TruStage’s Bob Trunzo on bringing bold change to insurance

Buying insurance has morphed from a labor-intensive process, mired in reams of paperwork, into a relatively seamless transaction that can easily be done online. Bob Trunzo—who recently retired as chief executive of TruStage, previously CUNA Mutual Group—led the company through a major transformation, remaking it into a modern, tech-savvy enterprise that was recognized as an early disruptor in bringing life insurance into the digital age.

In this interview with McKinsey senior partner Ari Libarikian, which has been edited for clarity and length, Trunzo discusses his path to CEO, his biggest tips for early-career chief executives, the importance of being decisive, taking TruStage well beyond its roots serving credit union members, and the one piece of advice his father gave him that rings true to this day.

McKinsey: You’ve recently retired as CEO of TruStage after 18 years with the company and nearly ten as CEO. Tell us about your journey to CEO.

Bob Trunzo: I began my career in the sales organization at TruStage. I moved up through the organization: I had the underwriting team, then I had the IT teams for a while, and ultimately I moved into a chief operating officer role, and then to the CEO role.

I would say two things about that journey. Number one, it was a great experience in really understanding our customer. And it’s going to sound very basic, but sometimes that voice of customers is lost in key parts of your organization. The second thing is getting rounded out by having not just the sales side, but the P&L responsibility, knowing what’s important in the balance sheet.

McKinsey: Looking back, what advice do you have for aspiring or new CEOs based on your last ten years of running TruStage?

Bob Trunzo: At TruStage a major transformational effort occurred a year into my role as CEO, so I have a couple of key points for young, early-in-career CEOs. The first one is, surround yourself with complementary talent. CEOs have to be realistic. I’m really good at some things; some other things I am not good at. And some other things I may be good at that, frankly, I don’t want to do. It’s probably not the best use of the CEO’s time.

Number two, as CEO, I always felt like I was on the shot clock—I mean, a sense of urgency, a sense of getting things done. And it doesn’t have to be a frenetic, rapid, shoot-from-the-hip pace, but it’s got to be a very aggressive time frame that allows you to make the decisions in a manner that creates excitement about transformation, creates excitement about change, but also allows you to check the boxes along the way to make sure you’re doing them the right way.

And finally, I would say when you’re a young CEO, there’s a tendency—and I fell into this trap—to not be as decisive as you should be out of the box. In other words, make the call. Make the difficult call. Decisiveness is critical. I tell my own leaders all the time, “Leaders have opinions. Leaders need to be decisive.” And I took a position—probably unlike other CEOs—that I’m fine if you make the wrong decision. You can correct that; you can adjust. Just make a decision. Because what happens in organizations, in my view, is if it’s murky or if it’s cloudy—the organization becomes stagnant, and everybody stands around and waits for the next person to take the step.

McKinsey: If you could go back in time and speak to Bob Trunzo ten years ago, what one thing would you tell your younger self, as new CEO, to do differently?

Bob Trunzo: Move faster. Be more decisive. And get comfortable with the risk. We instituted some massive change and transformation at TruStage. We needed to do that to be relevant to our customers. At the end of the day, people say they like change—until it affects them. Until you tell them, “Well, you need to do this differently.” And it starts, “Oh, what do you mean? You really expect me to do it this way?” And then you back up and say, “Well, our customer says this about us. What are we going to do about it?”

When you enter a massive transformation effort like we did at TruStage, you also have to be prepared to cope with major bumps along the way. I’ve been in these situations where organizations will say, “Well, that’s a little choppy. We can’t do this. Let’s hold off. Let’s pause.” But you have to have the drive to navigate that and just churn through the choppy waters, because if you have full confidence in what you’re doing, and you’ve really thought about where the entity needs to go and your team is with you, that’s what you need to do.

I think it’s incumbent on a CEO to make that call. And if you hesitate on that kind of a call, that hesitation and trepidation are felt throughout the enterprise. And let me caveat that: I’m not saying you can’t adjust your plan along the way. That’s foolhardy. But you’ve always got to understand where the North Star is. And you’ve always got to drive to that, and drive to that decisively.

McKinsey: Would you be able to think of an example from your own career where you didn’t move fast enough, or where you weren’t decisive enough?

Bob Trunzo: I would point to data analytics. Our customers are credit union partners who are looking to us for some guidance. I would say we were late to the party. We were late to the process. And then when we got there, we did not have the right solution, and we ended up not providing the kind of value we should have provided for our customers.

On the flip side, I will tell you where we took some risk and it turned out very effective for us. We were one of the early movers in establishing a venture fund at TruStage, an insurance financial services–backed venture fund. That allowed us to work with companies that were designing fintech, insurance tech products, platforms, services that we couldn’t provide nor could the credit union industry provide—new, innovative products and services. And unlike some other insurance-backed venture funds, we’re direct investors in those companies. So sometimes we have a board seat; sometimes we have an observation seat. But we are direct investors in those. That has been very successful.

When you’re in the role as a CEO, you’re going to have some wins and losses. I frequently used our foray into data analytics as a learning tool for our organization. And I think when you swing and miss at the ball, I think those learnings are just as important as when you hit the ball out of the ballpark on a big project.

McKinsey: You’re known as a people leader. Tell us about your approach to connecting with others. What’s the impact of that for a CEO?

Bob Trunzo: My father was a successful business executive, including at General Electric. And his advice to me growing up was, “Bob, always remember that you want to treat people the way you want to be treated.”

That stuck with me. And I remember my father, who had this massive job in manufacturing where he had all these plants reporting to him, walking through any manufacturing plant, where there were 500 or 600 people in the building, he would know everybody’s name on the manufacturing line. And he was out there every day. He didn’t need to be.

Well, I didn’t know everybody’s name at TruStage. I kind of struggle with names. But you have to be transparent, and you have to be honest. During my tenure, I didn’t sit up in my office all the time. I traveled extensively. I enjoy talking to people. I enjoy talking to our customers. I enjoy talking to our employees. That’s the fun part of a job.

I wanted to use our balance sheet not just to help credit unions and members but to help communities. Early in my tenure, before many other companies in the insurance and financial services industry, we added inclusion as a corporate value at TruStage. That value has guided us in our relationships with our communities and our partners.

There are very difficult times in an organization when you’re a life insurance company. We show up at tragic times in people’s lives, and it’s our job to make that experience at a very difficult time seamless, and easy, and get those kinds of benefits out to people. I am very proud that during COVID-19, we paid out more than $70 million of COVID-related claims, and 70 percent of those claims were paid in ten days or less. It’s all about inclusion, accessibility, and compassion.

McKinsey: Digital is such a big topic in every boardroom, every management committee. What role did digital transformation play during your CEO tenure? What was the impact, and what was important to get right?

Bob Trunzo: We were a very early mover in the digital delivery of services. We got some outside help digitizing our life insurance product, and it was a highly successful project. It was so successful that, later, one of our PR folks came into my office and said, “You’re not going to believe this, but CBS MoneyWatch1 named TruStage, at that time CUNA Mutual, a digital disruptor in life insurance.”

I told our board at the time, “I’ve heard CUNA Mutual called a lot of things. Digital disruptor has not been one of them.” So get some help if you don’t know how to do it. And you know what? That’s not a sign of weakness. There are talents that you don’t have, that you will never have, that you need to find.

Number two, in financial services and in insurance, just like everything else that’s going on, our customers want instant response. They want to be able to go online, understand what a life insurance policy will cost, how to get one. Some of those same customers, when a claim is filed, want to do self-service. They don’t want to talk to anybody. Simply put, they want to conduct business on their terms and on their time frame. We have to meet that.

McKinsey: One of the things you take great pride in is shifting the culture of the company to be more execution-oriented. Tell us, what does that mean for you? And what was the key to making it work?

Bob Trunzo: Part of a big transformation, part of changing the culture of an organization is all about modeling leadership. It’s all about stepping up and telling leaders, “This is where we’re going to go, and this is how we’re going to get there.” And that sounds really, really basic. But you have to understand that in a lot of companies, that message never gets delivered. I’ll give you an example. I remember customers saying, “You’re too complicated to do business with.” We instituted a single point of contact, and we said, “Mary, you’re in charge. Everything flows through Mary. You’re vice president of sales.” And that was hugely positively received.

We took a fair amount of people out of their normal day-to-day, put them in these transformational leadership roles, and said, “This is your job. Don’t worry about doing three jobs at once. Your job is to lead change. Your job is to identify the plan, move the plan forward.” This was very helpful for two reasons: speed and clarity.

You have to understand that when you make these big changes to the enterprise, not all the parts, not all the products are created equal. And by that, I mean you’re making investments in some areas. And some areas of the company aren’t getting any investment. And we were one of these companies, and you see this occasionally in financial services, that had the peanut butter spread equally across everybody; everybody got a slice of bread with some peanut butter on it. And that just doesn’t happen anymore. It can’t happen.

And I always said, “Look, you guys are really important. This is a very important product. It continues to generate great returns. But please understand, we have to drive growth, and that means investing in these other products and processes. It’s not that we don’t love you. Your product is solid. It does well. But it’s not a growth engine for the enterprise.”

McKinsey: TruStage serves credit union members. Tell us about the uniqueness of that segment. What things did you focus on as a leader to get the right customer and client experience for that group of people?

Bob Trunzo: When I started as CEO, 95 percent of the enterprise’s revenue was credit-union-related. There are about 4,800 credit unions, representing roughly 140 million memberships. One of the goals was to try to diversify some of that revenue. The one criticism of the rating agencies was, “You had all your business in basically one industry.” By the time I departed the organization, we had diversified our business lines and customer base, drawing a sizable portion of revenue from outside the credit union space. Let me be clear, we achieved that diversification through new growth and leveraged our strong capital position to make important acquisitions.

Our customer loyalty scores continued to rise. You want a customer base that talks to you. I would rather have somebody call me up and say, “Bob, your service stinks here.” Or, “We don’t have this product because we don’t think it adds any value to our members.” I would rather have that than a large customer call me up and say, “Hey, we’re done.”

McKinsey: Your company changed its name recently to TruStage from CUNA Mutual Group, which had been drawn from the Credit Union National Association. Why was TruStage chosen?

Bob Trunzo: TruStage has been our trusted brand in the life insurance industry for years. We had reached a point where we had significant revenue outside the credit union industry, and we felt that was the time to change to a broader name.

McKinsey: Over your CEO tenure, revenue and assets under management more than doubled. How did you think about inorganic growth versus organic growth in the trajectory of the company?

Bob Trunzo: It was our belief early on, and part of our strategic transformational journey, that while we had substantial market share in credit unions, we thought we could generate a lot of continued growth with credit union members. Although the number of credit unions was declining, mainly because they were merging, we continued to see huge growth in membership. That was a huge opportunity for us to capture credit union consumers who wanted to do business with us. There are a bunch of additional ways—fintech, insurance equity venture funds—that continue to expand that relationship with members.

In growing outside the credit union industry, it was pretty clear to us that we had a superior life insurance platform. And by that, I mean simplified issue life, lower face amount of life insurance. Our consumer target is a family or household earning between roughly $45,000 and $140,000 a year. Not a space that a lot of people play in. It’s smaller policies, processed very efficiently.

We were on the lookout for similar companies that had products like that. And we were very fortunate to make the acquisition when Assurant decided to sell its “preneed” business, which is essentially a low-face-amount life insurance policy used to fund funeral expenses. Partnerships are very, very important, in both our organic and inorganic growth. And over the course of my tenure, the growth of our life insurance business has basically doubled, and sometimes tripled, the industry growth average.

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