Double Coverage

Shepherding a 190-year-old into the future

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

vermont-mutual0918Daniel C. Bridge (right), president and CEO, and Mark McDonnell, executive vice president and COO, lead Montpelier’s 190-year-old Vermont Mutual Insurance Group in tandem.

In the introduction to her 2017 book, Tandem Leadership: How Your #2 Can Make You #1, Gina Catalino defines tandem leadership as “Two wheels attached to a platform with distinct functions and responsibility to move the organization forward more effectively than the leader could do solo.”

This describes the path being followed by Dan Bridge, president and chief executive officer, and Mark McDonnell, executive vice president and chief operating officer, of the 190-year-old Vermont Mutual Insurance Group in Montpelier (“since Abraham Lincoln was a teenager,” quips McDonnell).

Those wheels appear well-oiled.

In 2008, when Tom Tierney, then the company’s president and CEO, and Bill Catto, COO, were looking to expand into automobile insurance in Massachusetts, they hired Bridge as a consultant to help launch the product with the necessary pricing and technology for that market.

“Following this,” says Bridge, “not being a consultant by trade and a little spooked as to where my next job was going to come, I took a job with Hanover Insurance in Worcester [Massachusetts]. About eight months into that tenure, the leadership here called and asked me to come back to Vermont Mutual and work on their leadership team. If you think through that process, what a great opportunity for Vermont Mutual to test Dan Bridge in a consulting role, and Dan Bridge gets to test drive Vermont Mutual.”

Fast-forward to 2015: Tierney had retired, passing the baton to Catto, who eventually also retired, and Bridge was named president and CEO. The following year, Bridge named McDonnell, who had joined the company in 2014, executive vice president and COO. In the 10 years since Bridge first encountered the company, staff has increased from about 180 to around 280.

Bridge and McDonnell come across as affable and well-suited to this kind of collaborative management.

Both of them grew up in East Coast states, Bridge in Massachusetts and McDonnell in Pennsylvania. Bridge earned a degree in business economics in 1984 from St. Anselm College in Manchester, New York; McDonnell an undergraduate degree in biology and business from Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1985 and an MBA in 2001 from Eastern University.

After graduation, Bridge worked for the General Accounting Office in Washington, D.C., before being hired just over a year later by Liberty Mutual in Boston, working in finance. In a couple of years, he moved to the personal insurance (market) side of the business.

After 18 years with Liberty Mutual, he joined OneBeacon Insurance in Boston, where he managed the New England territory. Five years later he began his consulting role with Vermont Mutual.

Shortly after graduating from Albright, McDonnell started at CNA Insurance, in a very brief job, where he supervised a team in its mailroom. “That was a time where, if you weren’t moving around and getting experience with a big national company like that, you were largely forgotten.” Over the next 18 years, he held 16 positions with the company, not having to move except for the last one.

That was to upstate New York in 2002. In 2007, he left to join OneBeacon, where he and Bridge overlapped, although they didn’t know each other. At the end of 2013, an executive search firm contacted him about the opportunity at Vermont Mutual.

One of the things both were tasked with by the former leaders was modernizing the way the company works. “Sounds lovely on paper,” McDonnell says, “but to try to get those working here to adopt new processes and procedures — to leverage technology in a different way, to look at the business through a different lens — is really difficult on their part.” Still, he adds, some of the most seasoned people have been the first to jump on the bandwagon, pleased for help making decisions in new ways.

“Change is difficult,” says Bridge. “But knowing how we’re doing it, why we’re doing it, certainly helps get people on board. And it really centers around the fact that we’re 190 years old, but we can’t act 190 years old, because 10 years from now technology will run right by us, and we’ll say, What happened to some of our business? because we missed something along the way.”

Collaboration is the key to making this work, he continues. “As I think about that and the COO role — Mark and I had a discussion when I was trying to convince him to join our organization — I was thinking about a partnership so we could manage the organization together for the next 10 to 15 years and said that, while I respect that we have different titles, if we can collaborate, with the same goals, and minimize the ego part of it, we can do great things.”

“This isn’t a mom and pop insurance company,” says Scott Boardman, president of the 197-year-old Hickok & Boardman Insurance Group, which has done business with Vermont Mutual since 1828.

“These two guys run a very sophisticated operation right here in Montpelier, Vermont, and they’re providing very high-quality insurance products that compete with national companies very well. The distinguished thing about doing business with them as opposed to a lizard or other national competitor is that these folks stand behind their promise. So all of us Vermonters, we can feel pretty secure that Dan and Mark are going to take care of us in our time of need.”

With the exception of a claims office in Berlin and 35 employees in the field, all of this happens from a four-story location on State Street — born when the company was — in concert with more than 800 independent agencies. Over the years, the original brick structure (now on the historic register) has been added to twice, in 1979 and 1986, and the basement was converted into an attractive break, lunch, and meeting room a year and a half ago. Bridge and McDonnell have offices across the hall from each other in the original building.

“In the insurance craft, we’re one of the best in the country,” says Bridge, “and in the business we’re one of the best in Vermont,” citing the company’s recognition for 10 years running as a Ward’s Top 50 property-casualty insurer in the United States and winning this year’s Deane C. Davis Best Business Award from the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.”

The leaders have identified five priorities that guide them. First is strong financial results. Second is a statement emphasizing the need for collaboration: “None of us are as strong as all of us,” says Bridge. The third is modernization, which Bridge says goes beyond technology to include current policies and procedures as they apply to employees and work.

The fourth stresses that data-driven decisions are usually better decisions. And number five is simply a quote: “They call it work for a reason, but ...”

It’s the “but ...” that shows up often in unusual ways, for example, making sure that the work environment is comfortable. In addition to competitive benefit offerings, they create situations that show their appreciation for what employees do.

Such activities include an annual kick-off meeting at the Capitol Theater next door, where employees are served popcorn and soda; an annual employee appreciation event, at Sugarbush this year; a cookout at the company’s Berlin office; and renting an ice cream truck, pulling into the parking lot with a jingle playing, and serving ice cream to employees from the truck window. “I heard somebody say, ‘I haven’t had a Bomb Pop since I was 11!’ says McDonnell. “You can’t overlook the value those kinds of gestures bring.”

Photos of activities include the two of them dressed in goofy, Christmas-themed suit-and-tie outfits for a holiday party, and a poster with a Star Wars theme, promoting a kickoff meeting for staff, pictures the management team in costume as the stars of the sci-fi franchise.

Employees are not the only beneficiaries of this kind of fun, which incorporates work for Habitat for Humanity or getting Camp Ta-Kum-Ta ready to open; Greenup Day or corporate challenges. “Last year we eclipsed $300,000 in monetary donations from the Vermont Mutual Charitable Giving Fund,” Bridge says.

That included $11,000 from a program McDonnell worked on with The University of Vermont whereby each win for a UVM team generated a donation of $100 to the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington.

“They are really fun people who are using their work and themselves to help make something better,” says Tanya Benosky, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club. “They invited us to a hockey game and a basketball game. At the hockey game we got to go out on the ice. We had Vermont Mutual and Catamount T-shirts, and it was a ball!”

Both leaders are married. Bridge and his wife, Christine, have four children, with only the youngest, a student at South Burlington High School, still at home. Time with family, the occasional trip to Cape Cod, and finding time to get in a little golf are his ways to relax.

McDonnell and his wife, Diane, live in Williston. Their 22-year-old son just graduated from Oberlin Conservatory and will begin studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “We’re still relatively new to Vermont — five years,” he says, “so my wife and I still live a little bit like we’re tourists. She likes the outdoor side of gardening, so I do the grunt work on her projects and she grows the flowers and vegetables.”

Asked if there’s anything else they’d like to say, McDonnell chuckles as he mentions a recent company event when he and Bridge spent an hour in a dunk tank while employees tried to spill them into the water. Bridge brings up being filmed doing carpool karaoke on their way to last year’s meeting at The Essex Resort & Spa, and “stealing” bicycles to make the last half-mile trek.

“One of the things we’ve always tried to do is to bring a light-hearted approach to our business and our leadership,” says McDonnell. “That has made it easy for us to leave our dignity and egos at the door.”•