Burns & Wilcox's Chicago Director on Being a Third-Generation Company Man

The prevailing wisdom about working with family members is: don't. It's slightly different territory if you inherit the family business or are working with a parent, but lots of folks decide to work with their siblings for all the obvious reasons: lots of common ground, a very similar background and you're already familiar with your colleague.

Daniel J. Kaufman, 27, the director of the Chicago office of wholesale insurance broker Burns & Wilcox is in the camp of people who pick up the familial torch and run with it. Kaufman's learned from his father and grandfather's leadership styles and, since taking over the Chicago office in April, has been building his own niche in Chicago. To find out more about that niche and how he's been adjusting to the new position, I gave Kaufman a call.

For those who aren't familiar, what does Burns & Wilcox do as an insurance broker?

Daniel J. Kaufman: We're a wholesale insurance broker and underwriting manager. So, what that means is we work with insurance agents. Those are our clients. You go to your agent for an insurance product -- if it's a specialty risk or a higher risk than a standard policy, the agent will come to us as an intermediary for access to our expertise for those types of products and for our access to market to provide those products.

You're third-generation management, then?

Daniel J. Kaufman: I am. It was founded by my grandfather in 1969, and my father is currently the chairman, president, CEO of the company.

So, unlike your siblings, this was something that interested you growing up?

Daniel J. Kaufman: Yeah, I've always been around the business. I remember going to the office with my grandfather when I was younger, and my father. It was always my plan in life to come onboard with the company, and I'm thrilled to be here.

Before taking over in April, were you working with the company prior to that?

Daniel J. Kaufman: Yeah, so I've been with the company full-time in Chicago for two years. Before that, I went to law school in Loyola, and that was part-time. I've been onboard full-time in Chicago for two years, and for the first year and a half or so I was working in the office mostly as a broker. Learning what I could about the operations of Chicago and the market here, and then took the reins of the office in April.

When in your two years were you made aware of the fact that you would be taking over?

Daniel J. Kaufman: I laid out a plan for what I wanted when I got in there, not really a timeline, but mostly what I wanted to accomplish. My goal was always to get to the point where I could take over the office and just based on my progression and how I was working with others and management, I felt like I was ready. I had a conversation at the end of last year where it was made clear that at some point in 2012 I would be promoted to management. So, that was great.

How's it been doing that compared to how you thought it might be?

Daniel J. Kaufman: It's been great. The challenges of management are obviously something you can't really predict until you're really in those shoes. You'll always see situations when they come up and when you're not in management, you think to yourself, "I would do this, I would that." But really it's so different when you're actually in the role. I loved it. I love working with other people and managing and trying to really get everyone's engines going. It's been successful so far, it's been a great experience. I really look forward to continuing that here.

What have you accomplished since April?

Daniel J. Kaufman: Going back a little bit, actually, when I first started about two years ago, our office was in Downer's Grove. So, we were out west. One of my first big projects that I worked on for about a year and a half was getting the office moved to the city. I felt the city was where we needed to be so we could attract the best talents. We're close to a lot of our clients and partners. It's really a necessity in this day and age for our business. We actually made the move in April, which was fantastic. Since then, we've really taken off. We brought some new people onboard. We're doing great. There's a lot of great energy in the office. People are happy to be downtown, so it's been great.

Your publicist had mentioned that you're "operating as an entrepreneur" from within an international company. Would you agree with that? If so, what does that mean to you?

Daniel J. Kaufman: Yeah, I think so. I mean, the company itself has a history of entrepreneurship. My grandfather really was a true entrepreneur. He started the company in 1969 and grew it over time, eventually as a public organization with offices across the country. My father actually purchased the company back, took it private in '96. My father, again, is a great entrepreneur. My father's been focused on acquisitions and building international. I try to take what I've learned from watching the two of them over my lifetime and apply it to my area of Chicago right now. One thing that I see in Chicago is really the growth opportunities with emerging markets or what I think are underserved areas of insurance. Areas like green energy or emerging technologies that don't really have specific insurance policies. Over the past two years since I've been here, with some colleagues of mine, we've really focused on developing some new products, which haven't really been front and center in insurance. So, the product-development aspect of it.

When you made the move, did everyone come with you? Or did some people not want to go to the city?

Daniel J. Kaufman: Just about everybody made the move, actually, and we added more when we came here. It's something that people wanted, to be honest. The people that didn't, their attitudes changed within a few weeks of us being downtown when they felt the energy and the pride of a new space on Wacker and Randolph.

What do you hope to have accomplished by the time you've been in this new role for a year? Jeez, that sounds like a job-interview question.

Daniel J. Kaufman: [Laughs.] Well, thanks. My five-year plan? I hope to continue steady growth in our office. July was a record month for Chicago. August was another record month that broke July. We need to add more people to our staff. Really, my goals are as simple as growing our office and growing our business. I don't have a specific number of people that I want to add, but I want to get as many great people as I can to add to this great team that we have right now.

Do you have any words of advice for someone who may be poised to take over a family generation second or third generation?

Daniel J. Kaufman: Don't try to emulate the generations in front of you. Try to really clear your own path and be your own person. Obviously take what you've learned from those people and mold it into your own personality.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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