Ernie Bray, Chairman and CEO of AutoClaims Direct (ACD), leveraged his domain knowledge in auto insurance claims processing, and built a robust, sustainable business. He used a virtual workforce strategy to scale.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your story. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of circumstances?
Ernie Bray: I was born in a small town in Central California called Porterville, California. It’s a farming community. My dad was a teacher. My mom stayed at home and took care of us. I grew up in a small town environment.
Sramana Mitra: Where did you do your schooling?
Ernie Bray: I was a basketball player and went on to play college basketball. I ended up getting a degree in Sociology and Institutional Analysis from UC Santa Cruz. At that point, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I did an internship for the DA of Santa Cruz County. At one point, I thought I might want to get into law enforcement, but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had a drive inside that I wanted to be my own boss but I didn’t know what to do.
Right after that, I got a job in the Bay Area working for an electronics supply company in inside sales. I worked there for about two years and was getting my feet wet in the world of work, and getting used to working on a regular job. After two years there, I wanted to do something different. A friend of mine told me about getting involved in insurance claims and becoming an insurance adjuster. I ended up getting a job after a couple of interviews with AAA. I started my career in insurance claims about 20 years ago.
Once I got my first job, I became an insurance adjuster and started dealing with people who were in car accidents. I learned how to understand the policies and understand how to deal with a person who’s encountered an accident, which is a stressful time in a person’s life. You learn how to deal with that and how to help get them back on the road. While it seemed a boring job at that time, I started to have that entrepreneurial drive kick in. I saw a lot of inefficiencies. This was around 1995.
Sramana Mitra: Early days of the Internet.
Ernie Bray: Yes. At that time, I was doing the job and learning. I tell a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs that sometimes you’re in a job and it may be boring. But when you start to learn and observe how other managers treat people and how you see the whole interaction of business, you start to learn what’s good and what’s bad. My advice is to be a sponge. That’s what I was during that time. I soaked up everything I could learn.
In 1997, my brother was in college and he was going to Santa Clara University. He liked country music. He wanted to start a business doing the first online country music website where you would show artist reviews and interviews of country music artists. He and I did that together. This is our first foray into the Internet. We started one of the first online country music magazines. We did that for a couple of years. That got the entrepreneurial spirit going. After three years, we ended up shutting the business. It was the first taste of starting something from scratch on your own. We didn’t make very much money, but during that time we didn’t know how to monetize something on the Internet. This was new, but it was the thing that clicked for me.