Mentoring in Practice: Bill Deemer of SLU

Mentoring in Practice: A Conversation with Bill Deemer, Vice President (retireed) of GE Insurance; Mentor in Residence, John Cook School of Business, Saint Louis University

Q: Can you give me a quick synopsis of where you are and how you got here?

A: I started out at Chubb Insurance years ago. I worked there until 1977, when I went to R.B. Jones Insurance Agency in Kansas City.  I went from the Managing Director to National Director to Senior Vice President of the Health Care practice, and I was responsible for the malpractice business and 300 employees countrywide. In 1999, I went to General Electric and ran one of their insurance companies for health care until July 2002 when I decided to retire. I next spent 3 years as a volunteer counselor with SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. SCORE does volunteer mentoring for people who are starting, or already own, a small business, and need help. Today, I am a “mentor in residence” in the Entrepreneur Center at Saint Louis University. I have been there since October 2005.

Q: Can you tell me about someone in your career whom you consider a mentor?

A: I would go all the way back to my dad, who was an entrepreneur. As a 10 year old, I traveled with him on Saturdays selling bread door to door. From him, I built a sense of values and work ethic. Through high school and college, I worked at the Isaly Dairy Company, the home of the Klondike.  The branch manager, John Hook, was very instrumental and helped me from a management standpoint.  I started as a dishwasher and worked my way up to assistant manager of a store. Later on, I met Bill Blakely in the Chubb Insurance companies in the loss control department.   Bill was my boss and my mentor.  Through his direction and counsel I was able to move into commercial lines underwriting and then to management I was the first loss control person in Chubb to become a branch manager.

Q: Did you explicitly look for your mentors, or did they find you and take you under their wings?

A:   I would say that over half of them found me.  And the other half was a boss-employee relationship that blossomed into a friendship.  After I left them, I could pick up the phone say, what do you think about this. It was generally after I was no longer working with the boss because, while they were my boss, they were doing performance appraisals and they didn’t consider that mentoring.

Q: Is there any advice that a mentor gave you that really stands out?

A:   Don’t outrun your headlights. When you put the headlights on on a car you can only see so far.  And you know it’s OK to work out of a box and everything. But, at the same time, don’t outrun your headlights, because you outrun your capabilities. You will be making promises to people you can’t deliver.

Q: How much of a mentor were you while working in the insurance industry?

A:   It was quite extensive.  I can think of one instance when we bought the Pacific Indemnity Insurance Company. One of the young fellows from the mail room was looking to make a break.  He came to me and said, “would you help me?  I like the way you work.  Your people talk highly about what you do.” I set up a training program for him and started exposing him to things, and eventually pulled him into my department. When I got transferred to California, I pulled him out there with me.  I made him a unit supervisor and today he is a senior vice president. So I am very pleased. He still calls. 

Q: What role did mentoring play in developing people in those organizations?

A:   I would say at Chubb it was part of the culture.  I would say at GE it is very definitely part of the culture. As a service industry, there is a lot of room in insurance for nurturing, growing, and mentoring people within your department, people outside of your department, and even customers.  

Q:  Are there 2-3 common issues that come up in mentoring entrepreneurs, or is everyone completely different.

A: The number one misconception is, I have this dream therefore I can do it.  And a lot of people don’t want to be harnessed to the 24/7 role that they are now going to play in owning  and developing their business. A lot of the folks don’t have a clue what is in store for them, so you really have to be that dose of reality and take them through the whole framework of starting a business. I keep telling folks to work “on” their businesses and not “in” them.  If they get down in them, they are not going to be able to get back up to the 30,000 foot level where they need to be able to become the entrepreneur again.

Q: What do you get out of being a mentor?

A: I am a very people oriented person I believe. I think that is one of my major strengths and I enjoy working with people.  I enjoy helping people. I think that my satisfaction is seeing them be successful.  I really enjoy that.

Q: What would you tell someone who is in a mentoring role about the secrets to being a good mentor?

A:    The number one would be being an effective listener.  Sometimes, you go in and are ready to fix it, but you don’t even know what “it” is. You have to be an effective listener and really understand the person. Then, you can start working them through some analysis as to why they want to do this, why do they feel they can be successful in this. Another key point for a mentor is that you have the opportunity to ask questions from a different perspective and to test different ideas for a company that is going into business.

Q: What would you tell someone to do who is receiving mentoring to make it successful?

A: To be honest with themselves and to be honest with the mentor.  There has to be an open relationship.

Q: Did you have anything else you want to add about mentoring or coaching.

A: The one person who has really helped me, because of the fact that I used to travel 150,000 miles a year, is my wife.  We will be married 43 years so she is an influence.  She is also a mentor in a different way.  She is a balancer.  You need that type of a mentor in your life, that balancer that can help you not turn off the business side but also sort of be balanced with the other side of your life.