How does one go from being a 16th and 17th century English literature professor to the CEO of a benefits administration company for long-term care and other benefits programs?
As Paul Forte, CEO of Long Term Care (LTC) Partners, based in Portsmouth, N.H., tells it, it was a matter of U.S. economics when he completed his doctoral studies in 1980.
“There were high interest rates, high inflation, there just were no jobs, and in the academic world, I think this is true, I think this could be verified, I think there was something like a dozen tenure track jobs in the United States for people like myself. A dozen,” Forte tells Chief Executive. He was able to secure a few adjunct positions over the course of two years, but nothing solid.
Unable to make a career as a professor, Forte took on a lot of hard jobs—loading trucks, delivered wine, painted houses—before settling in insurance thanks to a recommendation from his aunt. He ended up in front of Derek Chilvers, a world-traveled insurance executive at John Hancock in Boston. Chilvers hired him and Forte’s career in insurance had begun.
First, Forte began editing and rewriting marketing material, before moving over to sales and learning the business. He also had to learn the technical part of the job, which meant for someone who had spent 11 years towards getting a doctorate degree in English literature, he had to go back to school. “It was like a period of five or six years where I had to study a lot, and before I got in front of clients I would have to make a pot of coffee sometimes at 11:00 at night and get by on very little sleep so that I could kind of cram before I went in,” he recalls.
Working with the feds
Forte survived this trial by fire, ascended the ladder at John Hancock, to eventually become the founding CEO of LTC Partners in 2002. LTC is a wholly-owned subsidiary of John Hancock Life & Health Insurance Company, specializing in large-scale benefit operations and transaction processing. When Forte took over the company, there were only a handful of employees. Today, the company employs 350 people.
A lot of the thanks goes to the government. LTC Partners was founded after the passing of the Long-Term Care Security Act in 2000. Forte’s expertise and experience helped the company secure administration of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program (FLTCIP), which is the largest long-term care insurance program in the country for federal employees and their families. The company also administers benefits for other federal programs as well.
Because its clients are federal government agencies, Forte says it encounters the challenges typical of working with an “immense entity of byzantine complexity,” that always changes. He says it’s challenging to keep pace with the government’s appetite for updated information systems in a highly-regulated environment.
“The feds have much, much more red tape [than a typical private company], they have to ensure that there’s something like a level playing field, they can’t always talk to you when they want to, because they might actually violate a guideline, they might give you an inside track,” he says. Staying to his former life, Forte says you have to be a student and learn the complexities of the government requirements.
The long-term care insurance industry is going through a rough patch, Forte admits. The market peaked in the early 2000s, shortly after President Clinton signed the Long-Term Care Security Act. Back then, Forte says that actuaries were pricing the plans at lower rates, using inaccurate data.
Once the results started rolling in and companies realized they losing money, there were significant increases that forced people to drop their policy. Only 89,000 people bought a long-term insurance plan in 2016, down from the peak of 750,000 in 2002.
Forte predicts an upswing though in the near future: “There is more and more data becoming available that will help actuaries to price this form of insurance in the future, and I think that we will get better at pricing this risk.” Moreover, he says, as the Boomer generation gets older, more people will need this kind of insurance if they are saddled with a long-term disease after retirement, such as Alzheimer’s or ALS.
“There really aren’t any good alternatives to it. I mean, it’s not something that’s covered by Medicare. In order to be covered by any government program, you would have to impoverish yourself.”
Studying to be a CEO
Strange as a it sounds, there is a link between Forte’s old life in English literature and the one has enjoys now as CEO of LTC Partners. As an English literature scholar, he studied rhetoric during the reformation period, when Europeans threw off the shackles of Catholic authoritarianism and challenged the established order.
“They’re writing treatises and tracts and giving sermons, and they’re making lots of arguments and they’re using lots of citations and so forth,” he says. “You start to school yourself in that, and sort of the political arguments and stuff, you get pretty good at how to handle the give and take of an argument itself.”
So in a sense, becoming a scholar in 16th and 17th century English literature helped him learn how to present evidence, how to counter things, an understanding of ethics and principles of governance. All things you need to know when you’re the CEO.
“It’s all discourse, it’s analysis, it’s looking at the evidence that someone presents for anything and you can find all the holes in it and all the weaknesses, and you can go on and say, ‘Well, here’s how I’m going to attack it,’” he notes. “There’s lots of times when it doesn’t come into play, but every once in a while, when it does, it matters.”