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Leader drives growing firm

Rochester Business Journal
September 28, 2012

Kirk Jensen has spent his first three months at First Niagara Risk Management Inc. traveling throughout its territory, trying to meet as many of his nearly 400 employees as practical.


"It's been a great experience uncovering all the wonderful people we have and trying to help them work together across all of those offices that have just recently come together," he said last week during a stop at the insurance firm's headquarters in Brighton.


Jensen, 51, began work June 29 as managing director and senior executive at Risk Management.


"I've been on the road since I joined," he said. "First Niagara has grown so much over the last 24 months, lots of acquisitions both on the insurance side and on the banking side."


Risk Management employs 110 people in the Rochester market, Jensen said. It ranked second, based on local personnel, to Paychex Insurance Agency Inc. on the Rochester Business Journal's most recent list of local commercial insurance firms.


Its premium volume was nearly $125 million in 2011, the lists shows. Commercial policies totaled more than $63.5 million and personal policies nearly $12.5 million.
Risk Management has tracked the march of First Niagara Bank N.A. into Pennsylvania and southern New England in the last three years.


Jensen's wife, Sarah, and children Andrew, 12, and Samantha, 10, remain at the family home in the suburbs of Boston, where Jensen previously was a senior vice president in charge of business development for seven years at William Gallagher Associates Insurance Brokers Inc.


"The thing that attracted me was the fact that you've got a lot of people who have come together in a reasonably short period of time as part of a financial institution environment," Jensen said.


"We are leveraging what we know, for the benefit of our customers, as well as a broadened solution set for clients. I think that's very powerful. That was one of the attractions."


Another draw was President and CEO John Koelmel, who orchestrated the recent acquisitions.


"He's a very energetic guy," Jensen said. "I'm a reasonably low-key guy, but I'm a reasonably high-energy guy as well."


Working here
Jensen has been spending one day each week in Rochester and is based here initially, say executives at Buffalo-based holding company First Niagara Financial Group Inc.


"My office is here in Rochester. Rochester is one of our two largest brokerage operations. We have so much expertise and support that's both here and in Buffalo," he said.


"As I look to the future, I'd expect that I'm going to be someplace on Mondays and Fridays, and on the road Tuesday through Thursday."


He expects his travel commitments to decrease over time.


"I hope so," he said. "My family hopes so. My kids keep asking, 'Dad, when are you coming home this week?'"


Jensen, a 1983 Harvard graduate, spent 19 years with Marsh & McLennan Cos. and predecessor Johnson & Higgins before joining William Gallagher in 2005.


"I used to be very outwardly focused, client-focused, in working with our various producers at William Gallagher Associates," he said. "I was probably on the road almost as much, because I was at a large account practice and a couple of other things, clean technology and energy and such. It was mostly in customer acquisitions."


Jensen has spent much of the last three months becoming familiar with Risk Management personnel and practices.


"We provide a set of services on intangibles," he said. "Until you actually need your insurance to respond, it's just a piece of paper. You have this contract that you hope is going to be responsive at the time your customer has a loss."


Jensen replaced interim Managing Director Michael Strakhov, who replaced former CEO Joseph Teresi, who left in January after more than five years at First Niagara.


Teresi resigned because of philosophical differences, saying he wanted Risk Management to operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of the bank rather than as a part of it.


"I focus less on where we've been than where we're going to go," Jensen said. "It's not change in management so much, but change in the fact that we are now beyond the (Thruway) to three different states, and where John Koelmel is expecting the bank to be over the next three to five years.


"The focus was on bringing people together and leveraging those solutions that we do well."


First Niagara has 6,000 employees with nearly 430 bank branches and some $35 billion in assets and $28 billion in deposits. The company has 28 percent of its insurance-related workforce in the Rochester market.


"In Rochester, there's a great team here," Jensen said. "There's a great history in Rochester of delivering high-end solutions to complex risk issues.


"So how do we take what we do here so well and replicate that in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, out in Albany, in Norwalk, to the clients we have there who are in similar solutions?"


Company mix
Jensen thinks the relationship between First Niagara's banking and insurance segments is a good one.


"The larger institution of First Niagara has a tremendous amount of resources available to us," he said. "If I said, 'Let's go out and spend $1 million on a TV ad campaign,' there'd be a lot of people who might scratch their heads and say, 'You're going to do what?' So, yes, a lot of people have an impact on those decisions.


"But we also have a great marketing team in Buffalo that has helped us execute on some pretty neat ideas. While we have people who are in marketing roles within First Niagara Risk Management, we don't have the scale at 400 people to execute on the great ideas we have."


Risk Management's legal, IT and human resources advice comes from Buffalo, Jensen said.


"We're driving the strategy-and the execution of that strategy-down to our customers," he said, "but we're utilizing the resources of this much larger organization to help us get there, as well as the solutions they offer on the banking side."


Suzanne Nasipak-Chapman, regional director at Risk Management and First Niagara's market executive in Rochester, thinks Jensen's experience with an independent insurance agency and a national brokerage will serve the company well.


"Whenever a new leader comes in, you're always a little curious and a little dubious at the same time," she said. "I've spent a fair amount of time with Kirk, and even though he isn't necessarily in this market a lot, he's very available.


"We're at an interesting crossroads in terms of size. You don't want to get so big that you don't stay nimble for your customers. It's been very important to many of us as leaders that we have somebody that really understands that customer experience. This is a people business, first and foremost. He's a big proponent of that."


In addition, Jensen will help Risk Management become more efficient, Nasipak-Chapman said.


"He has some interesting context in terms of building best practices and things that will help us take a good look, a fresh look, at ourselves and what we need to be," she said.
"How are we going to make our five-year plan? How are we going to keep growing to be relevant and have the power to get what our clients need out of the insurance marketplace as you continue to see narrowing and consolidation in the insurance industry?"


Jensen intends to grow Risk Management in the local marketplace.


"If that means growing organically or growing via acquisition or whatever, it's going to grow at the pace of our business," he said.


"Rochester is a very attractive market for us. It's a high-end market, with a lot of sophisticated buyers who, I think, are responsive to a more consultative approach to insurance and risk management. I think it matches up well with what we're really trying to do."


tadams@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

9/28/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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