Executive Spotlight: Larry Hazzard, president of Berkshire Life Insurance Co.
PITTSFIELD — Not many of the Berkshires' storied businesses have local roots as deep as the Berkshire Life Insurance Co.
The firm, founded as the Berkshire Mutual Life Insurance Co. in 1851, a decade before the start of the Civil War, originally was headed by its founder, sitting governor and former U.S. Rep. George Nixon Briggs, of Adams. Briggs was an abolitionist member of the Whig Party with one year of formal education. He died in 1861, at his home in Pittsfield, from an accidental gunshot.
But he already had established a company template for what would follow.
One of Briggs' successors was Winthrop Murray Crane, of the Crane family in Dalton, also a former state governor who served in the U.S. Senate from 1904 to 1913. In Washington, Crane was a friend to two presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and was considered to be a mentor by a third, Amherst College graduate Calvin Coolidge.
Larry Hazzard, of Hinsdale, recently joined this illustrious group when he was named Berkshire Life's 16th president, in mid-July. Hazzard doesn't have the kind of political pedigree that Briggs and Crane did, but he has a long background in business. The Katonah, N.Y., native already has been at Berkshire Life for 12 years.
Since merging with the Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America in 2001, Berkshire Life's main function has been to provide disability insurance products for its parent company (Berkshire Life is a wholly-owned stock subsidiary of Guardian).
I met up with Hazzard recently to talk to him about his career, insurance misconceptions and how he met his wife, former Berkshire United Way President and CEO Kristine Hazzard.
Q This is the first time in your professional life that you've headed a company. Was that a career goal?
A It was never a specific goal of mine. I am somebody who has had an accidental career.
Q What's an accidental career?
A I just happened to be where the opportunities were at the time. When I graduated from [Albright College in Reading, Pa.] in 1983, it was a tough, recessionary time. It's not like there were tons of careers. My wife knew she wanted to be in social work, so we ended up in Albany when she got into the program at SUNY Albany. So, I thought I'd work for a period of time. The job that came up was an admissions counselor at the Albany College of Pharmacy. I never would have pictured myself doing that, but it played into what I enjoyed. I had been a tour guide at my old college and was used to talking to students. It felt very natural.
Q What happened next?
A During that time we got married and soon we found out we were expecting. So, it was, "OK, I'm going to need more than this job." We were at SUNY anyway, so I went back and got my MBA with a focus on marketing, which felt like the right fit for me.
Q Were you always on the business track?
A When I first started I was on every track. I was pre-med, pre-law. You name it, I probably was it. I tried different majors and they were OK, but this one just clicked.
Q How did you get into insurance?
A There was an opportunity to work for a startup owned by two Blue Cross Blue Shields. Two of them merged to form Beacon Corporate Benefit Services. I was the third person hired. Being the third person hired, you were involved in everything. ... There was an experience to have a startup experience that was well-funded instead of starting my own company with no money. It was a great opportunity.
Q What do most people not know about insurance?
A The unfortunate thing is that most people have very negative connotations about what they get with a big insurance company — whether it was because they were denied something for a car accident or with their carrier, they're having a fight over a bill or something like that. It really devalues the importance of what the industry does. What we do, on a daily basis, is so incredibly important. ... If anybody told the story about a claimant that we helped, and you made it invisible that it was an insurance company and said it was a nonprofit, I'll bet [people] would say, "What a phenomenal organization."
Q Why do you think people feel that way?
A It's because we all have so many challenging experiences with insurance companies. And it's challenging, too, because you have ideas of what should happen. [People think], you should cover me no matter what. The truth is, we're governed by contracts, and you have to administer your claims according to the contract. Unfortunately, there are times when people have negative surprises that something's not covered. But, by and large, we save people in many ways because we keep them from much more disastrous events.
Q I'm sure a lot of people don't understand what disability insurance is.
A That is one of the biggest challenges that we have. ... If you're too sick or hurt to work and your income is at risk, we'll replace a portion of your income. [But] there are a number of unfortunate dynamics working against us, which is that most people think they're never going to get disabled. Even though a significant number will, [they think] it's never going to be me.
The other problem is that people have no idea what they have. If you work in a company and have long-term disability, people, unfortunately, believe that it will replace 100 percent of their income for years, as long as they're out. They don't realize it's rarely, if ever, going to replace 100 percent. It's more like 60 percent, and there's usually a monthly cap, maybe $5,000 or $6,000 a month. It usually only replaces your base income, so, if you're an executive and you have a lot of variable compensation, that's going to be tougher.
Q How did you and your wife, Kris, meet?
A We were in the same orientation group [at Albright]. There were seven of us in that group. We had to introduce ourselves and use an adjective that started with the first letter of your name. So, I was "Lazy Larry" and she was "Krazy Kris." We hung around because we were the first people that we knew. ... We waited a month before our first date.
Q Both you and your wife have held executive positions at the same time. You always hear about the competition between spouses when they are in that situation. What was it like for you?
A When we started, the competition was more about who was making more [money], and we took turns doing that. But it very quickly had nothing to do with competition. It was more like having someone who could bring ideas. ... Sometimes you don't want to hear advice from somebody, but many times it was great to have someone who could realistically give you advice because we lived a very similar life. She's been part of my success, and I hope that she would say the same thing.
The headline of this story has been corrected to reflect to Larry Hazzard's job title as president.
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