Gov. Dannel P. Malloy today named a top insurance executive, Catherine H. Smith of ING, to oversee economic development, a recruiting coup and a sign of his desire to grow one of the state’s best-known industries.

Catherine Smith

Catherine Smith

Smith, 58, the chief executive of ING U.S. Retirement Services and a former high-ranking executive at Aetna Financial Services, brings corporate star power to the administration’s economic development efforts, a top priority in a state with nearly flat job growth over the past 20 years.

“I’m thrilled that Catherine has agreed to take on the immense task – and I do mean it’s immense,” Malloy said. “We’ve got to reverse a 22-year history of failing to grow jobs, and do it as quickly as we can.”

In Smith, Malloy has hired an executive with experience in operations and marketing. She helped streamline operations in ING during the recession, consolidating 14 service centers into four and cutting costs for those services by 30 percent over three years, Malloy said.

Her salary at ING is not public record, but she smiled during the press conference when asked about her $170,000 state salary. “Let me put this way, I’m taking a big pay cut, and I believe it’s the right thing to do for me,” she said. “My husband and I are financially able to do this, but we are very committed to helping the state.”

Smith, who worked for a non-profit environmental organization in Washington after graduating from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., said she always planned to eventually work in the public sector. Her graduate degree from the Yale School of Management is in public and private management.

“Under the leadership of the governor the lieutenant governor, I think we’re finally putting the spotlight back on creating jobs in the state,” Smith said.

Smith said the state has high costs, but a good system of higher education, a skilled work force and a great quality of life. “I’m very much looking forward to getting those strengths out into the marketplace,” Smith said.

The potential market for employers who should be recruited to expand or relocate here must be viewed broadly, she sad.

“I’m not just talking about great start up in biotech or bio medical. I’m talking about looking at other, more mature industries as well,” she said.

Malloy said she will have a free hand in remaking the state’s economic-development bureaucracy.

Malloy Smith

Malloy: Smith faces an ‘immense task.’

“Catherine will be fully empowered to create a new organization,” Malloy said.

Smith’s last day at ING is March 31. She begins her new job the next day.

“This is great,” said an insurance industry source before Malloy’s announcement. “He is taking very calculated steps to show the industry they are not a punching bag any more.” Last month, Malloy chose Thomas Leonardi, a venture capitalist and not a consumer advocate, as his insurance commissioner.

Smith was a top executive at Aetna Financial Services when the unit was obtained by the Dutch financial services giant, ING. Her tenure at Aetna overlapped with Timothy Bannon, the governor’s chief of staff and co-chairman of Malloy’s transition team.

Bannon said Smith initially was invited to help with the transition, but the administration then began to recruit her, a process that took months to complete. “This is a great outcome, well worth the wait,” Bannon said.

ING is preparing an initial public offering for its U.S. insurance business, a project that makes leaving the company difficult. “That would have been fun,” she said.

Smith worked at Aetna from 1983 through 2000, when ING purchased its financial services business. She has been chief executive of the retirement unit, which has 3,000 employees and oversees $285 billion in assets, since 2008.

“Throughout her career, Catherine has modeled community service, community involvement, and community leadership,” said Rob Leary, the chief executive officer of ING Insurance U.S. “Therefore, this next step in her career is a natural extension of her life-long passion for public service.

Her name was 9th on American Banker and U.S. Banker’s 2009 list of the 25 most powerful women in insurance, asset management and other areas of finance outside banking.

In 2005, InformationWeek named her as most influential in the information-technology field Smith, then the chief operating officer of ING, took over the financial -services company’s IT operations.

According to her ING bio, she serves on the board of Outward Bound, Connecticut Fund for the Environment and the Trust for Public Land’s Connecticut Advisory Council.

Smith is married and lives in North Branford. She and her husband, Peter, are the parents of two children.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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