in Houston, Texas
Insurance veteran John Polak from Ohio named interim head of Texas windstorm agency TWIA
Thursday, Apr 14, 2011, 12:44PM CST
By Steve Miller

The new interim head of the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association is John Polak, the former vice president of specialty and affinity markets at National Interstate Insurance Co., an Ohio-based transportation insurer.


Polak will receive an annual salary of $295,000 and a monthly living allowance of $5,000 for up to three months with a possible extension if warranted, which the TWIA board said in its announcement Thursday was to cover “dual residence and long range commute.”


TWIA's executive board met this week with four finalists to hire the person to handle the duties of Jim Oliver, who was fired in March. The firing came in the wake of a state takeover of the agency and an investigation into fraud allegations. Oliver has been placed on unpaid administrative leave, it was announced Thursday, and any severance package he might be entitled to is on hold as the investigation continues.


Polak said he understood the challenges facing TWIA and would embark immediately on the learning curve.


“I will begin to sort through this and develop a short-term and a long-term plan,” Polak said. He said he was aware of the current legal and snafus facing the agency: “Most of what I know is from [Texas Watchdog].”


Polak worked as an insurance executive in Dallas in the early to mid-'90s for Winterthur/Republic Insurance, now part of the Republic Group, and Unitrin, then Unitrin/Trinity Universal.


He is not eligible for any bonuses or severance package at this point, and the position is not permanent, although the board allowed that “the interim allowance ends upon relation pursuant to an offer of permanent employment or December 31, whichever first occurs,” according to a statement read in session by board member Georgia Neblett.


Polak was selected from a pool of more than 30 applicants in a contracted search by IPS Search, a Chicago personnel firm.


The finalists, all males, included a software entrepreneur from Colorado, the former head of Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the Pelican State's TWIA counterpart, and a Georgia-based product developer for the property and casualty insurance industry.


The replacing of a state insurer's manager is not uncommon following a large storm, said Eli Lehrer, a vice president at the conservative Heartland Institute. And often a new leader without the baggage and controversy of a besieged manager can help change things around, he said.


"I would think that TWIA is working to depopulate its book of business," Lehrer said. "And in that case, established connections in the insurance industry would help, because they would be looking to agencies that are willing to take some of these policies."


Polak said he did not know what will happen to insurance rates; Texas homeowners pay the second highest insurance rates in the country.


TWIA's problems stem primarily from its performance in the wake of Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Thousands of policyholders have sued the agency, which last year settled thousands of claims in a $157 million payout.


In December, two key claims employees, Reggie Warren and Bill Knarr, were fired after possible fraud was discovered involving a relative of Knarr.


Most recently, a report from the Texas Department of Insurance found Oliver and the agency attempted to investigate the allegations without contacting the state, as state law required them to do.


The agency has been beset with transparency issues. In January, a spokeswoman unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the public from being part of a meeting of the board. In the process of Polak’s selection, the board violated the state’s public information act, according to a lawyer with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.



Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or

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