In the C-Suite: Timothy McSwain

Q&A with Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty’s Chief Claims Officer of Aviation/Americas.

May 08, 2013 Photo

Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty’s Chief Claims Officer of Aviation/Americas explains how his technical aviation skills come in handy, why he supports specialization, and how to land a plane when it’s out of gas.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a suburb of Houston, Texas, called Bellaire.

How did you get interested in aviation and flying?

Flying has been a passion of mine since the early 1950s when I had my first memories of flying with my dad in a plane he was thinking of buying. While he didn’t buy the plane in question, he was an avid traveler and was, in fact, an early importer of objects of art from Southeast Asia.

Did you get involved in aviation very early in your life?

After that first plane ride, I was hooked. I built model airplanes and belonged to the Civil Air Patrol, which is an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force and has a long history going back to the 1930s. It was originally a civilian search and rescue service. During World War II, they flew submarine patrols until the Army could fill that role. They bring young people in, as young as age 12. I joined when I was about 13.

Did you want to be a professional pilot?

Like most kids, I changed my mind about what I wanted to be when I grew up every year. At first, I wanted to be a tugboat captain. There was a television show called “Waterfront” that was built around a tugboat and its captain and crew. I own the DVDs of the series now, and it’s such a great period piece. I didn’t really think about aviation or law as a career until I was much older.

You studied economics and statistics in your undergraduate years. Did you have a plan to use that as a starting point for a law career?

No, I didn’t. I enjoyed economics and statistics and was not interested in law initially. There were two people who really influenced me to pursue law: one was a business law professor and the other was a political science professor. My political science professor gave a final exam with this question: “Imagine that the ocean has parted 660 miles off the shore of New Jersey. Set forth the arguments for and against the expansion of New Jersey versus the creation of a new state.” I had no idea how to answer the question, so I started by stating that since the territory was more than 12 miles from the coast, it’s an international issue and the U.S. has no ability to claim it. My professor gave me a good grade on the test, but commented, “You’re not a lawyer yet, so save the legalese for later.” That made me start thinking about a career in law.

How do you describe your current claims book of business?

We insure major airlines, flight schools, manufacturers, individual owner/operators, charter operators, and corporate owner/operators. We deal with claims ranging from coffee spills, slip and falls on the jetway, major accidents, and everything in between.

You have been a flight instructor for many years. What makes a good instructor?

The first rule is absolutely to never let them see you sweat. A good flight instructor knows when and how to intervene. An instructor who intervenes too early prevents learning, because if a student doesn’t see the effects of a mistake, they are not likely to recognize the situation and correct it themselves when you’re not there. If you correct too late, metal gets bent or something worse. You also have to learn how to adapt to how different students learn.

Do you see parallels between that and your work in claims management?

Absolutely. To a significant degree, it comes down to control of one’s emotions. In claims, you frequently have to step back and take the emotion out of it and look at a situation almost like a third party looking in. Similarly, as a flight instructor, you learn to let things develop a little bit so you understand the real story. Getting to the bottom of what’s really going on—getting real facts—is one of the most difficult things to do, as far as I’m concerned. Every successful claims professional will tell you that getting the real facts—unvarnished and unspun—and applying them to a solution is one of the real challenges of the profession.

Are there any parallels between a top-notch claims employee and a top-notch pilot?

Sure. First, there needs to be the discipline to stick to what you are trying to do. One of the ways that claims people can get into trouble is to get distracted from what the real issue or goal is. Second, there is the issue of being objective, of controlling your emotions. Of course, there also needs to be great attention to detail and a willingness to ask questions from both sides—both up and down.

You have successfully melded your deep technical knowledge in aviation with your claims management career. Do you find that your technical aviation knowledge is relevant to the claims portfolio that you now oversee?

Yes. The relevance is significant, and it’s valuable in part because it saves an enormous amount of time. Having spent 46 years in aviation, I’ve seen the history of the business. I’ve seen a lot of people and technical concepts come and go. Understanding the fundamentals of how the business works gives me a relationship with our clients that I wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s not like I’m walking into an elevator factory and trying to figure out their product and business.

Do you believe it’s harder now to find claims professionals who have a deep technical knowledge of the claims they are overseeing?

I don’t know that it’s any different than it was 50 years ago. I can say in my own area that it’s not a big community, and that hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s a small community of aviation claims experts.

Do you advocate specialization or diversity in claims handling?

I may be biased because of my own career, but I advocate specialization because one of the critical roles claims professionals perform is to advise underwriters. Experienced claims professionals can help underwriters understand the risks they are evaluating. Because I’ve always been in a specialty business, I look for specialty. That’s probably different in a general claims role.

Is it a challenge today to attract new claims professionals?

No one grows up wanting to be claims professional, so it’s a challenge. The challenge is explaining the business and the role. It’s a great career and I’ve loved it, but it’s sometimes hard to communicate that to young people just starting out. I cannot think of another career that would have delivered as much diversity and as much of an opportunity to continually learn as my claims career. It’s difficult sometimes to explain that to younger professionals considering their options. I’ve dealt with some fabulous people over the years, I’ve traveled a lot, and I’ve learned a lot. It’s been incredibly fun, and I try to share that with young people considering a career in claims.

Are there particular claims leadership issues that keep you up at night?

I would say, in general, no. However, in my line of business, there are actually calls that wake me up at night, and, given the focus of our work, a call at 2 a.m. usually means that there has been a bad outcome for a pilot somewhere in the industry. When that happens, we are generally deploying or overseeing critical response units, and the work starts right away.

Can you share one of your most exciting or memorable flying experiences?

I think I’ve been scared more often in my automobile than in my airplane. But as a very young pilot, I did run out of gas once. I landed in bean field in Ohio with no damage to the plane or myself. I had to hitch a ride to the closest airport on the back of a motorcycle to get some gas. Then I flew the plane out of the field before anyone knew I was there. I’m not sure you could really get away with that today, but that was very exciting.

Tell me about your family.

I’m married, and I have two children in their 20s. My daughter is waiting for acceptance into a doctorate program for psychology. My son is a junior at Rider University majoring in finance and economics. We live in Morris Plains, N.J., and we own a home in Williamsburg, Va., where we’ll retire one day.

Do you still fly?

Yes. I’m still actively instructing and own an interest in two airplanes, one of which is an antique. The 1976 Cessna 182 I’ve actually owned an interest in twice now. I sold my interest in the early 1990s, then bought it back in 2000. I used to work for a large Cessna dealer while I was in law school, and my first job was to deliver a new plane from the factory to Ypsilanti, Mich.  It turned out that I had actually delivered this plane when it was new, so I have a long history with it. My other plane is an antique 1947 Piper Super Cruiser. It’s a wonderful old airplane, and it gets flown mostly on sunny Sundays when the wind isn’t blowing too hard. I’m pleased to say that my wife pays me the best compliment when we fly together—namely, that the ride is boring—which is just the way a good pilot should make it feel.

About The Authors
Taylor Smith

Taylor Smith is president of Suite 200 Solutions.

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