This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted via webinar on May 15, 2020.

So, you’ve spent a lot of time moving to different parts of Maine. So, where did it all begin for you?

Well, it’s funny, somebody asked me at one point where I was from in Maine, and I said, “I’m from all over Maine.” I was born in Greenville, and I grew up for the most part in the little town of Ashland in Aroostook county. We moved to the Augusta area and I graduated from Hall Dale High School and then the University of Maine at Orono for college.

What was your first paying job?

I delivered the newspaper, how about that? I delivered the Star Herald in Ashland. I got to pick up my newspaper to 6 AM every morning on my bike. I learned a lot about being a conversationalist by delivering the paper to a senior citizen complex where those folks appreciated the interaction. When I went to collect money, they would catch up with me about the things I might know were happening in town.

You studied journalism at the University of Maine. Where did your first job after college take you?

I wanted to be a sportswriter and ended up in Anchorage, Alaska. Having covered hockey at the University of Maine, I said, “Well, they must have hockey Alaska.” And what do you know, they do. They were willing to pay me to write about it, so that was my first gig. It was a fantastic experience.

After other newspaper gigs, I was starting to think about what else could I do with the skills that I had developed in communications and writing. I took a job in Washington, DC in public relations and communications at a trade association.

So, how did you come back to Maine?

I was getting married at the time and I needed a job. My future mother-in-law was with a friend and they were driving by the MEMIC building. The woman said her daughter was working there as a communication specialist, but about to leave. So, I actually found out about the job before my future boss even knew it was going to be available. I got my resume in right away and was hired at MEMIC by a man name Tony Payne.

I’ll be celebrating 25 years at MEMIC in July. I certainly never expected to go into insurance. I realized that I really enjoyed the business and that there was a lot more to it than I ever would have understood from the outside.

Can you give us an overview of MEMIC, at a glance?  

MEMIC is a workers compensation specialist, so that’s all we write. We were created in Maine from workers compensation reform in 1993 when Maine had among the worst records in the county for workers compensation, we were an incredibly high cost state. We were created as a mutual company, which means we are owned essentially by our policy holders, so all of the businesses that ensure with us actually have an ownership stake. We now insure companies all down the eastern seaboard.

Our roots are here – will always be in Maine. It’s the policy holders in Maine who benefit from the work we do in other states because it helps us diversify our organization and support what we do here.

You spent 20-plus years in communications for MEMIC. Then how did you make the leap to become president and CEO?

My experience gave me a very broad view of the organization. I had to learn various parts of the company, what we do in various places and I know a lot about how they all fit together. In my job, I have always said I’m a translator. I helped translate MEMIC from the inside out and the outside in.

I had access and exposure to lots of parts of the organization and I was lucky enough to have a few good mentors, including the previous founding CEO. I worked directly for him for 17 years, and he liked to teach business. He really helped me along and so I really was in an ideal, ideal spot.

What is it like from a leadership team perspective? You were peers with everyone on the leadership team and then one day you become their boss. How did you navigate that?

It’s not easy. It’s a great team of people who believe in the organization and believe in the mission. At first, in board meetings, I wasn’t going to take the end seat on the table where John sat. I thought I’d sit in the middle of the table. The previous CEO was the first one to sort of move that chair and say, “This is your seat now.”

As the leader, people are watching you and you have to be cognizant of everything that you do and how it will be interpreted by your employees.

So, you move into the new role, and now you have to backfill for yourself.

People said to me, “Make sure when you step into this role you do your new job. Don’t do your old job.” You want to have people you trust. Tony Payne had hired me, and then I hired him to fill my old role.

Last week when we talked to Steve Smith, and one of the questions that really resonated with the folks who joined us was his answer to how to make the move from middle management to an executive team and eventually to CEO.

One of the things we tell new employees is to be curious about what happens in the organization—not just what happens in your role, but how your role interconnects with others. Learn what’s really important to the company, how does it make money, and how does it sustain it?

It’s important to ask questions, even dumb questions, because you’ll learn something by asking the question. You are honoring the person you asked by listening to their answer. You’ve put them in a position of authority.

We’re going to shift gears and focus on the impact of the pandemic on your business and how you are helping companies think about how to return to work.

We have a team of safety professionals who are building a play book for how you design policies to be able to work safely. We all have to take this slowly. (Link to report here.)

Now everyone has moved to these makeshift home offices. How is that going?

On the one hand, people aren’t on the road and sometimes you have some serious injuries that occur from that experience, but working at home can be a challenge. At home, you need to create a set up where you have ergonomics that really work and not everybody has that – and without it you’ll see a lot of neck, shoulder and back injuries in the second or third week. We’ve already seen this happening. We’ve figured out ways to take and share pictures of work set ups and offer advice on how to fix it.

The continued blurring of the line between work and home is a really interesting aspect of the outcome of pandemic. In the future, I think we will talk of work as an activity and not a place.

As you admitted, your background is unusual for an insurance company CEO, which tends to be dominated by folks with legal or financial backgrounds. How have you been received by finance and legal industry types?

The truth is, as a CEO, you don’t have to know the absolute most and you don’t have to be the smartest underwriter. You have to know how to put the right people together in the right setting, know who you can trust. I know what I don’t know, where I need help and advice and luckily, I have a team that provides that to me as well as business partners outside of our office who provide that for us as well.

I would like to pay you a huge compliment though to say that your experience as a translator, I think is just such a great asset for you because I find insurance really confusing. You are able to explain things clearly and that is a valuable trait.

Thank you to everyone that joined us today. Mike, I really admire your leadership of the company and also your leadership in the community. I thank you for that.



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