Jose Daniel "Danny" Saenz always had college in his sights - literally. Growing up on North Sugar Road in Edinburg, where he spent his teenage years working for his parents' bakery, he had only to look down the street to see his future at what was then Pan American University.
But Saenz, now the deputy commissioner of the Financial Regulation Division of the Texas Department of Insurance, found early on that there was no certainty in that future without determination, focus and a lot of hard work. That's the message he shares today with both his employees and the students he visits with each year at The University of Texas-Pan American, and it is those traits and his many professional accomplishments that led him to be one of five UTPA alumni selected as 2014 Pillars of Success.
"I started college at Pan Am right out of high school, but I didn't do that well," he said. "I started 'living life' at this point. I joined a fraternity right off the bat, so there was a lot of partying and I kind of lost my way...not spending enough time focusing on my school and grades."
The 1975 Edinburg High School graduate says of his teen years, "I was the type who really didn't go out. I worked at the bakery or went to school. I was very responsible in those years, and then when I went to college my wings just sprouted," he recalls with a smile. "That's why I decided I better take some time off and really refocus myself and come back once I had committed to doing something."
That "something" was a BBA degree in accounting and a highly successful 26-year career with the Texas Department of Insurance, where he has risen from examiner trainee to deputy commissioner and in demand internationally as a consultant and presenter on issues related to the insurance industry and its regulation.
Active in the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, he has served on numerous committees and is currently chairing the Group Solvency Issues Working Group and is involved in various solvency oversight modernization efforts at the international level. In 2011, Saenz received the prestigious Robert Dineen Award, NAIC's highest individual honor in recognition of outstanding achievement as a career regulator.
While Saenz has become a role model to students in the UTPA College of Business Administration, returning almost every year to take part in the Finance Insurance Real Estate (FIRE) Symposium, his own role models were his parents, Candelario and the late Berta Saenz.
Before opening Cande's Bakery on North Sugar Road, which the family operated until a couple of years ago, the elder Saenz worked at a plant in San Carlos that processed and freeze dried food and also helped out some at El Fenix Bakery, which was owned by family members. After taking a course in cake decorating at a technical college in Oklahoma and doing an apprenticeship in San Angelo, he returned to Edinburg and opened his own bakery.
"I remember when I was about 12 or 13, I started working in that bakery, mixing and baking," said Danny, the oldest of three children. "I worked there all through high school and college."
While he was on his self-imposed hiatus from college, he continued to work for his parents and also helped out a friend who had started his own construction company. Saenz also met his future wife, Irma Rios, who had just graduated from Sharyland High School and was about to start college at Pan American.
"When we got married in August 1980, we agreed that she would finish college first and then I would go back when she got a job," recalled Saenz, and that is the plan they followed after Irma joined the Texas Department of Public Safety after earning a BS degree in chemistry in 1983.
After she finished training in Austin, Irma's first assignment was in Houston, where the family would live for a couple of years.
"I went to the University of Houston Downtown for one semester," recalled Saenz, "then I applied back to Pan Am. When I went back, I was able to go fulltime. I had a lot of my basic classes, so as soon as I decided to go back, I met with someone in the College of Business Administration and worked on a my degree plan. I found out what I was lacking, and focused on those classes so that I could hurry up and finish."
After graduating in August 1987, he moved to Austin, where Irma had since been reassigned, and began looking for a job. "After about six months, I finally got on with the state," he said. "I interviewed with the Insurance Department, and started with them in the spring of 1988."
Saenz began his career with the Texas Department of Insurance as an examiner trainee in the Examinations Division, then in August 1996 was promoted to assistant chief examiner for the Market Conduct Examinations Division, and three years later would advance to director of the Financial Monitoring Division, with responsibility for monitoring, through various regulatory tools, the financial condition of insurance companies. When the Financial Monitoring Division and Examinations Division were combined into the Financial Analysis and Examinations Division in January 2000, Saenz was named chief of the newly created group.
"Then in 2007, the head of the Financial Regulation Division retired, and I met with the Commissioner of Insurance, who said I had the credentials and put me in the position," Saenz said. "There was no application submitted. The commissioner just made the decision and promoted me to the position."
As time went on, Saenz continued to develop his professional portfolio and became involved on the national level through the NAIC. "I get called on to give presentations and serve on panels discussing the various initiatives," he said, noting that he also is asked to share his expertise internationally.
"I think sometimes that folks don't realize all the work that takes place to protect the consumers," he said. "But it's not just about protecting the consumers, it's also about protecting the marketplace itself, making sure that we have appropriate policies on how we're regulating the industry so that it can be successful. It's a balancing act. You want to make sure the consumer isn't negatively impacted, but at the same time you want the insurance companies to be successful and to be able to go to the capital markets and attract more capital so that they can continue to grow the marketplace.
"If you look at Texas and the way it has developed over the last several years, even in this down economy, the insurance industry was growing, and I think that was positive," Saenz said. "That shows that our economy was doing very well, and I think a lot of it was because of the regulatory tools we had put in place, working with the Legislature, working at the national level, putting a lot of monitoring tools in place in order to better assess what is going on in the marketplace with the insurance companies in order to react or act appropriately in protecting the consumers."
Texas Commissioner of Insurance Julia Rathgeber said Saenz's recognition is well deserved.
"He has dedicated himself to understanding and improving the regulatory oversight of the insurance industry, not only in Texas and the nation, but also globally. Danny is a shining example of someone who has achieved success and has generously shared his experiences with others. Truly a job well done," Rathgeber said.
Saenz's passion for his work is also shared by his daughter Iris, who graduated from UTPA in 2003 with a BBA degree in marketing and works in the Department of Insurance's property and casualty area in Austin. Iris is the mother of the Saenz's only grandchild, 15-year-old Lynessa.
"She's been with the department since finishing college at Pan Am and is making quite a name for herself working with a lot of different issues," he said.
Today, Saenz and his wife Irma live in Houston, where she directs the Houston Police Department's Crime Lab, and he uses the Department of Insurance's field office as a home base. "I do all of my traveling out of Houston, which is a little easier," he said.
Saenz looks back on his years with pride in his professional accomplishments.
"I've tried to create change, looking at what we're doing and asking if that's relevant today," he said. "That's one of the things I've really stressed over the years. Let's continue to change and modernize the way we do things. One of the big things for me is that our budgets are not getting any bigger; the legislature isn't giving us more money, so we have to find ways to utilize our resources more efficiently in how we regulate the industry.
"I think that's one of the reasons I've been successful. I have worked with several commissioners, and each one, I think, has walked away saying 'this is a guy who really understands the issues.'"