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Profile: Former Banking and Insurance Commissioner Goes Global With Her Expertise

Key player in NJ’s auto-insurance overhaul now hits the road to help developing nations devise their own insurance regulations.

Name: Holly Bakke

Claim to fame: Bakke was commissioner of the Department of Banking and Insurance from 2002 to 2005, in the administrations of Gov. James E. McGreevey and Richard Codey. During her tenure, the state overhauled its auto-insurance laws and regulations. The changes attracted new insurers, resulting in lower rates and fewer uninsured drivers.

Holly Bakke
Holly Bakke

What she’s doing now: She’s gone global with her expertise and experience. Her passion is working with countries around the world through Financial Services Volunteer Corps, a New York City-based group that advises countries seeking to develop market economies, helping them develop strong regulations.

Keeping busy: In addition, the 61-year-old Bakke is a principal for Strategic Initiatives Management Group LLC. She also works at the Bedminster office of Purcell, Mulcahy, Hawkins, Flanagan & Lawless, where she is an of-counsel attorney.

Background: Before serving as the state’s banking and insurance commissioner, Bakke was head of the New Jersey Property-Liability Insurance Guaranty Association, responsible for taking over the claims of insolvent insurers.

On McGreevey’s insurance-reform legacy: She says the reforms enacted 10 years ago have stood the test of time.Even Gov. Chris Christie has praised the overhaul, she points out. “When you can cross party lines like that, and there’s a recognition that (McGreevey) took a system that had been broken for 30 years and fixed it, that’s impressive.”

What’s she working on now: Strengthening insurance regulations for the East African Community, an organization that includes Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The countries are aiming to build stronger economic ties, but are at various stages of development in their insurance systems.

Breaking down barriers: How do you overcome cultural differences and make people feel at ease? How about handing out candy hearts? At a meeting in Nairobi of the five East African Community countries, Bakke handed out the tiny candy hearts with brief messages that are familiar in the U.S. “Whatever icebreaker we can do, we use … It promotes a conversation.” Another icebreaker: “I learned to say good morning” in the primary languages of each meeting participant, Bakke said. “It’s fun, because they laugh, but they appreciate you trying.”

How her NJ experience translates overseas: She describes how regulations being considered in other countries worked in New Jersey. For instance, when Macedonia was considering letting allowing auto insurers use credit scores to calculate premiums, she noted that a similar plan had worked in New Jersey. While there had been fears that all insurers in the state would use the scores, only some insurers chose to use them, she noted. She points out that New Jersey’s reforms were aimed at making the state more competitive, which is what countries she works with are trying to achieve.

Combining work and pleasure: After advising officials in Albania, Bakke took a whitewater rafting trip in a rural area. The business didn’t have insurance. “I said to them, ‘What happens when you have an accident?’ and they didn’t have an answer.”

Keeping in touch: Bakke says that all she really needs while travelling is access to the Internet so that she can use Skype “to be in touch with my family so that they know that I’m safe.”

Family ties: Her 23-year-old son, Christian Mattia, is in law school, focusing on healthcare and education law. “I think it would be hard for him to grow up with me and not be interested in public policy.”

What she likes most about her work: “It’s very rare to find an opportunity where you can help people move forward and also learn at the same time and become better at what you do. At the end of the day, the countries that I work with are a really examining their regulatory systems for the first time, so I can bring my experience to help them. But I also need to learn about their culture and to learn about their economic needs to be effective.”

Hobbies: “My work is my hobby and my hobby is my work.”

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