RIMS Has a New CEO. Gary LaBranche on Embracing the Role and the Risk Management Industry
R&I: What was your first job?
I had a paper route the day I turned 11 years old. That was one of the few ways back then that a kid could make a few dollars, so everybody competed for these routes. When I was 10, I went to the newspaper and begged for a paper route. They said, “No, no, you have to be 11.” So, I showed up on my 11th birthday and they gave me the job. I’ve had a job every single day since that day.
R&I: How did you come to your current position?
I’ve been a long-time association professional and have served as the CEO of several different associations, including most recently the National Investor Relations Institute. NIRI’s members are investor relations officers of publicly traded companies with a combined valuation of $9 trillion. IR professionals are the interface between the company and Wall Street investors — that includes both current and potential investors in the company.
Before that, I was CEO of the Association for Corporate Growth, which serves the private equity community. So, I focused on private equity with ACG and then public equity with NIRI. Both of those positions dealt with high-level financial people from every sector and who face a wide-range of challenges.
I came to RIMS after an executive recruiting firm knocked on my digital door and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this search. Do you have any candidates to suggest?’ I get requests all the time from search firms to suggest potential candidates and I always do.
And then they came back to me and they said, “Well, what about you?” And that’s how it happened. I hadn’t been thinking about changing job. I wasn’t looking. In fact, we were getting ready to sign another contract at NIRI that would have taken me through the rest of my working life. When you least expect it, that’s when things like this happen.
R&I: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
The pandemic. I think anyone who has led a business over the last couple of years would agree. It has been just such an incredible challenge. [At the beginning,] it was so stressful and there were so many unknowns.
At NIRI, we were 90 days away from the start of our annual conference. The conference was essential to NIRI’s financial health. And we were killing on registration and sponsorship goals and achieving or exceeding all the milestones. We were in good shape and were excited about it.
And then the first week of March hit, and suddenly things started to look a little shaky. We closed the office on March 12 and a week later made the decision to postpone the conference until December. Both the board and management figured the pandemic and lockdown would blow over by December.
And of course, you know the rest of the story. It didn’t blow over. So we pivoted to a virtual conference, which we had never done before. We had to select a virtual conference platform and learn how to put on a virtual conference and navigate everything. Do we return everybody’s money? And how do we deal with the exhibitors and how do we network, how do we provide an engaging learning experience?
Plus, all of our other meetings were rescheduled or canceled, and we had to unwind hotel contracts and other obligations. Half of NIRI’s revenue disappeared overnight. It was about as stressful and challenging as anything I’ve ever faced.
I’ve said before that the pandemic threw away the playbook. I’ve been around long enough now that I tend to know the answers to most questions. But during that first year of the pandemic, I didn’t know the questions to ask, let alone the answers to the questions.
We were all flying blind and learning how to do this from scratch and not really knowing what to do or what to expect or when the pandemic would end or what life would be like. We also had to figure out how to work virtually. Thanks to an ERM process we conducted in 2018, we had a business continuity plan in place. As a result we were cloud based, had Zoom in place, and SharePoint and Teams set up. But the fact that we were in the office on a Friday and then on Monday, we were not, brought a lot of stress and challenges.
R&I: Who has been your mentor(s) and why?
I have really been blessed with great mentors throughout my life. I always encourage people coming up in any business or occupation to cultivate good mentors and continue finding them throughout your career.
My first mentor was my first boss out of college — a legendary association CEO named TJ Schmitz. TJ hired me as a college summer intern to work in the headquarters of my college fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon, in Indianapolis. And I guess I did a good enough job and he liked me, so he created a job for me when I graduated that December.
About six months into it he said, “We think that you’re a natural at this association management stuff and we want to encourage you and this is what you should do.”
He and a few others literally took me by the hand to events and introduced me to the right people. They got me involved in organizations and committees so I could develop my leadership skills and gain confidence. They pushed me to get my certification — the Certified Association Executives credential. Without them, who knows? I might have still wound up here, but thanks to them, I flourished. They encouraged me for years and years.
As I’ve gone on in life and career, I’ve gained other mentors and now find myself as a mentor to others. That has been great. One of the things that I’m most proud of is that 18 people who worked for me at one point or another went on to become association CEOs. That’s one of my proudest accomplishments.
R&I: What are your goals for RIMS as the new CEO?
It would be foolish for me to come in and impose goals for RIMS. I think my job is, at first, to listen, and I’ll spend a lot of time shutting up over the next few months so that I can ask questions and listen to the answers, meet people, understand what they do and understand who they are and understand what we can do together.
I think that there are some things to keep in mind in terms of what future goals could be, but it starts with the great team here. Mary Roth has built a terrific team at RIMS, and I can’t wait to get to work with them.
There’s a lot of momentum — the momentum from RISKWORLD is like a tailwind pushing us all forward. Meeting people at that intersection of RIMS and the future is very exciting. Together, we have to create a better understanding and awareness of how the world has changed and will change so that we can develop the right kind of strategy for RIMS going forward.
So, getting to know the people, the players, the potential, assessing how our world is changing and will change and then identifying the right strategy will be crucial to keeping the momentum going and making sure we’re taking advantage of the opportunities that we have before us.
R&I: What about this new role excites and challenges you?
I want to make the world a better place and I think risk management makes the world a better place. For what I perceive, RIMS will be my last career stop. I wanted to do something meaningful for others and I would imagine that not everyone in risk management goes into it thinking, “I’m here to save the world.” But really if you look at it, what people in risk management do is make the world a safer, more secure, more sustainable place.
One thing that we’ve learned over the last couple of years is there’s more risks than we have ever imagined. All roads lead to risk. All activities lead to some sort of risk and all risk leads to RIMS.
That’s what makes it very exciting to be in this field right now. I think it’s very exciting for those looking to decide what they want to do with their life and with a career. Who wouldn’t want to help make the world safer, more secure, and more sustainable?
R&I: Where do you see this industry going? How will it change in the next 10 to 15 years?
I think that the incredible acceleration of digital technology, in particular, will provide lots of new risk and challenges along with lots of new opportunities and tools.
My mind goes to things like the Metaverse, how will risk present in the Metaverse? How will the Metaverse help accelerate risk management practice?
Artificial intelligence — I’ve been involved with a couple of AI projects at NIRI, because AI is starting to radically transform the financial communications world. I’m sure it will transform risk management as well. Add to the mix cybersecurity, and it is clear that the risk community will grapple with a host of new challenges and opportunities.
All of this and so many other emerging developments will radically transform the risk management world both in good ways and in negative ways. Then there’s the challenges of diversity, equity, inclusion and how we as a profession and as a community ensure that we are an attractive community that embraces, rewards and includes and serves all people That’s going to be critically important going forward.
R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?
I go back to the 18 people that have worked for me and then gone on to become association CEOs. It’s not really my accomplishment, it is more their accomplishment, but I’m still coaching and advising most of them.
For some, I played a small role. For others, I played a bigger role.
I’m finding the older I get, the more experienced I get, the more achievements I’ve had, I take greater pride not in things I’ve done than in the development and aspirations of others. That’s where it’s fun and meaningful for me. I have achieved a few things, written a book, given well-regarded speeches, won key public policy victories. I’ve received this awards and that award. That’s all well and good, but it’s the people that you touch and help that is the most rewarding.
R&I: What is the riskiest activity you’ve ever engaged in?
I’m not sure that this will fit but I will say the riskiest thing I ever did was adopting our daughter. We adopted our daughter from India 22 years ago. This was a huge risk in many, many ways for my wife, Karen, and me.
Our daughter was in an orphanage, and she was three-months-old when we were matched with her. We would get periodic health reports and the reports were incomplete and often contradictory. One month they reported her height and weight as X, and then two months later she was substantially smaller. My wife — who is a nurse — and I were dumbfounded and very concerned about our daughter’s health.
And then the adoption process kept being delayed for all sorts of reasons, many of which didn’t seem to make much sense. Instead of three months, it took nine months, and so it was a very stressful time and a process over which we could exert very little control or influence.
Then, there was the risk becoming an interracial family. Many people, especially friends from India and other people of color, shared their concerns about that. They said there would be more challenges than we would expect. We later understood what they meant, as we definitely experienced very negative reactions from some, strangers typically. Things people would say to us were unbelievably painful. We learned a lot from this experience.
And we, like most adoptive parents, worried about attachment. Would we bond together? Would we be able to cope with the adjustment of becoming parents after having no children for the first 15 years of our marriage? Would we be up to the challenge — a question that every parent-to-be asks.
But this greatest risk has been our greatest reward. We love our daughter, and she loves us. She’s doing terrific and now is a year or so away from graduating from the University of Arizona. We’re a family and we love each other. Everything about it was risky and everything about it has been awesome. &