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Russ Opferkuch credits his engineering education for shaping the way he approaches risk management.
Oddly enough, that education also started him on his path to an unexpected career.
Mr. Opferkuch received a bachelor of science degree in engineering science, a highly technical discipline requiring more credits than a typical engineering program, in 1971 from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
As it turned out, his degree came at the same time that the aerospace industry was engaging in some considerable downsizing, making engineering jobs tough to come by.
"When I graduated it was a time when engineers were a dime a dozen and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," Mr. Opferkuch recalled. "I took a job with an insurance company inspecting property. It was a very eye-opening experience but one I knew I didn't want to do for the rest of my career."
Working as an engineering field representative with Improved Risk Mutuals from 1972 to 1975 gave Mr. Opferkuch a chance to see a lot of different risks though, before moving into the office from 1975 to 1978 as a senior staff review officer.
A small office at Improved Risk Mutuals set the stage for the next step in the future Bankers Trust risk manager's professional development.
"The president of the company asked if I would assist him in doing various projects," Mr. Opferkuch said. Working on those projects provided underwriting experience that would later prove useful, "though again I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do for my career," he said.
In time, though, a colleague saw an advertisement for a loss control specialist job at Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. "and said, 'Hey, this looks like you, " Mr. Opferkuch recalled. Indeed, the Seagram's opening proved a good fit, and began a lengthy and significant portion of Mr. Opferkuch's career.
He joined Seagram's in 1978 as a loss control engineer and analyst. The distilled spirits manufacturer's risks largely involved storing highly combustible materials for years at a time.
Mr. Opferkuch recognized that because alcohol is water soluble, sprinklers are a highly effective way of suppressing alcohol fires. However, the distilling industry was lumped with companies like chemical manufacturers in terms of loss control standards, thereby requiring more complex and costly fire prevention and suppression methods.
Becoming involved with the National Fire Protection Assn., Mr. Opferkuch ultimately headed a committee that developed a new loss-control standard specifically for the distilled spirits industry.
As time went on, other opportunities for professional development within Seagram's developed.
"The gentleman I worked for thought I could add other value to the business," Mr. Opferkuch said. Those thoughts prompted Don Davignon, Seagram's director of risk management, to involve Mr. Opferkuch more in the insurance side of the risk management operation.
Because of his past experience, Mr. Opferkuch started with the property side of the business as property and loss control manager from 1981 to 1983, then moved to the casualty side as casualty manager from 1983 to 1985. Ultimately, he rose to the position of insurance and loss control manager from 1985 to 1987.
Cautioning that he means no offense to those who have made careers in loss control, Mr. Opferkuch said he came to see greater opportunity on the risk financing side than the loss control side.
Among his achievements at Seagram's were developing valuation methods for aging beverage alcohol products that combined loss potentials and market demands in determining insurable value, premiums and loss recoveries.
He also prompted seismic evaluations of Seagram's California facilities, which resulted in strengthening programs for major buildings that in turn reduced the company's earthquake insurance requirements and led to reductions in associated costs.
While Mr. Opferkuch appreciated his positions at Seagram's, and credits Mr. Davignon for much of his development as a risk manager, Mr. Opferkuch ultimately decided to pursue opportunities outside the company.
"Seagram's is an excellent company," Mr. Opferkuch said. But, realizing he was the No. 2 risk management person at the biggest company in the industry with a superior who wasn't going anywhere any time soon, Mr. Opferkuch decided it was time to expand his experience.
The best way to do that, he reasoned, was consulting, and he took a position with Coopers & Lybrand, where he worked as a senior risk consultant from 1987 to 1989.
Consulting gave him an opportunity to look at a variety of industries and work on diverse risk management tasks, such as merger and acquisition reviews, risk management department functional audits, insurance program audits, risk control system reviews and selection of brokers and insurers.
Mr. Opferkuch came to Coopers with a plan to stay five years. But before that time was up, a position opened at Bankers Trust Co., which he decided could give him the same sort of experience he sought in a more hands-on setting.
"Consulting was a challenge, but you didn't always get to see the results of what you did," Mr. Opferkuch said.
Since taking his current position as vp of corporate risk and insurance for Bankers Trust in 1989, however, there have been challenges aplenty and the opportunity to see the results of his actions first hand.
And through it all, there's been no shortage of variety, as well as almost daily opportunities to continue his education.
"If there's one thing that's of very major importance to me, it's that it's very rare that I go home at night and can't say I didn't learn something," according to Mr. Opferkuch.