President & CEO, the Co-operators Group Ltd.
U of M Degrees:
BSc Mathematics (1976)
“I’ve been in this evolving leadership role, associated with an industry that’s being significantly impacted by developments in technology and big data, which goes back to those core capabilities you learn to use. If you think of the foundation you get with mathematics; in terms of your critical thinking, logic, the application of data, and the world you’re living in; it’s very transportable.”
What was your strongest memory from your time studying at the U of M, Faculty of Science?
One of my stronger memories is kind of funny. There was a student lounge off a bathroom that we weren’t supposed to use too late into the evening. I was from a large family with little kids, and when I’d go home I’d get caught up in having to babysit or help with dinner, so I used to hang out at campus at night and catch up. The staff were terrific – they should have been kicking me out of this place but they didn’t. I was forever grateful for having my little spot where I could actually study and get my work done without having to go home to this busy household.
What opportunity during or after your time in the Faculty of Science helped launch your career?
When I was graduating from U of M I was still very young and not sure what to do next. I was contemplating doing an MBA, and one of my profs provided some guidance and wisdom by saying, ‘You’re only 19; if think you need more time, take more time.’ On reflection that was the smartest thing I could have done. It allowed me that extra couple of years to start thinking about the business piece and to figure out how to use my mathematics and computer science interests. When universities can connect with their students in a real way, the way they did with me – not just academically, but personally – it really does wonders for young people.
What is the most fascinating and/or engaging experience you have had during your career in science?
It’s tough to choose one, because all of my time with The Co-operators has just been a gift in terms of finding an organization that I could feel proud of and a part of, and feel like I was making a difference – while at the same time being in a technical environment that I love. I was really fortunate to find an organization with my value system and the culture I could blossom in that also allowed me to follow my more technical interests related to information and data and the math that I loved in my undergrad; plus the operational side, statistics, human resources, and marketing sides that I learned about in my MBA. I’m part of something that I’m really proud of and excited about and that I’m helping to build, and there’s just nothing better.
In what ways do you still use the skills you use that you learned at U of M in your career today?
I’m surrounded by the concepts in practice that that foundation provided me. Insurance is a very people-oriented business – you’re trying to help people get through horrible events in their lives. But to do that in a way that serves communities, you need this technical math-oriented, big-data type of orientation. And I think that’s going to be increasingly true as we use big data and technology in the ways that we are. The industry is changing dramatically.
All Kathy Bardswick ever wanted to be was a doctor. So how did she end up the CEO of a major Canadian insurance company instead? Blame it all on the math. Entering the Science program at University of Manitoba – at the young age of 16, after skipping two grades – she says she was turned on to mathematics and the emerging area of computer science, and never looked back. Following an MBA program at McMaster University, she joined The Co-operators and worked her way up the ladder, becoming President and CEO in 2002. Along the way she helped the company to develop more sustainable business practices and to be named one of the 50 best employers in Canada and a top corporate citizen, among other honours. She has earned her own accolades over the years – including being named one of the Top 25 Women of Influence in 2014 – and has led or sat on a number of boards including the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation, and the University of Guelph. She is committed to being the type of leader who takes the time to connect in person with front-line staff on a regular basis. “Sitting in an office is not going to do it,” she says.
Bardswick also truly believes in the power of a foundation in mathematics and enjoys helping young people make the connection between math and the wide range of potential careers it can open up. She says that in the insurance industry she is constantly surrounded by the concepts she learned in her days at U of M and they help her every day.