Risk management director sails uncharted waters
With experience and expertise that spans a myriad of sectors, Jeff Stolle, director of risk management at Castle & Cooke, serves as a beacon for those navigating the unpredictable seas of risk management. But these were seas Stolle never planned on sailing.
“A lot of the younger people in the industry today are going to college and getting a risk management education,” Stolle said. “They’re coming in with a background and they’re coming out of college wanting to be in risk management or insurance. That’s not the way it is with a lot of my colleagues. Whether they’re brokers, or managers, or underwriters, we all sort of fell into it.”
And this fall began at a baseball game – it was a chance encounter and a subsequent chat with a stranger that started the ball rolling. Stolle’s father, who was in finance and risk management, had box seats to watch the Cleveland Indians play. The younger Stolle accompanied his father to the game.
“Next thing I know, I’m talking to the person next to me who’s actually the head of Johnson & Higgins – an insurance broker in Ohio,” he explained.
“I learned more in one year than my four years at college”
This off-chance interaction was the catalyst that propelled Stolle into a world of risks, challenges, and endless learning opportunities. He was hired at Johnson & Higgins and was immediately enrolled in its training program – of which Stolle emphasizes the unparalleled value of hands-on experience and learning in the field.
“In that one-year training program I learned more than I did in four years of college,” he said. “It was stuff that I could have never learned otherwise – they were bringing in experts from underwriting, from safety, bringing in risk managers and other brokers. I learned all aspects of what’s involved in the whole risk management industry and I built my career from there.”
From the bustling aisles of large retailers to the humming power grids of electric utilities, and the vibrant offices of global consumer product companies, Stolle’s journey is a tapestry of experiences. However, it’s his stint at PepsiCo that really makes Stolle stand out from the crowd.
“When you’re [working with a] company that had brands that were all at a billion dollars plus in revenue, it’s an amazing organization,” he said. “What I took from PepsiCo was the capability of all the people I worked with. Everyone on the senior and executive management team were all the top in the world in their industries. I worked for Indra Nooyi – who was CFO at the time and went on to be CEO. The breadth of knowledge these people had, the level of professionalism, was just amazing.”
“You get to touch everything in an organization”
Of course, the journey didn’t stop there. Stolle’s insatiable curiosity and willingness to learn propelled him into new industries and uncharted territories. At Dole Food Company, for instance, Stolle encountered a new set of challenges and risks, particularly in the realm of blue water marine and large shipping organizations.
“They’re the one the largest shipping organizations in the country,” he explained. “I learned all about a brand new risk that I didn’t really have any experience in before – I knew how to ask the questions and just continue to learn.”
And, as Stolle knows all too well, in the world of risk the manager often wears many hats.
“You get to touch everything in an organization,” he said. “I have to learn all the operations, to meet people in all aspects of that – from the president down to those working on the line – in order to understand what they’re doing and to be able to explain that coherently to underwriters. I have to do all of that to be able to look at our partners and say ‘this is our risk and this is how we’re managing it’.
Breaking into risk management
And that means looking outside the business, too – as well as talking with other risk managers.
“Those are the most valuable relationships I’ve had,” Stolle said. “I can call other risk managers and ask if they’ve dealt with a similar situation. This means you really get a true picture of what’s going on outside of your broker or underwriting relationships. It’s the other people who understand what you’re doing. I think it’s a great career opportunity and I’m glad colleges are teaching it now.”
But while students can opt to major in the topic, actually breaking into risk management is a lot more difficult than it looks.
“It’s hard to enter a risk manager position because our departments are people – and a lot of people have been there many years,” he said. “Try taking an opportunity to get some training for insurance broking or underwriting. Learn a little piece of business and then see if there’s opportunity there. Because it really is a career that a lot of people don’t understand the benefits of.”
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