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When Bankers Trust Co. hired Russell C. Opferkuch as vp of corporate risk and insurance in 1989, it found the perfect formula for risk management success.
It was just a matter of finding someone who combines the problem-solving skills of an engineer with a "sixth sense" for seeing problems before they emerge.
"It really is kind of interesting because I look at him as adding enormous value in terms of hands-on blocking and tackling in risk consultation and risk mitigation, in addition to a first-rate job of managing the technical details of our risk and insurance programs," said Douglas G. Hoffman, managing director of corporate risk at New York-based Bankers Trust and Mr. Opferkuch's boss.
In recent years, Bankers Trust has developed a very broad view of the subject of risk. Today the company's corporate risk and insurance operations are a sub-unit of Bankers Trust's Global Risk Management Department, which combines responsibility for market risk, credit risk and operational risk.
"That's truly the application of holistic risk because we've aggregated all of our risks into one whole," Mr. Hoffman said.
And while Mr. Hoffman works to design approaches for managing the company's operational risks, Mr. Opferkuch, 48, who came into risk management after studying engineering in college, helps turn many of those designs into reality.
"While I can talk about the architecture, he's one of my key people on the front line doing the engineering," Mr. Hoffman said. "That engineering background, I think, gives him the ability to apply risk concepts, risk management, hands-on, day-to-day and very effectively."
One example of Mr. Opferkuch's hands-on ability was the crafting of an ergonomics plan for the company aimed at reducing both workers compensation claims and, more significantly, lost employee time due to repetitive motion injuries (see story, page 123).
Another was the risk manager's seizing of the opportunity to streamline Bankers Trust's insurance program by designing a global property and business interruption program.
A global financial services company operating in 55 countries with nearly $4.7 billion in annual revenue and more than $100 billion in assets, Bankers Trust has at times seen as much as 70% of its income coming from overseas operations.
Yet, with investment banking and trust operations in addition to its commercial banking activities, Bankers Trust differs from a traditional commercial bank that would have very distinct operations in different countries. Instead, most of Bankers Trust's operations are integrated and so assessing the loss potential from business interruption can be very complex.
In a step toward simplifying the issue and increasing Bankers Trust's protection from loss, "Russ formed a global program that was integrated with a global broker and a single insurer in most cases," Mr. Hoffman noted.
Rather than having multiple policies covering various individual Bankers Trust locations around the world, "when possible, if we can have one policy respond globally, we do that," Mr. Opferkuch said.
Like the office environment in its Manhattan headquarters building, where Mr. Opferkuch's risk and insurance management operation is set in the middle of the company's global risk management operations without partitions on the 28th floor, Bankers Trust strives to create a "no walls" business environment.
In such an operation, events in one country could have an effect on operations in another, Mr. Opferkuch noted. "The potential is you could have an uninsured loss in one country simply because a loss occurred in another," he said. "So we have tried to address that problem by taking a global approach."
Aon Risk Services Inc.-formerly Alexander & Alexander Inc.-is Bankers Trust's global broker. With its network of offices around the world matching up well with its client's locations, Aon's local offices can ensure that Bankers Trust has any local coverages that may be necessary in addition to the global policy.
"While we attempt to buy coverage on a global basis, there are some local needs," Mr. Opferkuch said.
In the event that local regulations or needs require insurance in addition to the coverage the global program provides, Aon's New York office is responsible for ensuring that the local offices buy the right coverage at the best price, and that the company is neither missing needed coverage nor buying too much, the risk manager said.
CIGNA Corp. leads the global program, which includes approximately 20 other insurers. The program has separate domestic and non-domestic limits, which Mr. Opferkuch would not disclose.
Alan Friedlander of Aon Risk Services in New York, a senior vp with A&A before its recent acquisition by Aon, says Mr. Opferkuch's crafting of the global program in response to a complex coverage situation his company faced is typical of his ability as a problem-solver.
"There are, in my opinion, a limited number of true risk managers and Russ is definitely one of them," Mr. Friedlander said. "His standard practice is to understand and manage the exposures that they face and then find practical solutions to protect Bankers Trust."
And it's not just on the insurance side. With a background that also includes considerable loss control experience, Mr. Opferkuch is always looking for ways to reduce exposures, Mr. Friedlander said.
"He's always thinking about preventing and mitigating losses at the same time he's making sure there's a financial solution for them," he said.
"The deductive reasoning process leads him to solutions that make sense and are practical and available and probably the best solution without just jumping for 'Let's buy insurance'*" Mr. Friedlander said. "It's addressing and solving the problem before it becomes a problem."
"He'll never look at an issue and say, 'Here's the situation. How does our insurance help?' He looks at the risks first," said Antonina Basile, an assistant vp in Mr. Opferkuch's risk and insurance group. "It's more, 'How can we hedge our risks and aggregate certain risks and protect the bank as a whole?'*"
Mr. Opferkuch's accomplishments at Bankers Trust earned him a place on the 1997 Business Insurance Risk Management Honor Roll, representing financial institutions.
William McKitty, a senior vp at Minet Inc. in New York, describes Mr. Opferkuch's approach as "artfully analytical," a description he says is not a contradiction in terms.
"He's a very good problem-solver," Mr. McKitty said. "He's
very good at stepping back and taking a problem apart and examining it in terms of its fixable, mendable parts."
"Russ is a technically very strong risk manager," said Christine LaSala, president of the New York division of Johnson & Higgins, now J&H Marsh & McLennan."There's a lot of depth in his understanding of both coverages and the exposures his organization faces, how those relate to one another and some real work in safety and loss control."
"He combines technical expertise with very high-impact, big-picture creative thinking," said Claudia Mastrapasqua, a vp at the former J&H in New York. "One minute he's dealing with some very micro issue and the next minute he's dealing with some sort of big-picture issue. It's very interesting to watch."
Mr. Opferkuch's three-person staff is small for such a massive, far-flung operation, the risk manager admits. "The way we accomplish what we need to accomplish is through effective use of our brokers."
"And we treat them the same way as our employees," Mr. Opferkuch said. "We view them as an extension of ourselves and we view them as needing to provide value to the insurance equation."
Bankers Trust's brokers can't get away with serving simply as go-betweens. "We pay our brokers on a fee basis with them demonstrating to us the value of their services," Mr. Opferkuch said.
The bank expects brokers to add value by assisting with risk management's risk and claims analysis efforts.
"We certainly ask our brokers to provide us with information as to claims that occur within our industry-hopefully others' claims-that could provide us some insight into our potential exposures," Mr. Opferkuch said.
"There have been several occasions where Russ and the team at Bankers Trust have wanted to do some brainstorming-where did they want the risk management program to go in the future and what should it look like-without any preconceived notions," Mr. Friedlander said. "We did one of those not so long ago. That's another way of being part of the family and not just placing insurance."
According to Ms. LaSala, Mr. Opferkuch expects brokers to "grow and keep up with changes at Bankers Trust, and he provides enough insight into the organization to do that."
"There aren't many boundaries that he draws, so once you're part of his team of brokers, there's a lot of trust and interaction," she said.
At the same time, he communicates his expectations very clearly, Ms. LaSala said. "Nothing wants for clarity in dealing with Russ."
"What I appreciate about dealing with Bankers Trust is they do their homework about a service provider in advance," Ms. LaSala said.
"We choose our brokers based on their perceived strengths," Mr. Opferkuch said. "Nothing is etched in stone with regard to our relationships with brokers or insurers. If we don't get the service we demand, we won't be there, which is no different than if they sat here and worked for us as an employee."
Among Mr. Opferkuch's expectations is that brokers represent Bankers Trust accurately. Nothing is presented to underwriters without the bank first having an opportunity to sign off on the material.
"When you're dealing with underwriters and you're going through a renewal or giving them a renewal submission, that's basically you representing your company," the risk manager said. "We realize a lot of people are going to read what we put forward and we want it to be accurate."
"I think if you were to speak to our brokers, you would find that we're much more active in the renewal process than most of our peers," Mr. Opferkuch said.
And that's not necessarily a bad trait from the brokers' perspective.
"He's a real plus from a broker standpoint if you put him in front of an underwriter because one, he has done his homework, and two, he instinctively understands underwriters, and a lot of people don't," Minet's Mr. McKitty said.
"In his years at Bankers Trust, I think he's grown the risk management department into one of the most respected in the New York market and one of the most respected globally among financial institutions," Ms. Mastrapasqua said.
Nor are Mr. Opferkuch's high expectations a turnoff for many brokers.
"He expects an excellence from his brokers in the normal course of events and yet he does it in the nicest, sanest way possible," Mr. McKitty said. "From a broker's standpoint, people here love to work on his business. And it's difficult business.
"I don't mean it's replete with losses," the Minet broker added. Rather, it's that Bankers Trust "usually comes up with questions nobody has ever asked, and usually it's Russ. And if you've been a broker for a long time, that can be a little threatening."
Not only does Mr. Opferkuch ask questions that haven't been asked before, he also has a knack for recognizing risks others haven't noticed yet.
"He's very tenacious and takes his role very seriously. He's very determined, and I think he has a sort of 'sixth sense' for that hands-on blocking and tackling," Mr. Hoffman said. "He will identify a risk as it's emerging."
In addition to the ergonomics initiative, Mr. Opferkuch spotted and managed a hepatitis outbreak at Bankers Trust in the early '90s.
In that instance, he combined his "sixth sense" and his problem-solving ability to prevent losses to the company when 45 employees and 24 guests of the company were infected after dining in the cafeteria.
"In terms of his sixth sense, he identified when the first hepatitis case broke that we had a risk management problem," Mr. Hoffman said. After seeing a hepatitis case mentioned in an intraofficecommunication, Mr. Opferkuch immediately alerted Mr. Hoffman that he thought it was something risk management should monitor.
"And it was Russ's due diligence on contractual responsibility and indemnification that put us in good stead to sort out responsibility for the outbreak," Mr. Hoffman said.
Ultimately the outbreak was traced back to an employee of the food service vendor operating the company's cafeteria/executive dining room. The company recovered from the vendor the costs for salary continuance and medical expenses, including the costs of testing more than 3,000 people who might have been exposed.
Vendor risk management is being closely reviewed in newly revised corporate risk and insurance guides Mr. Opferkuch is developing for Bankers Trust's various operations. The guides are another way Mr. Opferkuch tries to head off potential risk management issues in a huge worldwide company where it is difficult to manage every risk from its office in New York.
"We try to manage the risk at the local level," he said. "We set the standards, if you will, but the business unit manages the risks day to day."
To help Bankers Trust managers, the risk management operation previously produced a single-volume guide addressing exposures and coverages throughout the company.
The revised guide involves several smaller booklets aimed at more specific operations and functions.
One of those booklets will address vendor contract management. Mr. Opferkuch developed a risk assessment questionnaire, giving users a tool for sorting exposures according to their level of risk within designated risk categories.
From there, those managing vendor contracts can determine what each vendor's insurance requirements are. Designed to be user-friendly, the questionnaire also helps those managing vendor contracts determine the sort of hold-harmless indemnification language required in vendor contracts.
The goal of the various guides is to enable those in the local units to handle 95% of the risk and insurance matters they confront and to educate them to recognize the other 5% as requiring special attention.
"You only want them coming back to you with the oddball," the risk manager said.
The risk and insurance guides are another example of Mr. Opferkuch combining his problem-solving ability with that "sixth sense" Mr. Hoffman finds so valuable.
Mindi Rosen, an assistant vp on Mr. Opferkuch's staff, recalled recently asking an insurer for input on the revised risk and insurance guide.
"They were very impressed that we were putting one together," Ms. Rosen said. "We said, 'We've had one for five years. "