By Ken Keuffel
BOONE, N.C.—E. Stuart Powell Jr. has long coveted the opportunity that Appalachian State University has given him.
“I had always wanted to teach at the college level,” he said recently. “It’s just taken me 45 years to get there.”
Those 45 years now matter a great deal – particularly to the next generation of insurance professionals studying at Appalachian who can learn from his vast experience.
Powell is executive-in-residence in Appalachian’s Walker College of Business. Before that, he served as the vice president of technical affairs for the Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina Inc. (IIANC), a Cary-based trade group where he had held several positions since 1995. Between 1973 and 1995, he worked in The Powell Agency Inc. of his native Reidsville, a family-owned and -operated general insurance agency that insured numerous businesses, including banks.
Shortly after retiring from IIANC this past summer, Powell began working at Appalachian, where he is teaching courses on insurance and risk management until May. The arrangement has three advantages.
First, an insurance professional is filling an important teaching vacancy on an interim basis while the Walker College looks for a tenure-track professor of risk management and insurance to replace Dr. Dave Wood, who left Appalachian last year to teach at Middle Tennessee State University.
Second, students in Powell’s classroom are tapping into the encyclopedic knowledge he gained during his long and diverse career in the insurance industry. They also benefit from his involvement outside the classroom in the Walker College’s Brantley Risk and Insurance Center, which helps students with networking, job preparation and other professional activities.
Senior Morgan Greenwood of Mount Airy, who is majoring in risk management and insurance with the goal of becoming an underwriter, took Powell’s courses on commercial insurance and insurance operations last fall. She judged his command of the subject matter as “incredible.”
“He not only knows what something is, but why and how as well,” she said. “He incorporates this into his classes, which causes you to not only memorize information, but to truly understand it and its purpose.”
Third, Powell is sharing an invaluable gift for making complex financial concepts understandable to most anyone.
Senior Jarrett Jacumin of Raleigh, who took a course Powell taught last fall on commercial insurance, is most appreciative of that skill. Jacumin, a double major in risk management and insurance and finance and banking, will work in Bank of America’s financial analyst management program this June after he graduates.
“Mr. Powell could usually explain concepts in a way that the class was able to grasp, but when he could tell the class wasn’t understanding a concept, he would switch tactics,” Jacumin said. “It seemed that there was no end to the personal stories that Mr. Powell was able to draw on for every concept the book presented and more. He took the time to not only give us the technical definitions, but also to show how each definition applied in real world situations.”
For example, insurance companies charge premiums based on the probability of the frequency and the severity of future events, as determined by studying historical data. The larger the population of data, the closer theoretical probabilities are likely to resemble actual events. The “law of large numbers” explains why this is so.
“When a student indicated that he did not understand this concept, I used the example of flipping a coin,” Powell said. “The theoretical probability of a coin flip is 50/50, heads or tails. However, in 10 actual flips you may get seven tails and three heads. But, if you flip the coin 100 times, 1,000 times, 10,000 times or 1 million times, the actual occurrence of heads and tails will progressively approach the theoretical probability of 50/50.”
So where did Powell’s gift for demystifying complexity come from? It arguably has its roots in his pursuit of an entirely different career path.
In 1972, Powell earned a master’s degree in religion from Wake Forest University, hoping that would be the first step toward landing a professorship in religion at a university. Several factors influenced his exit from the academic track, principally a desire to earn enough money to support his wife and two children. No matter:
“The communication skills I honed as a graduate student have always served me extremely well in my business career,” he said. “Also, being philosophically inclined, I have been a constant observer of people and events and have tried to fit these observations into some context provided by a more abstract principle or concept.
“My early studies of the New Testament gospels and the parables of Jesus had an impact on my understanding of the power of stories and examples to illustrate more complicated or abstract principles. Additionally, my later studies of C.S. Lewis and his use of fairy stories as a literary genre to convey abstract theological principles to children and adults were influential.”
After Powell entered the insurance field in 1973, he kept finding ways to refine his gifts as a teacher and to increase his knowledge, drawing on numerous “personal stories” in the process. In 1989, he began teaching continuing education courses for IIANC. These assignments would last until 1995, when the trade group hired him to be its director of education. He held several other posts at IIANC, including director of technology and technical affairs and interim chief operating officer.
Between 2004 and 2014, Powell was IIANC’s vice president of insurance operations and technical affairs, a position that charged him with managing an agency that brokered most coverages for the State of North Carolina. Among other things, objects d’art owned by the UNC system were insured under Powell’s supervision, as were its varsity athletes as well as the students and faculty involved in its study abroad programs.
While at IIANC, Powell also developed numerous continuing education courses for insurance professionals. He provided expert testimony during litigation. He wrote prolifically on insurance issues related to such topics as crime, contractors, dog bites, webpages, drones and Uber, which connects drivers and their passengers via an app.
He served as a technical resource for insurance professionals out in the field – which meant following court cases, analyzing policies, keeping up with legislation and frequently digging through reference materials. He also helped explained technical concepts to lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly when IIANC lobbied that legislative body.
Finally, he would often brief academics who taught insurance-related courses.
“Stuart is the person I have always called when I needed help,” said Dr. David Marlett, the IIANC Distinguished Professor of Insurance at Appalachian. “If a student asked a question that I wasn’t sure about, I’d call him and get the answer. It is amazing how much he knows off the top of his head.”
About the Brantley Risk and Insurance Center
The Brantley Risk and Insurance Center in the Walker College of Business enhances the academic experience by providing space and staff to assist risk management and insurance majors with networking, job placement preparation and contact with faculty members outside the classroom. It provides students opportunities to participate in professional designation and licensing programs, and invites industry leaders to participate in classes and speak to student organizations. It also fosters research and faculty development, assists the insurance industry in the design and delivery of continuing education programs and helps educate the public about the insurance industry. Learn more at https://insurance.appstate.edu
About the Walker College of Business
The Walker College of Business at Appalachian State University delivers transformational educational experiences that prepare and inspire students to be ethical, innovative and engaged business leaders who positively impact our community, both locally and globally. The college places emphasis on international experiences, sustainable business practices, entrepreneurial programs, and real-world applications with industry. Enrolling approximately 2,800 undergraduates in nine majors and nearly 150 graduate students, the Walker College is accredited by AACSB International.
About Appalachian State University
Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 18,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.