October 18, 2012

When the IED exploded on that desert road in Iraq, there was a tremendous bang followed by complete darkness inside the lead Humvee of the 11-vehicle column, relates Sal Abano, the convoy's commanding officer. Abano says he recalled how shock can cause a person to continue to perceive sensations in his extremities after he'd lost them. As the dust began to settle, Abano adds, he located his hands and feet in their proper places.

But the gunner was spinning around helplessly in the Humvee's ring mount. "He got hit, and I was waiting to see blood," says Abano, now SVP and CIO of New York-based Tower Group Companies ($1.8 billion in gross written and managed premium; $2.4 million in total investments and cash). Fortunately, the explosive device was planted too deeply, and instead of shrapnel, all that struck the gunner were some small pebbles.

Nobody in the convoy was seriously injured. But the explosion left four vehicles disabled and without communication capabilities, including the lead vehicle's GPS-supported Blue Force system that tracks location and enemy activity, according to Abano. It would be some time before the base could locate the stranded troops. "We were dead in our tracks for four and a half hours in the desert with no vehicle support," Abano recounts. "My guys wanted to blast the living daylights out of anything that got close on that stretch of roadway, so I needed to keep them calm."

Abano's task on that day was, admittedly, remote from the kinds of emergencies an insurance CIO might face on the job. Nevertheless, it is not without its application to insurance leadership challenges, he insists. "When you're in IT, somebody's always coming to you with a problem as if the world is coming to an end," Abano says. "You need to be a good listener, and you need to be able to calm that person down and engage multiple parties to solve the problem collaboratively."

Abano's insurance technology career runs more or less parallel to his military experience. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corp Reserve in the early 1980s and began working in the insurance industry before the end of the decade. Making a compromise between family life and his desire to continue his military career, he joined the U.S. Army in order to become a commissioned officer and retain reserve status. "My family made sacrifices to enable me to do that," he says.

Abano worked at AIG and ACE USA early in his insurance career and later held senior positions at American Re (Now Munich Re America) and Kemper, where he was VP and CIO of the company's Northeast region, when he was called to active duty in 2004.

During his deployment, Abano served as the Army's CTO for the central region of Iraq during Operation Iraq Freedom III. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Action Badge and other service citations.

When he returned home in 2006, Abano was approached by Mike Anselmo, whom he had known from their days at American Re. Anselmo (now CIO at Narragansett Bay Insurance), then CIO of Praetorian Financial Group (now QBE the Americas), recruited Abano to be Praetorian's VP of technology, systems and infrastructure. Two years later, Abano entered into discussions with Tower Group Companies, which was looking for a CIO to help take the company to a new level. "I wanted to become a part of an organization where I could say that I would make an impact on the organization's growth and help IT become an entity that it didn't even realize that it needed to become," he relates.

Building Credibility

When Abano joined Tower in June 2008, he says, he undertook a variety of strategic initiatives to create transparency, streamline technology spending, foster accountability and improve business/IT collaboration. His task, as he saw it, was to establish IT as a credible business partner to the organization. "Not just an IT partner, but a business partner -- one that can sit at the table, interact meaningfully, with the confidence of the organization that it will deliver the needed solutions," Abano specifies.

That credibility has grown with the delivery of successful programs in support of the company's goal to transform from a Northeastern regional carrier to a national insurance company through both acquisitions and organic growth. Since Abano joined the carrier, Tower has grown from a $700 million company to a $2 billion company. [Continued on next page.]