IT is part of the Operations remit, and the CIO is one of my direct reports. However, I’m very conscious that the previous COO gave me the freedom as CIO to operate with a high degree of independence. That has enabled me to be a viable successor, and I’ve structured the relationship with the new CIO on the same basis.

We remain committed to a road map that takes us to 2020, so the general principles, cost, service-level architecture and application targets are there. It’s a requirement that the CIO brings new ideas to the table and does things their own way so that I can focus on my responsibilities and ensure that I have a viable successor.

This article was originally published on 12-17-2014