Tier One Interview: Jennifer Ortale
This month, Jay sits down with Jennifer Ortale, National Vice President, Executive Benefits at Securian Financial. The pair reminisce about how they met, then turn to topics including BOLI, how to recruit and retain female talent in the life insurance industry, Palm Springs and, of course, restaurants.
JAY: If memory serves, we first met over 15 years ago at the AALU (now Finseca) Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. Your manager at the time, Andy Sforzini, introduced us and we became fast friends. Andy is one of my closest friends and he happily retired in 2020 after a 36-year actuarial and leadership career at Prudential. You and I, however, remain very active in the life insurance industry. Let’s get started by hearing about your company, Securian Financial, and your work there.
JENNIFER: You are right! Andy introduced us and I feel lucky to have known the two of you for as long as I have. You have been great friends and it has been wonderful to see us all progress well in life and in work. My path to Securian Financial was a few years in the making. Securian Financial wanted to grow and diversify, and I wanted to build out a new sales and distribution strategy. The company has prioritized a commitment to policyholders which, in turn, is a natural fit for the requirements of executive benefits policyholders. It was just a great match all around, the timing lined up perfectly, and I started at Securian Financial in January 2017.
I’m a creative and visual person who likes transformation. I’ve used my skills to lead the creation of a dedicated executive benefits team. I’ve designed bespoke bank and credit union products, plus guided the team in standing up an end-to-end implementation and service model, including reporting. Our successes were, of course, highly influenced by key distribution professionals who appreciate our company and cheered on our growth. I am very grateful for those that believed in our vision and strategy. As a result, we’ve become a key contributor in year-over-year success in life sales at Securian Financial.
I’ll add that one of the many things I like about Securian Financial is that it has been easy to develop good relationships with the leaders in our other divisions. This is helpful as we think through growth strategies, prioritization and how we can best serve our customers.
JAY: For some reason, because you’ve lived in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area for so long, I always think of you as being from the Midwest like me…but you’re not. Where did you grow up and how did your upbringing and career path take you to where you are today?
JENNIFER: You aren’t wrong, Jay. I have lived in Minnesota for most of my life and my family has deep roots in the Midwest. However, I was born in Los Angeles during the time when aerospace was mostly on the west coast. My father was an aeronautical engineer and private pilot, and I spent a lot of my childhood weekends at municipal airports and at airshows. I grew up in White Bear Lake, Minnesota and went to both undergrad and grad school at Augsburg University in Minneapolis.
I worked at an executive benefits advisory firm straight out of college and have worked in the field most of my career - going on 25 years now! I like fast-paced work, changing variables and transformation. Executive benefits are a great fit for me for all of those reasons.
JAY: I hope I don’t scare off some our readers by saying I want to talk about BOLI. 2021 was a big year for bank-owned life insurance sales because banks have been sitting on a lot of cash. The other side of this is that a carrier can only take so much of that business before having to take a pause. Why do banks buy life insurance and what are some of the constraints carriers have around accepting business? You even told me there wasn’t enough product….and that blew my mind.
JENNIFER: We know 2021 was an excellent sales year for BOLI, the problem is we don’t yet have a final number! I would guess it’s somewhere around $6 billion to $7 billion. There was a lot of demand by banks who had a lot of cash on hand, but also variance from carrier to carrier on how much they ultimately could take in during 2021. There’s a balance we all try to keep with taking in new business while protecting our in-force block, and with interest rates being so low, it is an ongoing concern. Successful sales years aren’t unusual in the BOLI space, but 2021 showed us that BOLI remains an attractive way to offset executive benefits liabilities.
JAY: BOLI is certainly the ‘elephant hunting’ of the life insurance industry. I’ve always held a lot of admiration for producers and distributors of BOLI because it can be feast or famine. Fortunately, you and Securian Financial are wizzes at other areas of executive benefits. What types of plans to do you see as being popular this year and why?
JENNIFER: I share in your admiration. Our BOLI professionals, as well as Securian Financial and our peer carriers, have a lot to manage with respect to interest rates, products and premium capacity, while working in an unpredictable and “lumpy” sales cycle. We’ve enjoyed a steady pace of business as we work on BOLI cases of all sizes. We are seeing a significant uptick in split dollar sales and inquiries related to executive retention - SERPs and other types of non-qualified deferred compensation.
JAY: I’m sure some of our readers have made the connection that since you are a prominent figure in executive benefits and because I met you at an AALU conference, that you must have been a part of the “Women in COLI”. As many will recall, that was an informal group of women and their allies in the life insurance industry who were associated with executive benefits. Unfortunately, at the time, the Women in COLI, contained most of the women attending professional life insurance conferences. How has the industry changed with its ability to recruit and retain women? I know you’re currently pursuing a Masters degree in Leadership and your thesis is related to this question.
JENNIFER: Early in my career I often felt isolated. I was often one of few and sometimes the only women in the room which could be frustrating and uncomfortable. Thankfully, I’ve developed a long-term network of male and female colleague, many of whom I have known now for twenty plus years.
Women in COLI was a great group with which to gather during meetings like Finseca (fka AALU). Women in COLI served an important purpose: support each other, bounce ideas, network, and to cheer each other as we grew in our careers. I am very grateful to have been part of that group during a time where I was working hard to develop into the leader I knew I could be.
I returned to graduate school during the pandemic and in May I graduate with a Master of Arts in Leadership. I believe that education is the spark that leads to change. My thesis discusses the impacts of gender stereotypes on women leaders as well as the impact these stereotypes have on a company’s ability to grow and transform.
Recruiting and retaining female talent is everyone’s job in an organization. This goal must be stated from top and permeate through the organization. It can’t be just a goal, there also has to be a collective understanding of “why” this is important. Take the time to understand the challenges women have faced, but also research and understand the incredible impact women with the ability to grow and transform your organization can have.
My advice is to get started by doing five things.....
First, work to understand the histories and current challenges women face.
Second, update your goals and guidance with hiring and recruiting towards gender equity.
Next, ensure that your communications, job descriptions, marketing materials and conferences are designed through the lens of gender equity. If you don’t know how to do this, ask around.
Then, mentor and sponsor women - this means connecting women to your networks and showcasing their talents.
Finally, my personal favorite - invest in yourself and your organization by taking a class on gender equity and leadership. There are more opportunities than ever before to do this as many are now virtual. You will be humbled and inspired by the gender equity work and training in universities across the country.
JAY: By asking you that last question, I realize I have fallen into the trap of asking someone in a marginalized group what suggestions they have to make things better when I should be asking allies in our industry what they are doing. You and I have talked about how ridiculous it is to pull together minority groups in our industry and ask them what can be done when we should be pulling together the CEOs of the carriers, producer groups and producing firms and having them tell us their plans. How do we hold these allies accountable?
JENNIFER: Include gender equity as part of your core leadership principals and commit to visible and meaningful change. If you want to better understand the work of an ally, commit to a number of actions. In the moment, speak up when sexist comments are made. This reaffirms that sexism won’t be tolerated in your organization.
Then, it is important to listen, ask, provide feedback, serve as a mentor and engage. By these I mean the following….
Listen and be a sounding board. Avoid offering your perspective unless asked and resist the urge to fix the situation.
Ask female colleagues how you can be an ally. Ask about specific issues or changes that could be made and be willing to take responsibility for change.
Provide specific and quality feedback to women for developmental goals.
Mentor and sponsor Women. Commit the time and energy to mentor women; connect women with opportunities to network and showcase their talents.
Engage in women’s initiatives and events. Be present and be willing to be part of the conversation.
JAY: Excellent advice, Jennifer. Let’s move on and talk about your life outside of work. You have so many labels, “mom”, “foster parent”, “volunteer”, “art collector” and “Palm Springs enthusiast.” Fill us in!
JENNIFER: So many labels, so little time! I have an adult daughter and a son in 9th grade. My son plays on several baseball teams, so non-winter weather is filled with baseball practice and games. I am highly entertained by both my kids and being their mother has brought me incredible happiness.
In mid-2020, my husband and I fostered two teens who we have known for several years. They are great kids and have subsequently moved to a permanent home. Foster care is incredibly complicated and emotional, and the six months they were with us gave me such valuable insight about life and circumstance more than anything else I’ve ever, or will, experience.
I was on the board of St. Louis Park Emergency Program (STEP) for eleven years and my tenure just ended summer of 2021. STEP’s mission is to identify, address and respond to the critical and emergency needs of residents in St. Louis Park, including food and clothing scarcity. My work with the organization showed me how important it is to build and maintain strong communities where everyone is valued.
As far as personal interests, I love visual arts and am an avid collector. I have acquired a variety of oil paintings but recently my interests have shifted to photography. I love going to museums, galleries, and art studios with friends.
Palm Springs! I love everything about it - the desert, Palm Trees, art galleries, and of course the residential architecture. Best of all, I love the Medjool date shakes -can I please have one every day?! and the proximity to Joshua Tree National Park.
JAY: You and I can talk about Palm Springs all day long because you know how much I love spending time there. You also know that I stream the Palm Springs radio station KGAY 106.5 all day long in my office! It drives Pete crazy and I’m required to use ear pods.
Okay, you have survived the interview to get to the restaurant question. Before you name some non-steak restaurants and non-steak dishes, this question isn’t as straight-forward for you as it has been for others. You have some serious dietary challenges to consider. However, these challenges have provided you a sort of superpower of a heightened ability of observation. Explain what I’m alluding to.
JENNIFER: I have life-long and anaphylactic food allergies. I depend on busy food service professionals to inform me about food and ingredients. I need them to listen, and I need them to care. My communication must be clear, friendly but firm. Thankfully, many restaurants have implemented allergy protocols and there are some amazingly well-trained staff and chefs out there. Good thing, too, because there are an estimated 32 million people in the United States with food allergies.
Through my thousands – maybe millions, by now - of hyper-vigilant conversations about food, I’ve become a bit of an expert in body language. Part of my protocol is to really pay attention to non-verbal’s and listen for clues in communication. As a result, I read people very well. I also pay attention to my “gut” feeling, the antennae that tells all of us that something isn’t quite right.
My restaurant recommendations are through the lens of great food with good allergy protocols and ingredient knowledge. My recommendation is to let any restaurant know of your food allergies ahead of timer:
Sticky Fingers Sweets and Eats - This is a vegan bakery with incredible treats, something I rarely get to enjoy. I highly recommend the Cowvin cookies. They also will send you baking ingredients to make at home! Located in Washington DC.
The Shed Barbeque and Blues Joint - Located in Ocean Springs, Mississippi and featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. They use simple ingredients and know their stuff. Very easy to eat there with food allergies.
Chez FonFon is a multi-award-winning classic French bistro, located in Birmingham Alabama. The chef and staff went out of their way to make me one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had.
The views expressed here are Jennifer Ortale’s own and do not necessarily represent those of Securian Financial.
Securian Financial is the marketing name for Securian Financial Group, Inc., and its subsidiaries.
Since its inception, Life Insurance Strategies Group has solely focused on the individual high net worth life insurance market. We do not sell products. This allows us to offer unbiased, pragmatic advice. Visit us at www.lifeinsurancestrategiesgroup.com.