FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Abel Pagaling
December 6, 2016
Math guy. Nice guy. Insurance guy. Magazine guy. Family guy. Writer, speaker ...
Before you dismiss this as just another interview, about just another interesting guy Mark is writing about – consider he was mentored extensively for four years by Jack Singer. Yes, ‘that Jack Singer’ Calgary business icon/philanthropist. He's the son of a nanny and a missionary. And he’s still so very young – well, you’ll have to read this story …
Have you found, as I have, people we meet – and presume to know – surprise us completely when we pry a bit beneath their surface? Such was the case for me when I interviewed Abel Pagaling recently. I first met him about three, perhaps it was four, years ago at a Toastmasters event – I was evaluating, he was speaking. I’d not heard him before. I was captured by his message and by his velvet voice. Maybe he should be on radio! By day he runs claims data analytics at Intact Insurance, he’s a U of C educated math wiz who, in his spare time, (first online, now in print) is the creator and driving force of Filipino Canadian Magazine. Where he finds any time I don’t quite understand – but his story fascinates me.
Our paths have crossed often, we’ve each done guest-speaking and writing gigs for the other, and I’ve grown to know him as a speaker, and I've been a guest speaker at his Intact Toastmasters Club, but I didn’t really know him. Our interview contained some remarkable surprises …
As manager of a team of analysts at Intact Insurance I was hoping he could give me insight to the claims work and ‘the state of the insurance business’ especially as it relates to hail storms, wildfires (Fort Mac) and insurance industry trends. He deferred – those are questions for other folks to answer. He manages a team of 14 analyzing data; he reports regionally and nationally on ‘how things have gone’ to give senior management data to work with – though he admitted to being part of an ‘all hands on deck’ response to the Fort Mac event. Intact have nearly 1,000 staff in Calgary. He told me some awesome stories about how ‘catastrophe action teams’ leapt into service processing an enormous number of claims for Intact insured customers, breaking down data afterward to use lessons learned to improve for future events.
Abel is not a biblical reference – he was named for his grandfather, Abelardo.
It began in Manila in the Philippines, his mother was 19, pregnant, unwed, from a strict Catholic family – not a good combo. Her attempt to end that pregnancy failed – and son Abel arrived. His father was travelling on business and had moved on. When he was three his mother went to Hong Kong for work while Abel stayed with grandparents. His mother moved on to Canada to do domestic work as a nanny – but then returned to Manila when Abel was seven to marry his father. Abel and his father later followed to Canada. “We were three people who didn’t really know each other – it was difficult.” His two younger sisters were born here in Calgary. He’d begun learning English in kindergarten, but coming to Canada at age 12 posed some ESL challenges; “Mrs. Pilkington was very patient!”; in high school he struggled academically but says he excelled socially (methinks he was a bit of a party boy).
He enrolled at University of Calgary – to study mechanical engineering but soon learned math was his driver - he was a ‘data guy’; by his 2nd year his part-time job at Net Teller was pulling him away for math challenges (he was doing QA and analytics), learning management skills and earning great money. He stayed three years, then joined Intact. He’s not licensed in insurance but has done some basic course work – and found his ‘math guy’ skills have been instrumental in his 10-yr. career there. “I love Intact!”. Along the way, during his stint at Net Teller, he met and married Annabelle. They have three children; five, six and eight.
And now, the Jack Singer story: the family had been in Applewood and then his dad bought a home in Conrich – which was too long a daily journey to U of C. Abel’s mother had worked for the Singer family who, upon learning of Abel’s travel challenges, said “come live at our house while you are in university”. He did, was treated warmly – and spent many evenings as ‘company and listening to stories and advice’ with Jack Singer and later as part-time care giver. Wow, what a ‘business school’ those conversations must have been …
And, where did the magazine idea come from? “at a Filipino restaurant – as always, an array of newspapers and newsletters about what is happening in the Philippines, but nothing about what is going on with Filipinos in Canada. I felt we needed something …”
Why are you successful? “Excellence is about making progress – being able to do what you think about. It’s not about money, it’s about whether you execute. Knowing what you are good at – and being able to make it happen. I was always really good at math. And family is first.”
What has held you back? “Not a lot. Fear of failure. I can’t do everything at once.”
How do you see your business – insurance data analytics – going forward over the next quarter?
… data is everything. It’s evolving – you can’t manage what you can’t track.
And over the next five years?
… companies will need more data on every event – better understanding of interconnectivity of data, department to department, analyzing many more influencing factors …
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… can I work with them? I want excellence – people I can solve problems with. How people handle conflicts and everyday problems is an important measure. And, can they work with me? I look for value – does it meet my needs? People who create value are going to win my business.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Abel, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… I’m driven to go above and beyond – I do my best. I’m two layers away from the front line, so I realize decisions I make have an impact on a lot of people. I think my ability to ‘clarify and drill down’ will provide perspective.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I’m part of a group of 14 but have worked mostly with two-four direct reports. I try to be very collaborative. I’m not the smartest guy – and I try not to micromanage, but rather to set a high-level vision based on principles, not preferences.
… Tough to say – right now I’m working a lot, focusing on my team at Intact, and on FCM magazine and some other projects coming … so, no!
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… am I being a good example for my kids?
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… Jack and Shirley Singer – I lived with them for four years, got to know the whole family – and had so many long talks with Jack, got so much valuable advice from him. He loved sports, news and the simple things in life. He taught me not to be afraid of anything – and to always turn off the lights. Todd Swisher, my youth pastor – helped me to adjust when I was headed for trouble, helped me find my moral compass. And Mrs. Pilkington, taught me patience and kindness.
… boxing with my son. I’m training with him. We started a ‘one hour of family time every night – everybody speaks for a 10 minute minimum’. They love it – and ask for it.
What do you read?
… leadership books, self-help. Audio books, but mostly hold-in-your-hand books. I like Robert Greene’s books.
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