|Allstate’s Catherine Brune: “I trust my people to do their jobs. My job is to take the barriers out of their way.”
When Catherine Brune started working at Allstate Insurance Co (Northbrook, IL) in 1976, she was a keypunch operator.
“When we finished a bunch of cards we took them to that big data-processing window to hand them in,” she says.
“I’d always look at all those people working behind the glass. You couldn’t get in unless you had some special code and knew the secret handshake. And I was determined I was going to figure out that handshake and get inside that room.”
She did it, all right. In fact, she aced it. Last September Brune became senior VP and chief technology officer at Allstate.
Why CTO instead of CIO? It’s all about technology, she says. “We want business people to understand technology better and technologists to understand the business better.”
Working with presidents
“I do worry sometimes because I’m running a large technology operation,” Brune admits. “But I trust my people to have the knowledge to do their jobs. My job is to take the barriers out of their way.”
She notes that the presidents of Allstate’s protection and financial group work closely with her to ensure good technology decisions. “I have such respect for those gentlemen,” Brune says.
Brune graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1974 with a BS in management. “I love technology. In the business school I took a number of Fortran classes and that was where I could shine the most,” she says.
Starting at Allstate as a supervisor-trainee, Brune spent ten years in operations. On the side, she took underwriting courses to help her understand the company’s business.
Then she spent another ten years in sales and claims, always keeping an eye on the technology implications of her work. “I’m not one to build technology for technology’s sake,” Brune says. “You shouldn’t build a single piece of technology unless it either runs your business better or helps you take care of customers better.”
Data center manager
In 1996 Brune moved to the data center arena as a manager. “On the hardware side, I had to be well versed in the networks. But we were also starting to do Web development. That was one of the most exciting things I was ever involved in, because I saw the value it could eventually bring to the business,” she says.
She spent a lot of time studying technology in connection with her new responsibilities. She took online networking courses and worked on her Cisco certification. And she didn’t hesitate to ask her people to teach her what she didn’t know – how to take routers apart and put them back together, for example.
Brune was the first woman manager the group had ever had. “But I had been around for twenty years. I knew a lot of people,” she says. “I was able to buckle down and start thinking about the value data centers bring to the corporation and what I felt we needed to accomplish.”
When Allstate closed two of its four data centers, Brune was chosen to lead the consolidation efforts.
In 1999 Brune was sent to Chicago to head up the infrastructure side of the business, which included the data centers, engineering ops, networking and security. “I couldn’t have come in at a better time,” she says. “The security side of the business was exploding with all the data privacy issues.”
What Brune had learned about the Web was vital in her new job. “We were smart enough to hold off on some major projects because we suspected that Web services would really change the way we were going to do business,” she says. She estimates that her group saved $50 million or more for the company by not investing in “technology that would now be obsolescent.”
Next step in Brune’s natural progression was her elevation last year to senior VP and CTO at Allstate.
Despite – or more likely because of – the demands of her important job, Brune is spending more time than ever mentoring younger women. “We have to bring women and minorities along in this business,” she declares. “We have to nudge them and give them hope that they can do this kind of work.”
She even tells them what she thinks she did wrong. “I didn’t always speak up right away when I felt there were injustices being done – that women weren’t given the same opportunities as men, for example. I’d just sit back until I got so mad about it that I’d spew like a geyser.”
But perhaps the geyser effect did pay off after all. Brune notes that today Allstate is accommodating the work/life needs of more women who might otherwise be leaving the workforce with family obligations. In Brune’s area, there are now many people who work remotely.
“I want women to be able to have a home life and children and to balance it all, because I think they bring such richness to the workplace,” Brune says.
Kate Colborn & Heidi Russell Rafferty