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When you're talking with Russ Opferkuch about life and business at Bankers Trust Co., he'll frequently finish an observation by saying, "That's the BT way."
More often than not, that "BT way" emphasizes team over hierarchy, an approach that's clearly evident in Mr. Opferkuch's risk and insurance management group.
The four-member team works closely together-literally. Mr. Opferkuch, vp of corporate risk and insurance, and assistant vps Antonina Basile and Mindi Rosen share a small office on the 28th floor of Bankers Trust's headquarters building in New York's financial district.
Just outside that office Therese Walker, workers compensation and claims consultant, has her cubicle.
An office environment heavy on low-rise cubicles and light on walls and large private offices is part of the BT way, Mr. Opferkuch notes.
Watching the risk manager and his staff work, it's clear that in their case the familiarity the office setting creates has bred only increased respect for one another while improving the way they do their jobs.
"We're a tag team," Ms. Basile said, adding that the opportunities for interaction that the office environment provides have been very beneficial.
"I figured I probably would learn more and be exposed to more" in this arrangement, said Ms. Rosen, who joined the staff late last year.
"Luckily, we can all work closely together," she said. "We're all the kind of people who can focus when we have to."
The open communication the close proximity fosters is heightened by Mr. Opferkuch's open approach to sharing information with his staff.
"You know what to expect. All of his cards are on the table," Ms. Walker said. "If Russ knows, we know."
That shared information benefits the company when someone like Mr. Opferkuch's boss, Douglas Hoffman, BT's managing director of corporate risk, needs information and the risk manager isn't available.
"Because we're in the same office and just because of the way Russ works, we're all on the same page," Ms. Basile said. One of the staff members can usually answer the question.
The communication coupled with Mr. Opferkuch's management style helps prevent unpleasant surprises. When given a deadline, staff members believe they can say upfront that it's not realistic rather than waiting until a day before the deadline to acknowledge the problem, Ms. Basile said.
"He's also very quick to say, 'Wait a minute, something's going on here, let's reprioritize it,' if he sees you're getting overwhelmed," she said.
The three members of Mr. Opferkuch's staff came to Bankers Trust from agent-broker backgrounds that allowed each to bring some unique expertise to the team. And Mr. Opferkuch's confidence in that team, coupled with the lack of an ego that might stand in the staff's way, gives each of them frequent opportunities to shine.
"When he asks me, 'What do you think?' it's not that he's just asking to be asking," Ms. Walker said. "He really cares what I think."
"He respects the fact that I was a broker for 10 years and he's never been a broker," Ms. Rosen said. "He's okay with the fact that in some areas I might know more than he does."
"If you're the person most up to speed, he'll let you do the talking," Ms. Basile said. "He's got a lot of respect for his team. He'll be the first to say, 'You know what? I don't know anything about it. You should be talking with Antonina.'*"
"He's really put together a very good team," Ms. Walker said. "He allows you to do your job. He gives you a lot of rope and he allows you to go with it. And if he really thinks you're going off on a tangent, he'll say, 'Now stop it.'*"
Mr. Opferkuch doesn't typically sit in on Ms. Walker's meetings with insurance company representatives, she noted. "If he does, something's wrong. He just leaves it in my hands to handle it," she said.
At present, Ms. Rosen works primarily with property/casualty coverages while Ms. Basile focuses largely on directors and officers, professional liability, bank-ers blanket bond and coverages involving the company's Bermuda-based captive.
In a year she and Ms. Basile will switch roles so each will be "cross-trained," something Ms. Rosen believes will be good for the bank, but a move she thinks many other risk managers might avoid.
"I would think a lot of managers probably wouldn't want to take the time to bring somebody up to speed," she said.
But Mr. Opferkuch doesn't leave his "teacher hat" in the classroom when he's finished teaching Associate in Risk Management classes. His role as educator is a very important part of his dealings with his staff.
"When I decided I wanted to switch from brokerage to risk management,I talked to three or four companies and I was very much impressed by Russ," Ms. Rosen said. "I knew that not only would he be a person I would respect, but he would be such a good teacher."
"He always finds the time for you," Ms. Basile said. "I think that's one of the reasons he's the best manager I've ever worked for."
"Besides being a teacher he's a big picture guy," Ms. Walker said. "I've worked with people who say, 'Do this.' Well I'm the sort of person who wants to know why and he doesn't mind taking the time to give you the big picture."
"Doing that and knowing what he expects to get out of it at the end makes me do a better job," she said. "When I do something and go to him, I know he's going to have a question, so you try to anticipate what that question is going to be."
And that's much of what risk management is, Ms. Walker noted. "You should have more than one option."
The respect Mr. Opferkuch has for his staff is clearly appreciated. And it's reciprocated by a group that's fiercely loyal to him.
"I'd say Bankers Trust is very lucky to have him," Ms. Walker said.
"I guess the big thing is Russ really cares," Ms. Basile said. "We all tease him, 'If you ever leave here, you have to take us with you.' And I can't say that about too many managers."