As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Larry Cochran.
Larry Cochran is a successful entrepreneur at the intersection of insurance and technology. After a decade in an international accounting and consulting firm, Larry jumped into the Texas oil and gas industry for several years as CEO of an exploration and production company. Soon after, he acquired IAS Claim Services, a regional independent insurance adjusting firm. Under his leadership, the company grew from a small, single-state provider to one of the most recognized national brands in the industry, serving many of the highest-rated P&C insurers in the U.S. While scaling IAS, Larry drove the innovation and development of a number of technologies aimed at improving customer outcomes, speed and efficiency. In 2015, Larry spun out some core technologies from IAS to found Claimatic, the first insurance claims automation SaaS company. In June 2021, Larry exited IAS through a sale to the Davies Group. Currently, he is working on his newest venture, a consumer-focused insurtech startup in stealth.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I had a rather strange college education path as I went to Texas A&M for two years, then left to take a “year off” to join a family mechanical contracting and engineering firm. One year turned into six years, but thankfully, the urge to complete college took over, and I returned and received my degree in finance. While back at A&M, I entered the Business Fellows program, which led to an internship with Exxon in Hong Kong that was truly life changing.
Upon graduation, I went into consulting with a Washington, D.C. firm, before spending the majority of that first professional decade with Arthur Andersen Business Consulting in Philadelphia. While there, I earned my CPA while consulting on businesses that were in distress, bankruptcy, or in major litigation.
In 1998, still with Andersen, I left Philadelphia to return to Texas where my wife and I could raise our growing family. Soon after that, I took a leap into business for myself and really haven’t looked back. For the last 23 years, living in San Antonio has been ideal for both my career and for my work-life balance. This balance is something I always encourage my employees to strive for. What I also enjoy about San Antonio is just how everyone runs under the radar. While the competitive spirit is very much alive, it’s not an intense, “destroy others to win” culture. In a sense, I think we’ve probably been ahead of the curve from many other large cities in that respect, since we have a strong, culturally diverse, and successful business and civic community that is full of support.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Working with a number of troubled companies and companies in high-stakes litigation gave me a lot of perspective on both what it takes to succeed and also, how quickly that can evaporate if you take your eye off the ball.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Instead of, “It’s okay to fail,” focus on, “We are hired to fail and if we aren’t failing, we aren’t trying.” If you want to do something that is valued higher than anything else in the same area of product or service, you must be different and truly challenge the status quo. This requires experimentation and if you do this right, you will fail more often than succeed in your tests, but those failures will lead to the big “aha! moments” where you discover something truly unique that will drive higher value to the customers and also to your business. With my claims business I acquired in 2006 and I recently exited through a strategic sale, we reinvented ourselves 30 years into the company’s history to deliver service that was different than any of the more than 100 companies in our sector. Within five years, we grew our business 400%.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek is right at the top of my list. I think Tim has admitted, of course, that a true 4-hour workweek isn’t very practical or obtainable for most people. However, the takeaways I got from this book are all about keeping what’s really important to you at the center of what drives you, to enjoy those important things in life, including business, but not to be completely driven by business. After reading this book, I realized I was wasting a lot of my time just being at the office doing tasks anyone could do, just to be there and show everyone I was a hard worker and they should be, too. This book helped me realize I could show people how to be productive and enjoy a balanced life with a bigger purpose than what we are just doing at the office. As this began to turn into the fabric of culture in our business, I think it has made all the difference in my ability to attract very high-quality talent to take risks and join me in building great businesses that customers love and people love to work in. As a result, I have also been able to start up multiple businesses and run them simultaneously, because I’m not sitting around doing tasks others are more capable of executing than myself.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In real estate, we all hear it’s about three things: location, location, location. In my experience running B2B or B2C companies, it’s culture, culture, culture. I see a lot of operators put stuff on the walls and hold town hall meetings and do all the things they’re told by consultants or books, only to then be inconsistent in applying core values to critical decisions.
This creates a rotten culture that will eventually lead to demise. In our businesses, we set mission, vision and values as our guideposts for everyone in the company to go full speed ahead without concern over repercussions if their actions wind up in failure. If they were following our North Star, that’s what’s important.
I’ll never forget coming back from a vacation and discovering that one of our team members had a family emergency and she needed to go see family, but couldn’t afford it. Someone else in the office went around and drummed up donations, allowing her to make the travel, and then they all pitched in to cover for her while she was out. This kind of thing happens a lot at our businesses. What happens at the business when no one is watching is your culture. This doesn’t happen by accident.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Don’t forget accounting! I owe so much of what I’ve been able to do because I spent years training younger people to learn accounting extremely well. When all else fails, that is what will save you. So that would be my advice. If you don’t know it, learn it! I was not a math person but took it in college and ended up with a finance degree. I then went to work for a global accounting consulting firm where they made me take the CPA and I passed. The real beauty is, if you learn it well, you can run any company, including your own, with confidence.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
One general piece of advice was around recruitment and retention of employees. Following basic templates for this is what most companies do: hire a firm, review resumes, interview, reference check, etc. After years of failures on multiple hiring and retention matters, I finally realized you just have to take the hiring very slowly to really get to know who you are hiring and make sure they check the three major boxes: 1) Can they do the job; 2) Will they do the job and; 3) Will they align to our core values and culture. With respect to retention, the other thing no one told me is, when you know they’re not the right fit, then they need to go. Holding on and trying to fix a mis-hire has never worked in my career.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
First, genuine passion for the vision and mission. People want to work with passionate people on a mission that has a true opportunity to be special. This starts at the top with the CEO/Founder.
Second, positive energy. People want to be in a place where they’re not looking at the clock hands that seemingly never move. They want to work in an environment where they are having fun and being challenged.
Third, integrity with extreme candor. While I was working at Arthur Andersen, the company creed was “think straight, talk straight”. This has stuck with me ever since and it’s critical to having a healthy culture that enjoys a high degree of mutual respect among all, from customers to employees.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
The hardest job for most people that move into the C-Suite is changing their focus from near-term to long-term. As a GM, you must execute and watch over day-to-day, week-to-week and quarterly KPIs. As a CEO, your real job should be thinking and working on problems that are three to five years out. You have a responsibility to steer the company in a path that is not going to result in a surprise disaster, be it a disruptive technology or shifting competitive landscape. You can’t do that job while also focusing on the day-to-day.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think one myth would be that CEOs are only in it for profits or their personal gains. Most of the truly successful CEOs I know personally are generally type A personalities that are extremely competitive, but also have a unique sense of curiosity that drives them to explore and lead as explorers.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Probably letting ego get in the way of hiring and the fear of welcoming those that are smarter. The number-one thing that I wish I had known is to punch above my weight class when it came to hiring. As soon as I unlocked that secret, my role changed dramatically as a CEO, as I started working with super talented people that complemented me and made me a better person while also creating significant value for the company and creating an environment that attracted more talented people.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I always say my greatest strength is that I have an acute sense of my threshold of incompetence! Again, this goes to the importance of knowing what seats on the bus you need to fill, what or who should be there, getting them there and then continuously evaluating that.
Another one is the importance of having a high degree of fluency in legal and finance areas. Sure, you can hire CFOs and legal counsel, but at the end of the day, you must know how to lead them in asking the right questions and evaluating options. I think this is probably underestimated, as you don’t really see these areas on most prospective CEOs’ resumes.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”?
- Recruitment: I initially was very “by the book” and only looked at people’s resumes and at who looked like a fit on paper or maybe mimicked me in a lot of ways. I hired some people along the way I loved having a beer with, but they couldn’t do the job they were hired for. Now, I really look for those that are deliberately different and complement the team and fill a key, definable role.
- Culture: Value-based leadership is something that you have to show your employees by your actions — not just a handbook or with posters on the wall.
- Location of office: I used to think I had to live and work in a big city on the east coast to be successful, to find a great job, and to find great talent, but that’s just not true. In the 23 years that I’ve lived in San Antonio, my work has thrived, while simultaneously, the work-life balance here is great. We’re working with a global network, with leadership in Northern Virginia, designers in Romania, coders in India, and marketing and business operations in Austin. It’s really cool to be able to have a virtual culture based in San Antonio, but it’s a global organization.
- Day to day work: The past year has shown us that we can work from anywhere, as long as you trust your employees, and still keep that personal connection with your colleagues. We’re looking forward to bringing people here at least quarterly, in order to foster a unique culture, and that doesn’t require us all to be huddled up in the same room every day.
- Follow your gut: Many of my best decisions as CEO have just been a hunch I was right and the others in the room leaning a different direction were wrong. Sometimes I was wrong and they were right, but the biggest positive moves I’ve experienced running businesses happened when I was right and took a chance on that hunch. Again, it goes to focusing on the 3–5 year out problems that not everyone else should be working on, so it’s not that I’m smarter than others, it’s that I have been studying the future and they haven’t.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
I think it just goes to being genuine and vulnerable. If people join a place because they see smart, positive, energetic people that have genuine respect for each other (meaning it’s safe to be you), that’s all you need. Foster this by rewarding those that exemplify it and coaching or quickly removing those that don’t.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think my newest venture truly has immense positive human impacts. By giving people insights on the risks they take and how that relates to economic choices they can now control, we can actually not only make people more economically stable, but could actually save lives at the same time.
How can our readers further follow you online?