Taming the Wild West

This article accompanies Back on Track.

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Back in 2004, when Jennifer Martin became the HR director at Alliant Insurance Services Inc., a global brokerage firm in Newport Beach, Calif., she had no idea about the huge transformation that was about to take place–not only in HR, but in her career as well.

For nearly 70 years, Alliant had been a small mom-and-pop insurance agency in downtown San Diego. Until 2004, it relied on outsourcing–everything from recruiting to benefits administration.

“When I first got here, it was a reactive environment,” says Martin, named to this year’s HR Honor Roll. “HR was almost kind of the complaint department or where managers came to get HR to take care of their issues for them.”

Her first tasks included hiring a full-time recruiter to regain control of staffing and keep pace with the company’s growth, bringing benefits administration in-house to achieve cost savings, and introducing a variety of tools and leadership-development training programs or modules to help managers deal with staffing issues.

“I tried to empower managers to do things for themselves [versus] coming to HR and letting me manage employees for them while they sit quietly next to me in a chair,” she says, adding that some managers were reluctant to assume this new role. “This is their role as leaders and managers. They need to be empowered, trained and educated. That’s an ongoing pursuit.”

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Under her guidance, HR developed the infrastructure for a compensation model, employee incentives, merit raises and talent management. In 2009, she led the effort to switch the company from being fully insured, offering HMOs and PPOs, to being self-insured and introducing consumer-driven, high-deductible health plans. Since then, she says, the organization has saved millions of dollars while placing employees in charge of their own healthcare.

More changes followed in the years ahead. Under her direction, HR implemented a new HRIS/payroll system, transitioning to a paperless environment. Likewise, HR developed surveys and metrics to capture key data such as new-hire experiences. It also implemented on-site employee “Listening Sessions’ to gather employee feedback and developed talent-acquisition metrics along with detailed trend analyses to keep self-insured medical costs low.

One of the reasons Martin has been so successful in her job, say those who know and work with her, is due to her ability to build strong partner relationships with top leaders across the organization. She excels at identifying and deploying creative, entrepreneurial solutions, often contributing to key decisions involving business operations.

For example, two years ago, the company named a new managing director to its employee benefits East division that had been part of a prior acquisition. For nearly two years, Martin traveled to New York every month to help the director create a strategic workforce and organizational-development plan. She worked in the trenches, identified employee strengths and development needs, and helped reorganize the division.

Within 18 months, she says, the division was turned around and its profit margin jumped from 16 percent to 24 percent.

Martin’s career also was on the rise. She received a series of promotions–from HR director to vice president, first vice president and, more recently, senior vice president. In 2011, she earned an MBA, and has worked closely with the company’s director of mergers and acquisitions on more than 20 acquisitions. She is one of the organization’s first employees to contact target sellers to ensure that acquired employees are informed, feel welcomed and are efficiently onboarded.

“Alliant itself has been incredibly fast growing,” says COO Peter Carpenter, who has worked with Martin on numerous HR issues and projects. “Between attracting brokers from other firms and through acquisitions–two legs of our growth stool–she has built a machine around that and has successfully onboarded scores of people, hundreds and hundreds of people. She does it without a huge HR team.”

When describing Martin, he uses words such as savvy, smart, hard-working, empathetic and fun. He’s also impressed by the strength of her presence in small groups, at seminars or workshops, as well as in the boardroom.

“Jennifer engages in our business in a meaningful way,” Carpenter says. “We’re a very entrepreneurial organization … . Driving our [flexible] culture is one of her biggest contributions.”

Ironically, Martin previously held HR positions at high-tech companies where the culture was formal, highly structured and process-oriented.

“When I came here, it was like the wild, wild west,” she says. “I wasn’t sure I was going to survive because there was just nothing [in place]. Had I not been adaptable, I wouldn’t have lasted long here.”

She says she’s proud of what she has accomplished and especially enjoys looking back to see how far the HR industry and her department has come. She compares the value the department delivered and its perception among senior management–then and now.

“I always had hoped that there were big things in my future,” Martin says. “I’ve always been fairly ambitious and had some great mentors along the way. Twelve years ago, did I hope I would have a role like this? Yes. It’s been an exciting run.”

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Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at [email protected].