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Q&A with Kent Fortune: USAA exec returns to his roots

February 25, 2011
photo - Kent Fortune is vice president and general manager of USAA’s local operations.                             Photo by
Kent Fortune is vice president and general manager of USAA’s local operations. Photo by  

Twenty-one years after he began his career in the Colorado Springs office of financial giant USAA as a policy service representative, Kent Fortune is back as the boss of the 1,200 people who now work there.

Fortune, 46, replaced Jim Salek last month as vice president and general manager of USAA’s local operations. He started at USAA in 1989 after earning a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and worked in a variety of policy and member service management posts in the Springs, Phoenix, Sacramento, Calif., San Antonio and Seattle; he most recently was an underwriting vice president.

USAA local operations include insurance policy service and claims as well as banking and financial services. The nonprofit organization serves 7.7 million active-duty military personnel, veterans and their families, manages nearly $140 billion in assets and employs more than 22,000 people.

Question: Why did you go to work for USAA after you graduated?

Answer: My father was retired from the Air Force after a 25-year career. We moved here in 1981, the last of eight or nine moves. He and I talked about whether I wanted to go into the military, but I decided that I didn’t want to move that much. As it turned out, I have moved every four or five years with USAA, and that has been good for my career and good for USAA as well.

When I graduated from UCCS, there weren’t too many businesses hiring. My dad was not eligible for membership at the time, but he had always heard good things about it (USAA). Growing up in the military as a dependent, I understand what (military) families go through. When members ask me if I have served in the military, I tell them I didn’t but Dad did, and that gives me instant credibility with them.

Q: How did you feel about coming back to the place where you started your career?

A: It was good to come home. There are a lot of the employees that were here when I was, that and are still here now. When you already know somebody, it is easier to ask them what can they do better. I can also tell new hires I was in their shoes, and with hard work I have gotten where I am today, and they too can aspire to do that. It’s a good news story. I also can relate to them because I know what it is like to do their job. The front-line employees are the heart and soul of our member service culture.

Q: What has changed at the local USAA office between the time you left and returned?

A: I was away for 13 or 14 years. The difference is exciting. When I left this office, we were a property and casualty office that serviced auto and homeowner’s (insurance) claims and did the underwriting. Now we have banking, life insurance, financial planning and an on-site financial center. That reflects our development into a full financial services company, which gives our employees tremendous opportunities without ever having to leave this building. It is great for their career and great for the members because we can handle all of their financial needs.

Q: As more financial transactions happen on the Web, will there be less of a need for customer service centers like the one you manage?

A: We look at the channel of choice for our members. Some want to do their financial business with mobile devices, some want to do it online, some want to do it by fax and some by snail mail. But a lot of members still want to call for advice and complex transactions. We are a contact center and still a viable channel for our members. We are not going away anytime soon. The channels complement each other well, so (our challenge is) how can we integrate them so members can move from one channel to another seamlessly? We are not quite there yet, but we are heading down that road.

Q: USAA began a major expansion of the staff at the local office last year; will growth be as robust this year as it was in 2010?

A: We are hiring this year, but I don’t know that we will hire as many as we did last year. We are always looking to hire good employees, and there is some attrition and some expansion in our work force. We hired 200 people last year. There is growth planned across the organization, and some of it will happen in Colorado Springs. Although our attrition rate is low, we always have some attrition because of retirements and military spouses that have to move when their spouses’ orders change. We have a good combination of pay and benefits that is very attractive.

Q: What will the local office and USAA look like five years from now?

A: We will continue to look for innovative ways to make our the lives of our members easier, at least for their financial services needs. If you look back five years ago and see what the iPhone has done SINCE THEN, it is clear we have to continue looking for ways to leverage technology to make the lives of our members easier, especially since many are deployed to war zones. We have to become more efficient and effective and develop new products as well. We also have more employees working at home; we are slowly rolling out that option and early indications are that it is successful.

Q: In which community activities are you planning to be involved?

A: As my predecessor was, I want to be a liaison to the community for USAA. I am already on the board of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and am looking for other nonprofits in which to be involved. As I have gotten older, I want to give back to my community and I want to be a role model for our employees to volunteer in the community.

Call the writer at 636-0234. Questions and answers are edited for clarity and brevity.

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