The unabridged version of this interview originally appeared in the Fall 2013 Edition of IASA’s Interpreter. It is the 31st in a series of interviews conducted for the publication by Nolan’s Chairman & CEO, Dennis Sullivan and Executive Vice President, Steve Discher.

Sullivan: Most of our readers know USAA, but from your perspective, give us a little background and insights on the organization. How has it changed, and where are you today?
Bergner: I think the most important thing to understand about USAA is that we’ve stayed true to our original purpose. In 1922, a group of about 25 Army officers got together in downtown San Antonio at the Gunter Hotel, and talked about the difficulties they all had getting insurance. They made an arrangement to insure one another in what was really an early form of reciprocal insurance. They trusted each other because they had a shared sense of values. This agreement was built on a very simple mission—to take care of one another.

So, here we are 91 years later, and USAA is a lot bigger and provides a full range of financial services. We’re growing to about ten million members this year, and we still have that exact same focus on looking out for one another that our founders had back in 1922. Our purpose and identity have evolved as times have changed, but our fundamental focus of why we exist and who we serve is still intact.

Today, we still serve the military community and their families. The commitment to serve our country and the values that our men and women in uniform and their families ascribe to is what makes this association a special place. We have about 26,000 employees today who are highly committed, and we’re a direct model, so our members get to know us on the telephone, by email, mobile, chat or face-to-face in our financial centers.

I’m frequently asked to give an example when I talk about the best members in the world. In one case, a long-term member’s wife lost a valuable piece of jewelry and they filed a claim with us, which we promptly paid. A year later, he sent us a letter saying they’d found the jewelry, and attached to the letter was a check for the exact amount of the claim—a year later. His note said, “My deepest personal thanks for being the best and most professional insurance company around. We have been doing business with USAA for over 50 years—insurance, annuities, CDs, IRAs, mutual funds, etc.—and you have always been tops. Your integrity is unmatched.” We are blessed to have members who are just tremendously moral, ethical and honorable people.

Another thing we keep top of mind, and our employees are acutely aware of, is that many of our members have been in really tough, far-away places, like Afghanistan or Iraq, doing the heavy lifting for our country. Keeping this in mind sharpens our focus on service and making sure that we are relevant to their current situation.

Sullivan: What about your military background has enhanced your abilities for running a business? Beyond the affinity with your membership, you’ve got to be profitable and grow premium.
Bergner: I would say it starts with my dad who was an Army colonel. I grew up in San Antonio and recall driving with him by the building where USAA used to be located. I remember him telling me, “USAA is one of those places that truly understands me as an Army officer.” This was just after Vietnam, and our military was viewed much differently then. He had deep regard for USAA and wherever we moved, whatever post, camp or station, USAA was with us.

When I was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, my dad administered the oath to me. After I finished, he looked me in the eye and said, “Kevin, there’s just one thing I need you to do. Take care of your soldiers, and they’ll take care of everything else. Take care of the people you’re responsible for, they’ll take care of the nation.”

Over the years, I have come to understand the importance of that charge, and I have worked really hard to fulfill that mandate to be a servant leader.

When I arrived at USAA, I found, and have been humbled by, a group of people who are just as committed in a very different way. My mandate is the same: Take care of the people here at USAA, so they can take care of our members and provide world-class service. I think that servant leadership is one of the key underpinnings of our management style at USAA along with our commitment to our workforce and our members. You’ll also find tremendous accountability and understanding of being good stewards of resources among our management team.

Discher: What are your thoughts on the external environment in terms of how USAA continues to present itself to the market and effectively compete in the long run?
Bergner: I think the biggest factors we are mindful of right now are the changes in technology. In particular, our members expect us to serve them and be relevant to them on mobile.

The speed at which technologies are developing and evolving these days is having a profound implication. For example, we’ve invested in a capability called Young Drivers Intelligence. It’s a telematics device that a parent can put in their automobile to monitor a young driver’s performance.

It allows the parent and young driver to have a better understanding of their driving habits in order to become better drivers. Ultimately, for us it’s all about saving lives. At this point, we don’t collect the data. We don’t use it for rating purposes.  It’s free, and we make it available to young drivers and their parents. It’s not about ROI. We put it in the category of doing the right thing.

Discher: How are you using technology to make members’ lives easier while they’re deployed?
Bergner: The nature of deployment is that someone is overseas and someone is still at home. Our members are most likely to use social media as a way to stay connected, in particular, they use Skype. We challenged ourselves to meet members on their terms and created an interface that we call the Claims Communication Center. It’s a place where members can post photographs or where we can answer their questions. There’s a very comfortable feel to it, and it’s very responsive.

More and more these technology-enabled social domains are where our members prefer to have their conversations. We’re challenging ourselves to be in those places for them. Today, it’s defined largely around the claim, however, we see it becoming the way we communicate over the lifecycle of the member.

Discher: You spoke about the notion of servant leader, and your philosophy of carrying that across the organization and leading by example. How do you permeate that across the entire culture of your organization?
Bergner: If you looked up the definition of servant leader in the dictionary, our CEO, Joe Robles’ picture should be there. He is without question the most caring, the most employee- and member-centered person you could have running a business. Joe sets forth a very straightforward commitment to take care of the people we’re responsible for. If you walked around our campus you would see that manifest itself. We engage with and listen to our employees, and that takes a lot of different forms. We use Gallup surveys as a mechanism for gauging, but I use a much more basic management approach—I walk around and talk to employees, listening to what they’re working on and understanding whether the tools they’re using are effective or not, where the glitches are. I use their input to hold us accountable to work on those issues and improve their capability to do their job.

Our employees ultimately are all about taking care of the member. Their engagement helps to shape innovation. Over 90 percent of them have been involved in some activity with innovation this year, and they are just generally committed to helping us be a better company. That focus on servant leadership has a real clear identity around it and it really does start with our boss. It’s exactly what Joe expects us to do—take great care of those employees who in turn help us to better serve our members.

Sullivan: As you look at the future of the insurance industry, what are the challenges USAA is anticipating, and what are you doing to get ahead of the game?
Bergner: As we look ahead, I can’t help but be struck by the potential changes technology could manifest. It’s tough to even say what those might be. Five years ago, could you picture a smartphone that was going to do what it’s doing for you today?
Technology will continue to impact our business in many forms. Our challenge is to be agile enough to adapt to the right technology for our members benefit.

I think there are opportunities for much more control from a loss prevention standpoint in the home. On the other hand, we have some serious technology use challenges today with distracted driving and texting, which people don’t take as seriously as they should. Having lost my mother to a drunk driver when I was 10 years old, I know all about the tragedies of preventable loss.

We’re in a similar circumstance today, and I really do hope that we don’t have to just rely on generational change to deal with distracted driving.

Sullivan: Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share with our readers?
Bergner: My last point is to encourage everyone to think about the commitment of the military men and women who are deployed around the world, serving and taking care of this country so you and I can enjoy a comfortable life with little concern for our security. USAA has made a commitment that 30 percent of new employees will either be a vet or the spouse of a vet. We are right on that target today.

Every company out there has the opportunity to attract these wonderfully responsible and motivated people to work for them. We really have an obligation as a country to take care of those young men and women. They volunteered to serve and protect us. We should volunteer to take care of them when they need a job. My hat is off to my peers who are making this a reality.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE:  This article was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of IASA’s Interpreter. All rights reserved. Copyright IASA ©2013