Below is a Q&A with Jeanene O'Brien, senior vice president of global marketing at Insurance Auto Auctions and a 2017 Women in Remarketing honoroee.
Auto Remarketing: What was your path to the automotive industry, and what do you enjoy most about working in the car business?
Jeanene O'Brien: I was a month away from graduating with my master's degree from Loyola University Quinlan School of Business when I was having brunch at a sorority sister's house. Her mother happened to be an executive recruiter, and also enjoying brunch was the vice president of human resources from CCC Information Services, Inc. A conversation ensued, and needless to say, my master's degree got put to work a month later.
CCC was going through an amazing transformation at the time that I joined — shifting from DOS-based collision-estimating technology to Microsoft-based. Learning about the automotive claims industry was simultaneously interesting and challenging.
The industry was experiencing dramatic changes, including consolidation of body shops and shifts in direct repair programs, so it was somewhat like learning from a fire hose. The collision estimating and total loss valuation offerings at that time were fragmented, which was consistent with an industry that had three large and several smaller players. The importance of establishing a brand and leadership position for the company in this dynamic industry was critical and I found this strategic marketing work to be both challenging and rewarding.
After nearly 10 years with CCC, I made the transition to IAA in 2008 through the support and encouragement of a colleague. She was someone who had supported me during my entire career at CCC, and was pivotal in me joining IAA — when she was called by the hiring manager from IAA as a reference, her direct words were, "You will never have to push her forward, but you may have to hold her back."
IAA was a completely different company than CCC. While the industries had many similarities and even shared some of the same customers, the business, the product and the service offering were completely different. Similar to CCC, the automotive auction business was consolidating when I joined. So I joined a company and business that was also evolving — and the changes haven't stopped. Currently, at IAA I am again focused on maintaining a leadership position for a brand and company in a dynamic and very competitive market. I truly enjoy studying and understanding the drivers of the industry, including what makes a seller sell and a buyer buy. I am driven to make the customers' experiences with the brand truly best-in-class every day.
AR: How is the remarketing/used-car segment of the business most different from when you first started out?
JO: When I joined IAA, the company had recently completed the merger with ADESA and AFC, which created KAR Auction Services (NYSE: KAR). At that time we were truly seen as just a salvage auction company. Today, as part of the KAR Auction Services family of companies, we are far more. We provide a total loss solution and remarketing portfolio of products to our sellers and the most bidding and purchasing platforms to our buyers. This means we think beyond the running of a vehicle through a sale.
We consider the start of our service offering with insurance companies for example, at the time of the accident. Today we approach products and services from an entire process perspective rather than from "just selling a car."
This new approach is carried out through marketing and that keeps my job consistently challenging and rewarding. This is a competitive market. Anyone can tow a car to a facility and sell it — the real game changers in our industry are listening to the customers and transforming the process.
AR: How would you describe your leadership style and approach to problem-solving?
JO: In terms of leadership style, I believe in giving people the skills necessary to be successful and accountable. I also feel that with a leadership position comes the responsibility to be a springboard, to encourage and motivate people to reach higher every day. As a leader, I have always thrived when I have a diverse team of people who can celebrate and challenge one another every day — and I certainly have that at IAA.
We work in a fast-paced environment — but when problem solving, I think it's important to understand and consider all the variables to arrive at solutions. It's easy to get distracted by a new technology or a seemingly better solution, but without asking all the questions, a poor decision can be made. My team is my go-to, and of the ultimate importance as we approach problem solving. I have some great "questioners" and very vocal teammates.
Getting a problem out on the table and encouraging different viewpoints can help a resolution come to light. I have a longtime colleague who is often my best debater but, after we have a good, healthy conversation, we always have a better solution. I also believe in challenging others when decision-making because it will either solidify the solution or produce a better one.
AR: What have been some of the top keys to your success in the car business?
JO: In order to be successful in any business, you really have to be a student of the industry.
I've come into IAA with the experience of working at CCC. Therefore, I understand the drivers of the insurance company's decision to send a total loss vehicle to auction. I have also worked to understand what makes the auction tick, what motivates the buyer to bid and ultimately purchase a vehicle, and strived to listen to what the seller values in the services offered. The key to success in my career is rooted deeply in understanding the dynamics of the industry and the value delivered to the clients.
AR: Who are some folks, whether in the auto industry or not, that you admire professionally, and why?
JO: I certainly would not be where I am without my parents. I was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky. My folks divorced when I was very young. My mom was an assistant to a thoroughbred racer, which meant my sister and I got to sit a time or two in the box seats at Keeneland Race Track. My mom taught me tenacity and perseverance. Even today, when I don't think I can, my mom reminds me how strong and capable I am. My dad was a dentist at the University of Kentucky and worked for the World Health Organization. My dad consistently encouraged me to do more, to reach further and above all else to remember that life is short, so take the time to enjoy it.
My dad died 15 years ago, which was tremendously hard, but he lives on in my desire to see everyone take that next step, and to remember to be happy in the short time we all have here on earth. I have a teammate who had not completed her bachelor's degree. I've encouraged and supported her, and she will be graduating in July. I couldn't be more thrilled for her. She is extremely capable and watching her believe in herself and achieve her goals has been inspirational to see.
AR: When you are able to get away from the office or work, what do you enjoy? What are your hobbies, interests, etc.?
JO: I have two amazing kids, a daughter who is weeks away from 13 and a son who is 16. They make me unbelievably proud every day. They are, in fact, my greatest accomplishments. Both of my kids are academically strong and play AAU sports. My daughter plays volleyball and my son plays basketball. This makes for many upcoming road trips to different states, as well as some nail-biting experiences, as my son flying cross-country solo.
My job is to give them wings to fly. Watching them begin that flight and journey is exciting. If I'm not watching or coaching my daughter power-overhand serving a volleyball or my son sink a 3-pointer, you'll find me moving about the amazing city of Chicago, the city I call home. You can usually fi nd me having dinner at a favorite city restaurant, enjoying a Cubs game, sitting on my front stoop with a glass of wine talking to my neighbors or out for a run to hit my 15-20 miles for the week. Unless it's during March Madness — then all bets are off and this Big Blue-blooded Kentucky girl is screaming "Go Cats!"
Read about all of this year's Women in Remarketing honorees in the April 1 issue of Auto Remarketing.
Jeanene O'Brien, Insurance Auto Auctions