Jay Ferro | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND

Servant Leadership Serves IT Well

By Karen Rosen

In a recent tweet, Jay Ferro quoted former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: "The person you are is the person your child will become."

Ferro, the Vice President and Chief Information Officer for Chartis Aerospace, didn’t leave that to chance. He recalls asking his father, then the President and CEO of a large company, “How did you do it?” And Jacob J. Ferro Sr. replied, “I work hard and I treat people with respect. And I’m the same person behind closed doors that I am in public. That may not make me the most popular person in the world, but I sure as heck can sleep at night.”

Emulating his father helped Ferro develop his style of “servant leadership.” “My job here is to empower my folks, support them, provide direction, training, discipline where necessary, and then get out of their way,” he says. “I hire people way smarter than I am at what they do and I give them the tools to be successful.

Ferro, a finalist for Georgia CIO of the Year for the second year in a row, says some people mistakenly believe servant leadership is synonymous with softness.  “There’s nothing soft about it,” he says.  “It gets great results but also generates great human satisfaction.  A leader who cares about his or her people doesn’t have to care less about the bottom line. ”

Instead of telling people how to do things, Ferro sets targets. “I establish parameters based on our strategy and methodologies  (along with a few like, ‘Don’t get us in trouble, don’t send us to jail, don’t call our executives names.’).  Other than that, let’s just get it done. And people come up with amazing ways, things I never would have thought of.”

He has been in his current role for two years with Chartis Aerospace, a leading global aerospace insurer formerly known as AIG Aviation.

“We insure just about anything that flies or gets launched into space,” says Ferro, who joined AIG in its auto business and then worked in personal lines. “If it’s an aerospace-related risk, we want to take a look at it -- and working for the 800-pound gorilla in the industry is a lot of fun.”

Getting on Track

Ferro took over a group that he says “was working very, very hard, but was not getting anywhere fast. “

There was no formal project management methodology and no dedicated business analysts. In a span of two years, Ferro’s team put in a repeatable project management life cycle and implemented HP’s Project Portfolio Management tool and a standardized software development life cycle. They also established an executive steering committee, reorganized to “put people where they needed to be” and made “very good strategic hires in our most critical areas.”

“I’m very happy to say we went from an organization that probably had 2 percent capacity for discretionary projects -- which is horrible -- to well over 40 percent,” Ferro says. “And we’re not done yet.”

Because projects are getting done and the IT team is adding value to the company, pent-up demand has been released. Everyone is asking for more, Ferro says.

“That’s a good problem to have, though. I always like to say, ‘We have a better class of problem now than we did before.’”

Thanks to the standardized processes, they also can easily satisfy auditors and compliance regulations.

Ferro’s team has expanded to about 45 people, with resources also in New Jersey, London and Fort Worth, Texas.

He says his biggest projects on the horizon center around business intelligence, including the company’s first BI data warehouse.

Another huge undertaking will be sunsetting the legacy systems in order to roll over to a single underwriting platform that serves both brokers and internal underwriters. “Right now we support over 15 different systems just to write business,” Ferro says. “And although we do it very well, it’s not optimal. It’s not necessarily preventing us from writing business, but there are huge benefits to getting down to one system and freeing people up to maybe be more aggressive in the marketplace.”

The first phase goes live at the end of this year, with Phase 2 going live in January 2013.

“We have a very strong presence in the marketplace today versus our competition, but I think there’s a real opportunity here to really differentiate ourselves from the rest of the pack,” Ferro says. “This will set us up on an agile platform so that as new business challenges come up -- whether it’s a new product offering or a new technology that we want to take advantage of -- we’re going to be well positioned to do that because we’ll be using very flexible standardized technology. So our speed to market will improve dramatically.”

From Geek to Geico

Ferro never imagined he’d be an IT innovator while growing up in the small town of Munster, Ind., where his father was an executive with a steel company.  “I grew up kind of a geek, I guess,” he says.

After building his first computer in the late ‘70s when he was about 12 years old, Ferro moved into the Commodore VIC-20, Commodore 64 age.

“At the time I never wanted to do it for a living,” he says. “My only experience with people who were doing it for a living was computer science teachers or the guys from “WarGames,” who were the big geeks in really cold rooms and yelled at you for not doing anything right.”

Ferro’s family relocated to Georgia in the fall of his senior year. He had planned to go to Michigan, Indiana or Northwestern, but fell in love with the University of Georgia.

Ferro graduated with a political science degree, but shelved his original plan to go to law school.

“I broke my mother’s heart by not going to law school,” he says. “I earned her favor back by getting my MBA (from UGA) years later.”

Ferro’s first job was with Geico in the regional office in Macon as a help desk support specialist.

“I applied and they said, ‘Wow, you have a lot of knowledge that we need,’” he says. “I fell in love with it and have never looked back.

He worked in retail with HiFi Buys as an IT support person, spent a few years consulting with Hewitt Associates and then became Director of Information Technology at Mariner Health Care.

Ferro joined AIG in the spring of 2004 in the auto business.  “It was just a chance to be with a huge multi-national organization that was doing some really neat things with technology,” he says.

He was promoted to AVP of Information Technology and moved to the personal lines division, where he had the chance to set strategy for five companies.  He was also selected CFO for Operations and Systems in 2006 and led multiple global IT Finance and Governance Standards initiatives.

“We built a team that handled IT governance, finance, architecture planning, disaster recovery and compliance where there wasn’t one before,” he says.

Through cost saving initiatives, Ferro estimates his team saved the company $10 million to $20 million through consolidation, better vendor management, better process, better demand management and better technology decisions.

Following AIG’s problems, which centered on its financial products group, the name of the aviation business was changed to Chartis Aerospace in the fall of 2009.

“Chartis Insurance is still one of the strongest, most powerful and well-diversified companies in the world,” Ferro says. “Nobody has our global reach. And while other companies may be able to write aerospace insurance, nobody can offer the suite of products that Chartis can. So that’s a huge advantage for us.”

He enjoys working with a different model than the automobile division, which has millions of policy holders and benefits from economies of scale. Chartis Aerospace deals with brokers instead of directly with consumers, and while the policy numbers are lower, the premium dollars are higher.

A Personal Stamp

“In this industry, it’s more personal relationships and handshakes,” he says.

Ferro has put the personal touch on a nonprofit he founded in honor of his late wife, who died of cervical cancer in January 2007. Priscilla’s Promise has contributed $30,000 to the American Cancer Society for cervical cancer education and research. Its mission is simple: encouraging women to get their annual checkup.

“When she passed, I just wanted to do something that could turn our tragedy into something that could help somebody else,” says Ferro, who is also executive director. “I think somewhere she’s probably smiling a little bit that we’re making a little bit of a difference.”

The Ferros, college sweethearts, were married almost 13 years. Their three sons are Trey, 13, Connor, 10 and Alex, 8.
“They’re my pride and joy,” Ferro says.

He is also active with TechBridge, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization which helps other nonprofits use technology to improve their capability to serve others.

“Most nonprofits can’t afford technology solutions,” Ferro says. “And the idea that TechBridge can get out there and provide them these resources  at a very reduced cost is just an amazing mission.”

He’s still involved, too, with UGA and the Terry College of Business.  “I’ve gotten so much out of my education that giving back is an easy decision to make,” Ferro says.

And he manages to squeeze in time to serve as Vice President of Membership for the Georgia CIO Leadership Association.

“Atlanta has a vibrant IT community,” Ferro says. “It’s very, very collaborative, very open. The fact that you can pick up the phone and talk to the CIO of a multi-billion dollar company, or go grab lunch and exchange war stories or best practices -- what a great resource.  There’s nobody saying, ‘I can’t talk to you about that,’ or ‘Hey, that’s none of your businesses.’  Nobody’s divulging company secrets or anything silly, but sharing best practices, everybody wins and it’s a good thing.”

It sounds like something John Wooden might have said.

Secrets to Success

  1. Be willing to make mistakes. If you’re not making them, you’re not doing anything. Take risks. If you fail, at least fail forward.
  2. Remember that you’re one part of the team. Be a servant leader. Focus on making your team great, not on making yourself great, and when you do that, the good things for your own personal development will come as a byproduct of being a good team member.
  3. Plan, plan, plan. John Wooden said it best, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
  4. Following that, once you have a strategy, you have to execute. Don’t get caught admiring the magnificence of your plan. Unless you’re a consultant, plans don’t make your company any money. Execution does.
  5. Most importantly, have integrity. Treat people with respect and work hard. Do what you say you’re going to do and put your faith, family and friends at the top of your priority list.

Jay Ferro is Vice President and Chief Information Officer for Chartis Aerospace. Atlanta Trend expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Jay Ferro for sharing his thoughts with us.


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