Tier One Interview: Dierdre Woodruff
This month Jay sits down with Dierdre Woodruff, Senior Vice President at Puritan Life Insurance Company of America. The pair discuss Dierdre's career in the life insurance industry, direct versus agent-driven distribution methods, and traveling with her family. Read it all below!
JAY: Given the uptick in the popularity of annuities, this month, I wanted to feature a top tier participant in the manufacture and distribution of annuities. Dierdre, I am so happy you agreed to talk about your work with Puritan Life and the growing success you are having with a couple of fixed annuities distributions.
There are some Tier One Interviewees who I have known, or have known of, for decades. This is not the case in this instance. You and I recently met when I made a strategy presentation to you and other members of the Board of Investors Preferred Life, a leading PPLI carrier. We will talk more about Investors Preferred but, first, tell me about Puritan Life and your role with the insurer. Am I correct in stating that your title is simply Senior Vice President because you wear so many hats?
DIERDRE: I was honored to be asked to be included in the Tier One Interview Series! Yes, I am wearing at lot of hats at the company. We’re a small team but we have to cover a lot of ground and that goes for everyone on the team. We constantly run into projects that don’t slot nicely into someone’s existing role and it’s a big part of our culture for everyone to roll up their sleeves and learn what they need to learn to tackle something new, myself included. It’s not uncommon for me to have a day where I jump from working on a YouTube marketing campaign to reviewing product pricing to approving administrative procedures to overseeing actuarial results. It certainly never gets boring!
Puritan Life has been around since 1958 and is headquartered in Scottsdale, AZ. We have three product lines: annuity, life and Medicare supplement. Today, we are known for our digital investment and have successfully maintained our reputation for warm and personal customer care throughout our digital advancement. We like to call this “The Puritan Way.”
JAY: You moved to Arizona in the first grade and have lived there ever since, mainly in Scottsdale. I was curious about how you came to the life insurance industry in a part of the country not normally associated with life insurance company home offices. You have your father to thank for this and I want to hear more about your upbringing and the family business where your career started.
DIERDRE: I like to say that I grew up in the insurance business. My father, Wayne Schreck, was an actuary and insurance executive, owning and serving as president of several insurance companies during his career. One of my first jobs, in middle school, was sorting through policyholder mail to make sure everything had been removed before the envelopes were thrown away. But my college education wasn’t insurance related; I graduated from Arizona State University with a social work degree.
Pretty quickly after graduating, I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to pursue, so while I was trying to figure out what I actually did want to do with my life, my father offered me a job. He owned a third-party administration company and a life insurance company at the time, and in my time working for him, he taught me everything about running a life insurance company: from statutory accounting to licensing, to policy administration, to interacting with state regulators.
Although my father has been out of the insurance industry for a number of years, and I’ve since met a lot of smart insurance industry people, he remains the person I call when I’m stumped about any work issue. Time away from industry hasn’t dulled his wisdom or insight. I certainly have him to thank for where I am today.
JAY: I am sure there is a joke in there someplace about using your degree in social work to work with a lot of the characters in our industry! It seems like the perfect foundation to me.
Let’s focus on the success you are having at Puritan Life with fixed annuities. You have a fixed indexed annuity and a multi-year guaranteed fixed annuity that are distributed in different ways. What caught my eye is that there is not a lot of confusing and complex optionality about them, and my guess is that is part of your strategy.
Given that you have the infrastructure of a not insignificant life insurance company to leverage, how do you choose what products to distribute, what those products look like and what clients are the target audience?
DIERDRE: My insurance career has always been focused on life insurance and annuities. I have heard people state over and over that life insurance is a noble profession and I wholeheartedly agree. Life insurance provides safety and security to families and annuities can provide guaranteed retirement income, both of which are incredibly important. Sometimes, though, I think that in a company’s desire to differentiate itself from other companies offering this important coverage, products are created that are too confusing to be helpful.
The products we have designed at Puritan are some of the simplest on the market. Our fixed indexed annuity is competitive but only has the S&P as an index choice. By keeping the product simple, we can cut down on administrative and hedging costs which, in turn, allows us to provide a product with better rates that consumers find easier to understand.
The simplest product in our portfolio is our Canvas annuity. This is a multi-year guaranteed annuity (MYGA) that functions much like a bank CD but with a much higher crediting rate and the added benefits of tax deferral and guaranteed income in retirement.
JAY: Do you mind if we focus on Puritan Life’s Canvas distribution a bit more? When you described the digital buying process for a multi-year guaranteed annuity, I thought the simplicity was brilliant. Many insurance companies build complicated annuity products and spend a fortune on wholesaling teams to fan the country trying to get shelf space at intermediaries. Why did you decide to take the direct-to-consumer route?
DIERDRE: Puritan Life will continue to distribute products both through agent channels and directly to consumers through our subsidiary, Canvas Insurance Agency. We don’t see the future of distribution as being fully agent driven or fully direct and by providing both options we can assist consumers who want to self-serve as well as those who want the assistance of an in-person agent.
While agent distribution has been around for as long as life insurance itself, we realized that there were only one or two other companies that had a direct way for someone to purchase an annuity. And we didn’t see any other companies that offered a way for someone to rollover or transfer qualified funds into an annuity online. We took the direct-to-consumer route because we saw a need in the market to educate, empower and reach consumers where they are at, which is online.
JAY: You are a senior executive of a life insurance company who happens to be female. Fortunately, we are seeing more of this but, in comparison to many other industries, the life insurance industry still lags when it comes to women in top roles. Do you have any sense of why this is the case and are you seeing any improvement?
DIERDRE: I have been in life insurance for over 20 years. I certainly believe there are more women in leadership roles now than there were when I started, but there’s a long way to go. There are still many insurance companies where women make up a majority of the entry level positions but are bottlenecked in the middle and never rise to senior management or Board level positions.
In order to change this, we need a stronger focus from senior management on encouraging talent and we need to provide leadership opportunities for women at every level of an organization. I can’t even count the number of times I have been the only woman in a roomful of decision makers, and I know that while a man in my position may have the benefit of people assuming he belongs, I have to prove that I belong in order to be taken seriously. I don’t doubt my ability to prove it, but it can get very tiring to always have to do so.
Hiring and promoting women into executive roles doesn’t just need to be done so a company can check a box, it will actually help companies attract the next generation of talented employees. I watched a panel recently where several incredibly smart and talented young college women were asked how they decide what companies to work for. They overwhelmingly said that they looked for companies where women and minorities were in executive roles. If a company wants to attract and retain top talent, they need to seriously consider where they stack up in terms of inclusion.
JAY: Earlier, I mentioned how you and I met at a board meeting for Investors Preferred Life. You joined the Board this year as part of the principal shareholder’s strategy to significantly grow the PPLI carrier. How did you come to serve on the Board and how do you and the rest of the Board envision expanding Investor Preferred’s market share?
DIERDRE: I was thrilled and honored to be asked to join the IPL board. What a great group of smart and talented people! I met the CEO, Tommy Mays, and Chairman and Founder, Alan Jahde, through an insurance CEO group I am part of called the Life Insurance Council (LIC). I serve as a member of the LIC Advisory Board with Alan. We got along well right away and realized we actually live very close to one another in Scottsdale.
Although my background isn’t in private placement products, there are plenty of marketing, expansion, and other initiatives that the IPL team is focusing on where I have experience that I can bring to the table. The IPL senior management team is incredibly capable, and I am hopeful I can contribute to what I know will be a very exciting and successful next few years as IPL grows.
JAY: You have three children, ages 14, 12 and 11. When you told me you and your husband like to take family vacations, I was 100% certain you were going to tell me about going to Disney World and I would just smile and be polite. Instead, you completely surprised me – first, by saying your kids are pretty cool and you enjoy traveling with them and then telling me about all your adventures. In fact, you had to wait until your youngest turned 11 before planning this summer’s trip. Where have you been and where are you going?
DIERDRE: (laughs). Yes, I can say my kids are pretty cool and mostly good travelers. My husband, Ben, and I have loved traveling and made it a priority ever since we got married 21 years ago. We spent our first few married years, prior to kids, traveling the world and have been to six continents. We have a family tradition that when our kids turn 13, we let them pick the destination for an upcoming trip. Britain, our oldest, chose Iceland, so we rented a camper and drove the entire Ring Road for his trip, and it was incredible to see all of the waterfalls and how close we could get to a live, erupting volcano.
Last summer we all traveled to Ireland, Belgium, England, France and The Netherlands. This year, our middle child, Judah, chose a safari in Africa for his 13th birthday trip and I couldn’t be more excited. We leave for Botswana, Zambia, South Africa and Egypt in May.
JAY: Scottsdale is probably the most popular life insurance conference destination ahead of Las Vegas and Orlando. There are certainly enough steakhouses along Camelback Road to keep the industry from having to change its diet when visiting. Fortunately, you have a number of non-steak restaurants and non-steak dishes you can recommend – both in the area and elsewhere.
DIERDRE: One of my favorite things is to enjoy an outdoor happy hour on a beautiful Arizona spring day and Scottsdale certainly has lots of options to choose from in that department. Ben and I love sitting at the bar at Postino with a bruschetta board or ordering shrimp ceviche from Buck & Rider.
If you’re coming to Scottsdale and want to splurge on a fancy dinner, I would highly recommend the eclectic four course tasting menu at Café Monarch. Finally, my favorite non-steak foods outside of Scottsdale is the I was also going to add that one of my favorite non-steak dish outside of Scottsdale is the salmon hand roll from Sugarfish in Los Angeles or New York City -- I ate at both the LA location and the NYC location in the past two weeks – lots of travel recently!
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