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Dennis Chookasian

In analyzing his success, Dennis Chookaszian
credits his engineering background

Strong analytical skills and proactive career planning propelled Dennis Chookaszian to his position as chairman and chief executive officer of CNA Insurance Companies. Though his career took him far away from his major in chemical engineering, he credits much of his success to the engineering background he received at McCormick.

Chookaszian was born and raised in Chicago and graduated from McCormick in 1965. After graduation, he earned an MBA at the University of Chicago and a master’s in economics at the London School of Economics. In his 25-year career at CNA, Chookaszian served as chief financial officer, president and chief operating officer, chairman and chief executive officer, and chairman of the executive committee. He retired from CNA in 1999 and now divides his time among a variety of business ventures and philanthropic activities.

Chookaszian serves on the boards of five public companies and a number of private ventures. He also serves on the boards of seven not-for-profit organizations — including Northwestern University. He is involved in several entrepreneurial ventures, and he and his son work on a variety of real estate development projects. He also serves as an arbitrator and has handled some high-profile cases between companies, including a settlement related to the September 11 attacks.

Chookaszian spends as much time as possible at the Annabelle Inn, a bed and breakfast in Aspen, Colorado, that he designed and built — and named after his mother.

Your career falls outside of the traditional engineering path. What aspects of your engineering education have helped you to succeed?
Several elements of the engineering education were invaluable to me. First was the extension of my analytic abilities, which gave me the confidence to know that there wasn’t anything that you couldn’t do. No business problem seemed complicated to me after studying engineering.

Second was problem solving. Not only did you develop the skills to be able to handle complicated questions, you gained the ability to solve problems. A course in creative thinking stands out in my mind. We were given a different problem every week and had to experiment with solutions. We learned new ways of thinking about problems and how to develop alternate solutions.
 
Third was a course titled Enterprise and Entrepreneurship. This course had a very profound impact on me — to this day I remember a lot of the specifics. The course brought in great speakers, including Ray Kroc from McDonald’s just as McDonald’s was going public. Another speaker who made a significant impact was Jay Pritzker, the CEO of Hyatt. His presentation focused on different approaches an individual could employ to build a career.

Finally, there was socialization. It was important to learn how to work effectively with others in a complex project environment.

How did you end up in the insurance business?
When I went into consulting, I had no insurance background. I worked on projects for clients in the insurance business and found that it appealed to me and involved what I was good at — finance, accounting, and computer systems. Those are the core competencies needed to be successful in insurance.

Do you have any advice for current students preparing for their careers?
The main principle is to plan your career. If you do some planning, you can have a materially different effect on where you will end up — but you have to make appropriate choices with an eye on the long term.

I teach a course on career planning, and I tell people that your life is composed of three things: your work, your family, and your personal activities. Everything you do falls into one of those three categories. My advice is to choose two, because you can’t do all three well. If you have a demanding career, you will have to choose between family and personal activities since you will not have time to do both. Making that choice correctly and understanding what type of lifestyle you want will determine how successful your life will be. Successful career planning also requires making decisions based on long-term, not short-term characteristics of your jobs.