Michael McLean, chairman and CEO of Medical Risk Managers Inc. of South Windsor, describes himself as a hands-off manager who's not afraid to let his employees make a mistake now and then.
"There's no penalty for doing something wrong," McLean said. "If you sit on a problem and don't do anything, that's a problem. One of our employees went off and did something that cost a million dollars."
And the person did not get fired. "We encourage people to occasionally crash planes, so to speak," McLean said.
That attitude is one reason why McLean is the winner of the 2013 leadership award in the small-employer category in the Courant/FOX CT Top Workplaces contest.
McLean is an actuary by trade and has led MRM since 1988, when he moved from The Hartford to join the small company that was forming. The firm underwrites insurance, specializing in medical stop-loss policies, and consults for other companies in the industry.
Employees describe McLean as a generous, fatherly executive who dons the Santa hat at Christmas time and shows his appreciation through pay, outstanding benefits and seemingly endless company perks.
For a summer outing, McLean hired a bus stocked with food and drink to carry the entire staff to Yankee Stadium to take in a weekday, daytime baseball game. In the past, he's bused the group to his summer "cottage" in Watch Hill, R.I., for a daylong picnic.
"We work hard and play hard," McLean said. "We've got very good margins and that keeps the shareholders happy. It lets us do nice things for the employees. When you have happy employees, they can give good service and that's the virtuous circle."
But it's not just about pay, as comments from employees in the Top Workplaces survey show that McLean is a beloved figure at the company, which has 53 employees. As an actuary, McLean studied the anonymous response data closely.
"The people making $30,000 to $50,000 here are actually the happiest," he said. "I don't know if it's that they like the good benefits. ... We treat them nicely and let them have responsibility."
That's crucial in McLean's management style, in which he lives by the dictum, "Don't sweat the small stuff." Since June, it's been even more true, as McLean handed over day-to-day duties to a newly named president, and dropped that title.
In the big picture, McLean has had phenomenally good fortune. When the company was young, it made an offer on the former firehouse where it is now located, for $1.3 million, he recalled. The offer was rejected, but that was during the real estate collapse in 1989-90, and McLean's investor group eventually had a chance to buy the same property — for $460,000.
That was a bit of luck, but the transactions that followed could be taught in a business school as a lesson in strategy. McLean, then a partial owner, bought the business outright in 2003 from Safeco Life, which kept some operations and most of the employees. Starting with 13 people, McLean built MRM back up and sold it in 2007 for $32 million to Symetra Financial Corp., even after taking $15 million in profits.
The Simsbury resident has been around great success in and out of the office. He and his wife, Diane, have three children in their 20s, all accomplished swimmers. Two were All-American at Stanford and Bowdoin, respectively, and the third was captain of the Harvard team.
A conversation with McLean makes it clear that he has a self-deprecating sense of humor — for example, he jokes that he looks older than his 58 years. When he turned 30 at The Hartford, colleagues put up black crepe paper and a sign that read, "30 years." Someone saw it and wondered if he'd really been there for three decades.
"I've been over the hill for 28 years," he now jests.
"It disarms people potentially," he said of the humor.
Karen Clark, the office manager and McLean's longtime assistant, says her boss gets embarrassed if employees try to say thanks.
One of McLean's priorities is fitness for himself and his employees. He wanted to lose some weight, so he installed a treadmill workstation on the third floor of the building and began walking, then graduated to a health club membership.
Now McLean encourages any employee to use the treadmill station — which has a computer monitor for work. Really, they work even while exercising? "What they're looking at on the monitor, I don't know," he quipped.
For his own fitness, he's started wearing a bracelet device that measures daily steps taken, calories consumed and quality of sleep.
"Yes, I was starting to look like Homer Simpson," said McLean, who dropped 52 pounds.
His employees note that it's nice to have a boss who doesn't take himself too seriously.
"He always has a smile and a quick wit, which makes everyone feel at ease from the moment you meet him," one employee said in the Top Workplaces survey.
Courant Columnist Dan Haar contributed to this storyCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun