Lisa Corless, 51, was named president of the Lansing-based AF Group in May 2016. Prior to this appointment, she served as senior vice president, chief administration officer and chief of staff. Before joining AF Group, Corless served as chief operating officer for Texas Mutual Insurance Company and was responsible for all insurance operations.
What is your take on the insurance industry in the Lansing region?
I think it is really an exciting time to be in the insurance industry in Lansing. There is so much going on. It’s an absolutely thriving industry. We have several insurance companies that are headquartered here – more than 10,000 jobs. It’s just not what people think about when they think of insurance companies. There are a lot of tech jobs. There are data science jobs. There are investigative jobs. There are business development jobs. The industry is evolving and it’s exciting.
Lansing as a city is really a good place to be right now. There is a lot of economic growth. The Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) and the Chamber of Commerce have done a tremendous job in attracting and representing the businesses in the region. I’ve been here for three years and I’ve seen the growth. Our organization is growing and some of the other insurance organizations are growing as well.
As you look at the insurance industry where is Lansing headed? Is there a city or region that it should be looking to emulate or even displace?
For insurance, we have already surpassed larger cities like Nashville. There are some cities that are really big for insurance, Hartford or Dallas for example, and there are a couple of places on the West Coast. But really for a concentration of insurance opportunities, I don’t really see any other cities this size that really compete with us.
I think that we are a hidden gem. When I first started working here, I really didn’t realize what an industry mecca this was. Obviously, I knew about Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and I know about Accident Fund and AF Group. But as I got here and started seeing all of the different companies that were here, I just wasn’t aware.
As the industry grows, one of the challenges is attracting and retaining high quality talent.
When you look at the job force are you finding what you need?
I have been, and continue to be, impressed with the talented and engaged, highly educated workforce that is here in the Lansing area and at this company. If there is one thing that makes us really unique, it’s the people that we employ – over 600 right here in the Lansing area and it’s really something special, something that I haven’t seen at other companies where I’ve worked.
We have attracted people from all across the country, but we are finding a lot of talent right here in the greater Lansing area. It’s a really great workforce to draw from. The school districts, the Michigan Creative Educators and the colleges are creating the leaders of the future. It’s a wealth of talented people to choose from.
There are six large insurance companies in the Lansing area. In many ways, you work together to promote the industry; in other ways, you are competitors.
Where is the balance for AF Group?
Obviously, there are opportunities for collaboration. Our chief information officer is the chair of the Lansing IT Council. We just attended a Capital Area Comeback event for kids who are home from college. All of the members join together working to create the event, but we all individually talk to the candidates. It’s up to us and it’s up to them to find the right fit. There is a healthy tension between the collaboration and the competition.
What’s the right fit for AF Group?
One of the things that really makes us attractive is the subtle differences in our type of business. We really focus on partnerships, with our agent community, with the employers that we insure. We partner with the physicians that take care of our injured workers. And we have a great culture, a culture that really is committed to creating an innovative and inclusive environment. And we are community minded. Just this past year the AF Group and our employees, through our sharing and caring campaign, pledged $434,000 to support several local and national charitable organizations. I think that also plays into who we are. Being philanthropic is a very important part of where we find our values.
You talk about innovation as a core element of the company’s culture. What would be a good example of that?
We have a department that is dedicated to innovation. One of the things that attracted me to AF Group was all of the innovation awards that the company has won. We have something called a Medical Center of Excellence that really helps achieve the best outcomes for the injured workers. For example, we are looking at using virtual reality in ways that might make it easier for our policy holders. We have created some software products that we use internally and some of our customers are interested in exploring it. These aren’t necessarily related to insurance.
We also have a robot that we use to have people participate in meetings when they are at a remote location. We just worked with a group in China and the Chinese team used the robot. They literally can walk around the office through the robot and interact in real time with the people they are partnering with during meetings. People don’t think about that when they think of insurance.
AF Group with its headquarters changed the face of downtown Lansing. What are your thoughts on that and the potential to grow in the city?
We’ve been in our current headquarters for almost six years. We are very proud of this building and the vision of our parent company, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and the strong public and private partnership with the city that transformed this abandoned power plant and turned it into a state-of-the-art green headquarters. We have 600 employees, give or take a few, but we do have room to grow. We were deliberate about that. When we designed our new building there probably was a bit more room than we needed. But we wanted the ability to grow and the space to do it.
How are you positioned for the changes that will happen in your industry? What’s down the road?
We are coming off one of our best years ever. There are going to be some challenges, but we are really well poised for them. We have the right people, talent and partnerships to take us into the future, and continue to offer the best-in-class products that are valued by our customers. We are looking to expand our current offerings and other products that our partners might want.
Are there challenges for your niche in the insurance industry?
There are market cycles in insurance and we are entering into one of the more competitive phases. The interest rate environment that we’ve been living with makes it even tougher. In years past, insurance companies really had to make their money on the investment market. We have to be as efficient as possible, because we are not going to make our money there.
This conversation with Lisa Corless has been edited for space and clarity.