Fortifying the Front Lines & Battling Economic Downturn

Jill Yarberry-Laybourn Finance, Issue 14 - Nov/Dec 2014 Leave a Comment

Allen Berryman recounts the resilience he’s fostered as CFO of Stewart Information Services Corp.

In late 2007 and early 2008, the U.S. was facing a great financial crisis. The housing market had collapsed, and large financial institutions were failing. It was an uncertain time for our country’s leadership, for corporations, for small businesses and for the American family.

In order to survive every crisis, effective leadership is essential. Luckily, Stewart Information Services Corp. (SIS) had the help of Berryman_Allen_wordsAllen Berryman. Like the generals and leaders he enjoys reading about, the new Chief Financial Officer (CFO) was able to help the company centralize its essential business operations in order not only to survive but to prosper.

Gambling on Real Estate

One might wonder why Berryman was compelled to change companies, especially moving to a company so reliant on real estate.

“I knew real estate ran in cycles,” he said. “I knew real estate always comes back.”

So, rather than run away as fast as he could, Berryman met the challenge head on.

Going to Battle

When Berryman took over the CFO position, SIS was in the trenches. Due to the economic downturn, “Revenues were falling precipitously and cost considerations were moved to the forefront,” he said. “Each of the field offices had stand-alone accounting systems. Claims were skyrocketing. The cost rationalization process [we developed] was to eliminate all the maintenance costs of all those stand-alone accounting systems and go to an ERP system, a centralized accounting system.”

Berryman was hired at the beginning of the centralization process and the implementation of the ERP system. He was ready for battle, but fortunately, he wasn’t sent straight to the front lines. He was able to watch and emulate another great leader, Max Crisp. Crisp had the phenomenal record of being SIS’ CFO for 42 years. Berryman, like his colleagues, became an instant fan.

“On my first day, [Crisp] moved out of the CFO office and into a small interior office,” Berryman recalled. Crisp gradually relinquished his duties, which allowed Berryman to observe and learn. Berryman gleaned a lot in a short amount of time.

“He was a man of such high integrity and kindness,” Berryman said. “I quickly figured out I could talk to him about anything and he would give me a very honest answer. He was such a kind-hearted person. Had he not been here when I started, transitioning into the role would have been much more difficult.”

Eisenhower, Patton & Now Berryman

Once Berryman took over the leadership of the front lines, he knew that it was essential to gather the right troops.

“Eisenhower, while he was considered supreme commander of the allied forces, was at core a diplomat. He had to deal with many different politicians and different military leaders across all the various allied nations,” Berryman noted. “Patton’s job, on the other hand, was to go kill the enemy and win the war. They had two very different missions and two very different styles. And the point being, they were two leaders who were in the right place at the right time. That is important when you are thinking about organizing a team in the business world.” Berryman saw that there was a lot of talent already in Houston, as well as readily Berryman_Allen_sidebaravailable from the numerous field offices around the country.

“It was a logical thing for us to look first to our field organizations to find the skill sets we needed in order to do the centralized accounting operation,” he said. “Relocating to Houston was not something everyone could do.”

Berryman found the talent needed in the local Houston market, filling in any gaps. Eventually he was able to amass a team that was up to the task at hand.

“I have been really blessed and lucky to have that core team who has done a lot of the heavy lifting on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

A Very Long War

Every leader needs to be prepared for long bouts in the trenches. While Berryman knew that real estate always bounces back, he and many others were surprised by how long it took.

“What I didn’t know and what most people didn’t predict is that it would take almost five years for real estate to come back,” he said. “There was an element of, “Wow, this is taking longer than we expected.”

Berryman and his staff not only refused to give up, but felt an obligation to continue to provide the same great service they always had.

“I have to say, the team I was working with, people with high integrity, were concerned about doing right by our policyholders who depended on us to be there, as well as our employees who believed strongly in the company,” Berryman said. “No one ever lost sight of that fact: We will just have to work through these tough times.”

Maintaining Quality Service

One of the major questions Berryman and his team faced was, “How do we accomplish good customer service [to field offices] in an environment of rapid downsizing and rapid cost rationalization?”

The trick for them was to balance the number of people needed to accomplish the centralization effort with maintaining a high-quality level of service.

“With all the changes we went through during my first 12 months, that was pretty tough,” Berryman acknowledged.

He is the first to admit that there were mistakes made and a large learning curve. The people in the field, however, were very patient. “I was grateful for that,” Berryman said. “We never lost our desire to provide great service.”

Surviving the Siege & Emerging Victorious

So, how did Berryman help his team get through what must have looked like a very long and dark siege?

“I always utilize humor first because it helps manage the stress, makes us all a little more relatable, a little more human,” he said.

Berryman also helped his team survive this tough period by emphasizing perspective, noting, “You have to have a good perspective on the bigger picture.”

He helped his team to remember that they were in a transition phase and to stay focused on the end goal. “Make improvements day in and day out, and over a period of time those improvements will result in a successful operation. What is the old saying? ‘It is hard to remember that you are there to drain the swamp when you are up to your rear end in alligators.’ And there were clearly days when we were up to our tails in alligators. We had to just step back and look at the bigger objective and just do better bit by bit.”

Ultimately, they have done better, bit by bit. Like Eisenhower, Patton and Churchill, Berryman and SIS have emerged victorious. With strong leadership, not only have they come full circle; even through the most challenging of economic times, they continue to grow and demonstrate their financial know-how and strength.Berryman_Allen_full

Jill Yarberry-Laybourn is a freelance writer based in Colorado.

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