This month’s Women in Comp featured executive is Janelle Frost, Chief Executive Officer at the publicly-traded, DeRidder-based AMERISAFE Inc. Frost recently earned the top job after spending nearly her entire career at every level of AMERISAFE’s operations and she is the first woman to hold the position. The secret to her success? Letting opportunity find you.
Comp Blog: Tell us about your personal background. Anything that influenced you?
Frost: I was born and raised in Oberlin, Louisiana [in Allen Parish, about 60 miles from Lake Charles]. I was the only girl of four siblings. When I was younger my Dad was a lineman for Cleco and then later on he worked at the paper mill here in DeRidder as an electrical and instrumentation guy – doing maintenance. My Mom was a housewife when I was growing up and then when my youngest sibling went to school she went to work in a medical office. So I’d say that it wasn’t really the careers my parents had that influenced me, but their work ethic. They instilled in me that as long as you’re doing your job and doing it beyond expectations, opportunity will present itself. That has been the story of my career.
Comp Blog: How did you get your start in the workers’ comp industry?
Frost: I graduated with a degree in Accounting from McNeese State University [in 1992]. I was living out in DeRidder because my husband was working in Information Technology at the paper mill, and so I assumed that I would be driving back and forth to Lake Charles and finding a job there as an accountant thinking, how was I going to find a job like that in DeRidder?
A couple of months before I graduated, AMERISAFE had a job posting. They were going to start a new company called Silver Oak that was going to do non-standard auto and be a separate entity from the workers’ comp business. That’s how I got my foot in the door here – not doing workers’ comp but being the accountant for their non-standard auto company. That was all in 1992 – I graduated from McNeese and then I started here.
Comp Blog: How did you go from accounting to AMERISAFE’s workers’ comp business to eventually become CEO?
Frost: After about six months of doing non-standard auto, I started to think, “maybe this isn’t working,” and so I started learning about the workers’ comp side of the company. Sure enough, after a couple of years the decision was made to stop writing auto and focus only on workers’ comp.
Really, I only know the AMERISAFE way! It’s been a fantastic experience. I started as a junior accountant and worked my way through all of the different functions of accounting – deputy controller, then controller – and then in 2008, I became CFO.
We went public in 2005, and in 2008, our CFO at that time became President and Chief Operating Officer [COO] and so I interviewed and got the position to replace him. I was CFO until 2014, then became COO, then President, and this April  became CEO.
Comp Blog: To what do you credit your rise through AMERISAFE’s ranks?
Frost: I always just tried to go above and beyond in the job duties I was assigned and opportunity presented itself.
I was fortunate enough that when I started at the company it was privately owned, and then in 1997 we were sold out to a private equity firm and we [were in that position] until 2005 when we went public. So [in my experience with the company] I went from being privately owned, to private equity owned to publicly traded, and those are completely different worlds. I’m blessed to have had that [range of] experience because a lot of people that stay with the same company don’t have that change in structure. It was a fun ride!
Comp Blog: What has evolved the most since you started in the industry?
Frost: Since I’ve been in the industry, states, and in particular Louisiana, have gotten better at regulating benefits and trying to curb costs. At the end of the day, it is about cost: how do you pay for a claim, how do you manage a claim, how do you close a claim. I’m not a big believer in [the mentality] that rules can solve every problem, but I think regulators have done a lot lately to help cut costs.
What I perceive one of biggest problems to be is drug utilization. Louisiana has gotten on board with trying to curb that cost. There’s a definite awareness in the industry now that these costs have gotten way out of hand, especially with the over-utilization of narcotics. Everyone seems to be in agreement what we have to do something, and when we do, it saves everyone money and it gets people to maximum medical improvement, and hopefully, back to work.
Comp Blog: What specific mechanism would you want to see implemented in order to achieve that goal?
Frost: I think we have to turn some of that responsibility onto the medical profession. Obviously, a prescription has to be written, but unfortunately, there are claimants in the system that shop doctors. The more physicians that are aware of all of the drugs a person is taking, the better. I don’t think these doctors have ill-intent, but the system is being abused.
Comp Blog: What’s a typical day for you?
Frost: There really isn’t a typical day! But I do have a consistent number of things that I monitor weekly. We’re a very hands-on management team here, not just myself but all of the executive staff, so I monitor daily how we’re pricing our product, what we’re quoting, what we’re binding, what states are doing especially well. I even look at individual claims past a certain dollar amount as the reserves change. Not that I’m a claim expert, but it’s sometimes important to get someone that’s not as involved in the claim to take a look. So I’m involved in true, day-to-day operations – not just executive management. I also talk to shareholders weekly and travel a bit for that, reaching out and explaining what we do and how we do it, plus occasional meetings with regulators. And of course, quarterly meetings with the Board of Directors.
Comp Blog: To have a CEO with that level of involvement isn’t typical. Could you elaborate on how that benefits the company?
Frost: It definitely isn’t typical! In fact, in investor meetings in the past, shareholders used to comment about our former CEO, who is now still Chairman of the Board [Allen Bradley], that he’s the most informed CEO they had ever met in the industry! That is because of our hands-on approach. We allow people to do their jobs but we keep in touch, especially because we’re a small company. We have 453 employees, over half of which are here in our home office. I don’t want to be the person who is just making decisions and then everyone else has to execute them. I am extremely honored to represent the employees at this company – they do a tremendous job and I get to travel the country and talk to people about how great they are.
Comp Blog: What’s been the most challenging or exciting part of your job since taking over as the head of the company in April?
Frost: I’m very fortunate that the company is doing well. I didn’t inherit any problems from that standpoint.
One of my major focuses since I became CEO is really investing in our employee base and our community. We’re this great organization based in DeRidder, Louisiana and some people hear the name “AMERISAFE” and they’re not sure who we are. We haven’t done a great job branding the company at a local level outside of DeRidder. We’re so proud to be in Louisiana and I think we’re a hidden treasure, so since April we’ve been running ad campaigns, just trying to build up our profile. We want people to know who we are, and in the future, to consider working for us.
Insurance gets a bad reputation as boring, but it really is a great industry to work in and I’m always reminding people of the variety of jobs within insurance that aren’t about working in an agency. I want [AMERISAFE] to do a better job of educating people, young people going in and coming out of college especially, about the job opportunities in this industry. As a whole, this industry is getting to the point where, generationally, our employees are getting ready to retire and we don’t have people to fill those positions.
Comp Blog: The insurance industry, especially at the upper management level, is a male-dominated sector. Have you felt any effects of this gender disparity?
Frost: It’s definitely a visible disparity. When we go to investor conferences I am almost always one of the few women in the room. There might be an Investor Relations person that’s a female, but as far as CFOs and CEOs in the publicly traded sector are concerned, it’s very rare to find a woman in our space.
Personally, gender discrimination hasn’t been a big part of my story. I was continually presented with opportunities starting from the ground floor of this company. I was the first female executive AMERISAFE had and the only female CEO. I will say though, that I’ve noticed some things among female employees. There are times where I think, as women, we see something and we say: “that’s happening because I’m a woman.” The truth is, whether or not that’s actually the case or if that’s just your perception, you have to move past it. Maybe I’m an optimist in this, but I honestly believe that if you work to the absolute best of your ability, your efforts are going to outshine that narrow-mindedness.
Comp Blog: What advice would you give to young women seeking out top positions in business?
Frost: The number one thing is to be yourself, it just doesn’t work to pretend to be like everyone else. And the other thing would be to view everything – whether it’s a problem or a potential foothold – as an opportunity. Even when everything is crumbling down around you, there’s opportunity in there somewhere.