In March, AUL Corp. named Jose Fleites as the company’s new chief information officer. He joins a growing company that will rely on his expertise to continue the expansion of its product lines and industry footprint. In the company’s announcement, President and CEO Jimmy Atkinson praised Fleites’ leadership and communications skills and said his experience working with agents and in information technology will be critical to realizing AUL’s near- and long-term goals.
Agent Entrepreneur met with Fleites shortly after NADA 2018 to retrace the path that led to AUL, learn how he transitioned from finance to IT, and how that department can help — or hinder — a company’s progress.
AE: Jose, congratulations on the new job. Are you in California now?
Fleites: I am in California, sitting here in beautiful Napa. I’m a bit new to the area.
AE: How did you connect with AUL?
Fleites: Through our president and CEO, Jimmy Atkinson. I spent about 20 years with Assurant in Miami, during which Assurant bought United Service Protection. My boss at the time said they had bought this new company and would love it if I could help bring them onboard. Jimmy was their head of sales, and that’s how we first met.
AE: How did the opportunity to join the company come about?
Fleites: I was working for a competitor when Jimmy reached out. He said they might have an opportunity here at AUL. We talked, and it was a perfect fit for what I wanted to do in my career and what they wanted to do as a company. Having worked for a carrier, a broker, and a third-party administrator, having been in all three verticals, I have a perspective a lot of people don’t have, and this was a unique opportunity to leverage that experience to make a real difference.
AE: You mentioned you worked in Miami. Is that your hometown?
Fleites: I did, and it is. I was born and raised there and attended Florida International University.
AE: What was your first job out of college?
Fleites: American Bankers had a booth at my college job fair. I had studied finance as an undergraduate, and American Bankers was one of the top employers in Miami at the time. I got recruited from the fair and had a job coming out of college.
AE: It must have been an honor to be selected from all those applicants.
Fleites: Well, timing is everything. I applied in 1992, shortly after Hurricane Andrew. American Bankers lost their headquarters and a third of their workforce, many of whom had lost their homes, packed up, and moved elsewhere. So I certainly benefited from their need to bring in new talent.
AE: Was it a culture shock to go from academia to Corporate America?
Fleites: Actually, for seven years, starting in high school and throughout college, I worked in retail. I truly valued that experience, and the recommendation I give to young people is to work in customer service once in your life. It teaches you to listen.
AE: And you had some understanding of how big companies work.
Fleites: I did. The company I worked for had 70 retail stores. But in joining American Bankers, there were some firsts. Having a desk was new. I was hired to work in credit insurance customer service, which is where I got my first taste of the dealership world. And, somehow, it seems automotive has always been in my background.
AE: Are you a car guy?
Fleites: Interestingly enough, I am not a huge car guy, but I certainly appreciate luxury vehicles. But my father and brother are both mechanics, so automotive certainly runs in the family.
AE: How did you choose to study finance?
Fleites: I fell in love with Wall Street in the movies and wanted to be a big investment banker in New York. But you soon realize that a lot of blood, sweat, and tears goes along with that profession. But American Bankers offered me an excellent opportunity, and it was serendipitous, because they were replacing all their call center equipment after the hurricane, and they chose to use my approach to customer service as the model going forward. I worked with the IT team on developing all of the interactive voice response and email responses, then returned to managing consumer feedback.
Shortly thereafter, the head of telecom came up and tapped me on the shoulder. He said, “We were just talking about you at a meeting. Would you like to join IT?” And my immediate response was I didn’t know anything about IT. But I knew the advantages that department could provide to operations and customer service.
AE: It’s a start.
Fleites: It was a great start. And it was really a new department within IT. They understood call centers were the way of the future. I was Employee No. 1.
AE: What did you have to do to get the department going?
Fleites: First and most obviously, I had to find smarter talent than myself. That’s a buzzword now, but I didn’t know that’s what I was doing then. I knew what I didn’t know and I hired people who did. We built that line of service up over eight years. By the end, we had eight call centers, including ones in the Caribbean and Canada.
That’s when leadership knocked on my door and said, “Jose, you’re getting pigeonholed as the ‘call center guy.’” They had a new opportunity with a VSC company they had just purchased. I’m not one to ever shy away from a challenge, and it was exciting. There was a small team initially, only 13 people at the time. After three years, they asked me to lead the credit card and credit insurance team. That was a team of 60 people.
After another three or four years, I was again tapped on the shoulder, which was always very humbling, but it let me know I was doing something right. They were looking for someone to head up their international operations, exporting U.S. products abroad. I knew credit insurance and I knew service contracts. So I did that for a while before leaving Assurant.
AE: What’s the secret to advancing the way you did?
Fleites: Nobody likes talking about themselves, so I am blushing a bit here, but I will say one thing people have said about me: They say I’m probably the least IT-type CIO they know — more of a “business CIO,” to coin a term. I really look at IT from a business perspective. How can IT enable the processes and help realize goals? If you only look at IT from a technical perspective, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, resulting in lost customers.
AE: And what’s the secret to succeeding once you get that tap on the shoulder?
Fleites: The first is to listen, listen, listen. Understand your customers and their strategies. I don’t make changes for change’s sake, only when it fits the business. It takes a lot of assessment and listening. Hire the best people and get out of their way. I realize everyone says that, but not enough people actually do it.
AE: Are you still getting settled or do you have new initiatives underway?
Fleites: I have been on the job three weeks, and the first big project was attending NADA. That required a lot of preparation, including a lot of talking with customers and employees, which I love. Now, I am spearheading the implementation of an entirely new underwriting system that will increase workflow efficiencies and reduce costs from the issuance of new policies all the way through to the processing of claims — ultimately driving future growth throughout the organization.
AE: Did you move from Miami to Napa?
Fleites: No. After Assurant, I was with Aon in Chicago for three years, then moved to Phoenix.
AE: Could Napa turn out to be the best of them all?
Fleites: I certainly believe so! I’m still getting to know this region, but I’m already garnering an appreciation for Napa and the people here, the food — it’s amazing. I can’t complain. And all the wine-tasting really helps.