Mark Zesbaugh ’86 never even thought about becoming a CEO. When he started his St. Thomas education, it was as a psychology major. “I wasn’t set on being a psychologist, but that’s what I thought I wanted, because I wanted something that had to do with people.” A professor convinced him to change his major, and less than two decades after graduation, he became CEO of Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America. And he’s doing exactly what he wanted to do in the first place. “I’m a coach; I’m a counselor; I’m all of those things that one might be in the field of psychology as well.”
Zesbaugh credits St. Thomas faculty – particularly retired professor Len Minars – for offering sound education and career advice. “I had no ambition of being in finance or accounting. Absolutely none. I was going through the process of getting a psychology major, and one of the requirements was that you take a finance and accounting class. Len Minars was my financial accounting teacher. He pulled me aside and said, ‘Mark, have you ever thought about going into finance or accounting?’ I said, ‘Never. Absolutely not.’ And he said, ‘You kind of have a knack for it. Why don’t you think about it?’ So I took another class and that kind of got the wave going. Before I knew it, I had graduated with a degree in business administration and accounting. Next thing I knew I had a job, and I was on my way. I give credit to faculty for really taking the time. Professor Minars pulled me aside, and he took the time to have me rethink about the direction that I thought I might want to go.”
The story of how he changed majors illustrates some of the things that are most important to Zesbaugh. First, he believes very strongly in the power of relationships. He gives a lot of credit to those who helped him on his career path, and he believes in doing the same for others. “My most significant accomplishment is not being a CEO, but the impact I’ve had on others, grooming careers and helping people to aspire to levels that they didn’t think were possible.”
Second, he has a great appreciation for academic learning, but he values equally the learning you get from experiences outside the classroom – whether it be the discipline cultivated as a student living on his own for the first time, or the wisdom gained from listening to a comment made by a professor who cares.
After graduation, Zesbaugh went to work with Arthur Young (later Ernst & Young); however, he was more interested in portfolio management than accounting, so when the opportunity to head up the treasury area of Life USA came along, Zesbaugh took it. At the time, Bob McDonald was the CEO of Life USA. He took Zesbaugh under his wing. “He pushed me very hard, he treated me very well, he guided me, and I didn’t even realize he was really doing it until later on. I still talk to him every week. He doesn’t give me the answer, … he gives me the options and he lets me make the decision,” Zesbaugh said.
In 1994, Zesbaugh was promoted to CFO. “I was shocked that (McDonald) had put me in that role. He had confidence in me.” In 1999, the company was acquired by Allianz, but Life USA officials continued to manage the company. Zesbaugh continued on as CFO until February 2002, when McDonald retired and Zesbaugh took over as CEO.
In the end, Zesbaugh places more importance on relationships than anything else. “I tell people I’m in the relationship business, because if you look at my calendar, that’s all I do. I don’t know that there’s very much time in the day when I’m not communicating with somebody. Yes, you have to have technical skills and ability, but at the end of the day it is really about motivating and leading people.”