Whitman at Work: Kathy Cody
When Farmers Insurance Group asked Kathy Preli Cody ’87, an alumna of Syracuse University's Martin J. Whitman School of Management, if she wanted to write an article on what female business leaders can learn from Nancy Reagan, Cody said yes.
Cody, senior vice president and chief operating officer for personal lines at Farmers Insurance Group, based in Los Angeles, has always been a fan of President Ronald Reagan. Living one town away from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, she became intrigued by his wife, Nancy, after seeing an exhibit on her.
The article, appearing in Fortune in March 2016, provided leadership lessons based on Nancy Reagan’s life, lessons Cody had gleaned from her 30 years in the insurance industry, including public accounting. She majored in accounting at Syracuse University, became a CPA and spent seven years as an audit manager at PwC in Boston serving insurance companies, before moving into insurance with the Phoenix Companies in 1994.
The four lessons from Nancy Reagan are loyalty, protectiveness, philanthropy and advocacy.
“Women leaders can serve the organization most effectively by understanding and performing in their current role, providing value every day and supporting the overall company mission.” – Kathy Cody ’87
“I have a strong sense of self,” Cody said. “I mentor a lot of terrific female employees. A large percentage of them lack self-confidence when they shouldn’t. Instilling confidence in women has been my mission. Let your voice be heard is a frequent reminder.”
On loyalty, she wrote in Fortune, “Women leaders can serve the organization most effectively by understanding and performing in their current role, providing value every day and supporting the overall company mission.”
“I truly believe this is the case,” Cody said. “I live my days thinking, ‘Company first, team second, me third’ when working on important initiatives that drive our strategy. “I learned an important lesson in my career early on. At PwC, it was up or out. We were promoted to the next level or asked to look for opportunities outside the organization. Hence, I figured out quickly how to add value to my clients every day.”
After a good run at PwC, Kathy decided to take on a job at one of her clients, The Phoenix Companies, working directly for the chief financial officer. In 15 years there, she served as vice president and treasurer, then senior vice president and chief accounting officer and finally as senior vice president of alternative retirement solutions, leading its emerging growth line of business.
Protectiveness is all about the company’s brand.
“We are a preferred brand, and I am in charge of underwriting for auto, home and umbrella insurance,” Cody said. “It’s important that we select the right customer for the Farmers brand and classify them appropriately so they can be properly rated.”
On philanthropy, she wrote in Fortune, “All women business leaders can, and should, embrace the culture of giving and helping others.”
From the Phoenix Companies in Hartford, Connecticut, Cody and her family moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 to join Farmers. A friend from PwC, the chief financial officer of Farmers Insurance Group, had asked her about taking on the chief financial officer role at Farmers Life Insurance Company in Seattle. In 2010, in addition to the Life CFO, she became head of operational finance for Zurich Global Life North America. In 2013, she relocated again, accepting the CFO position in distribution at Farmers Insurance Group in Los Angeles, the corporate headquarters, and in 2015 became the chief operating officer for personal lines.
Throughout her career, Cody said, she has volunteered for Habitat for Humanity building houses. “I find it to be a great way to bond with my team as well as give back to families in need in my community.” She’s also been involved with Special Olympics, San Diego Armed Services YMCA and breast cancer research. Several friends, and most recently her mother, have been diagnosed with cancer.
“Advocacy on behalf of future leaders in your organization is critical,” Cody wrote in Fortune. She advocates for women leaders and began the Woman’s Leadership Development Program at Farmers.
As the senior personal lines executive, she directs a team of 250 employees responsible for strategic leadership of underwriting, finance, analytics, agency services, agency benefits, project management office, and strategy and operations for both personal lines and distribution.
“I spent a good part of my time the last couple of years improving our customer and agent experience,” she said, “automating and streamlining processes, providing better tools, better training curriculums for employees, supporting and getting funding for various customer initiatives.”
Studying accounting is a family tradition. Her daughter, Kelly, is a Whitman School of Management junior majoring in accounting. Kelly’s older brothers also attended Syracuse University; Kevin Preli ’96 earned a bachelor of science in accounting and John Preli ’85 majored in chemical engineering at the College of Engineering and Computer Science.
Two crucial lessons she took from her SU experience were “don’t be afraid to ask” and “take advantage of opportunity.”
While Cody was not a member of Beta Alpha Psi, the international honor organization for financial information students and professionals, every time it sponsored an event, she asked if she could attend. “I was never turned down, and I got to take advantage of the activities and meet the on-campus recruiters. I ended up landing a job with PwC, which was a wonderful start to my career.”
One opportunity she would have regretted had she not said yes was the invitation to play in Tiger Woods’ foursome at the 2018 Farmers Insurance Open Pro-Am.
“My inside voice was saying, ‘no, I’m not good enough, what will I say to him,’ and my outside voice said, ‘yes,’” Cody said. “I was a nervous wreck, took lessons from a pro for the next four weeks and played the best round of my life with my son, David, caddying for me.”
She and Woods spoke about taxes and education. Woods had helped his daughter with homework at 5:45 a.m. that day.
“Homework was about interest and taxes,” Cody said. “We had a chuckle about that. I said, ‘Tiger, do you know how I taught David about taxes? He won $20 in singles and every third dollar I put in the kitty for Uncle Sam.’ We had a good laugh about that.
“He was very interested in talking to my son about his career and the importance of a good education. Tiger’s parents always said, education first, golf second,” she added.
Woods’s best golf tip? “Reading the greens. He helped me sink a 20-foot putt on the second hole,” Cody said.
The day taught Cody another lesson about opportunity: “It was an opportunity of a lifetime that I almost said no to out of fear. I have learned that when I get that fear, butterflies, out-of-my-comfort-zone feeling, I should say yes to the opportunity.”