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The University of Minnesota Duluth

BRIDGE - Fall 2008, Volume 26, #1

Alumni Profiles: Securian CEO Robert Senkler

From the Math Club to the Boardroom

“I realized that it is important to define what people are good at and design their duties around their strengths.”

No one can predict what 30 years can bring to a career. The social director of the 1974 UMD Math Club, Robert Senkler, is now chairman and CEO of Securian Financial Group, which was founded in 1880 and provides insurance, retirement plans, and investments. It’s the tenth largest private company in Minnesota, with 2007 revenue of over $3 billion.

Senkler’s path took a few turns. “I walked into UMD in 1970 thinking I would get a Ph.D. in math and eventually teach,” he said. But one of his professors, Michael F. Miller, introduced him to actuarial science. “He offered to give me a one-on-one advanced statistics class.” The intensive instruction revealed Senkler’s sharp talent for higher math.

“The level of teaching prepared me to take two parts of the actuarial exam while I was still in college,” he said. He passed both tests the first time, which continues to be a rare feat.

As social director for the UMD Math Club, it was Senkler’s job to line up speakers. “It turned out to have an impact on my career,” Senkler said. “We invited Jim McGulska, a Securian actuary, to make a presentation to the club.” Coincidentally, when Senkler sat for the second actuarial exam, McGulska was the proctor. As Senkler handed in the test, McGulska encouraged him to apply for a job with Securian.

It’s been a good fit. In 1994, after 20 years with the company, Senkler took over as CEO and since then the company’s assets have doubled. Securian has also won a number of awards, including local and national awards for one of the “Best Places to Work.” While business journals credit Securian integrity and high ethical standards, Senkler believes investing in its people has given Securian its most dynamic advantage. “Our goal is to create a culture where all our associates feel comfortable, challenged, and valued,” he said.

Senkler said his philosophy about working with people has changed. “I realized that it is important to define what people are good at and design their duties around their strengths. It’s true for me as well as the people I work with. In the calm of the day, we can improve on weaker areas, but always, always use peoples’ strengths.”

He practices what he preaches. His skills at math and business let him rise through the ranks. “Along the way I learned to tackle tough challenges in order to be successful,” he said. “One of my mentors, Bob Hunstad, a retired senior manager at Securian, gave me some career advice. He encouraged me to learn to speak in public. He pointed out that I was a decent mathematician, but that couldn’t carry me the whole way. When I became an actuary, I gave the shortest associate acceptance speech on record.” Senkler took the advice and joined a Toastmasters group. Later he found a writing and speech coach.

“I don’t do well at reading a speech from a podium. But I found other ways to speak in public.” One of the consultants who gave Senkler advice was Bob Aronson, ex-press secretary for Governor Rudy Perpich. “I found out I was a good question and answer guy. I need to stand up and talk about my business because I have a passion for it.” And he hasn’t been behind a lectern on a podium since 1985.

Senkler’s philosophy of building on his employees’ strengths is working. Securian has grown to a work force of 3,400 employees nationwide and has the strongest balance sheet in its history. It’s no wonder Senkler was named 2006 Executive of the Year by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal.

Even though he attended UMD in the early 1970s, Senkler hasn’t forgotten UMD. He remembers the unsettling times, when the draft sent some of his friends off to Vietnam. He has good memories of smelting on the Lester River and he recalled teachers who understood their students.

Often, Senkler would hike the trails at Gooseberry Falls or the Baptism River. “In late winter, we would walk along the lake to see the ice formations on the hills,” he said. “Probably not the wisest thing to do, to walk on the ice, but the dramatic ice outs were amazing. The ice would stack up two stories high.”

Those memories are part of the reason he and his wife, Pamela, established the Robert L. Senkler Scholarship in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at UMD. “Pam and I care about higher education. Minnesota’s university system is a great economic engine, and UMD plays a critical role.”

 

 

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