The Write Stuff
The best underwriters bring more than just technical skills to the table. Increasingly, they are the business builders of their organizations.
- Kate Smith
- October 2019
- Intangible Assets: Curiosity, leadership and relationship skills differentiate the best underwriters.
- Market Differences: In London, underwriting authority sits more on the front lines, whereas in the U.S., governance is held more centrally.
- Business Builders: As administrative tasks become automated, underwriters will be expected to do more business development.
The Underwriting Special Section is sponsored by Munich Re. Click on the microphone icon to listen to the Munich Re podcast or access it at www.ambest.com/ambradio.
Ben Bolton has worked with underwriting teams for the last two decades. Seven years ago Bolton, the CEO of Gracechurch Consulting, and his team set out to identify who the best ones were.
Gracechurch surveyed senior underwriters and brokers, looking for the most well respected names in the London Market. The survey has become an annual endeavor, and what started as a simple “who's who” has evolved into an exploration of what defines underwriting excellence.
“The rankings tell us a great deal,” Bolton wrote in this year's London's Leading Underwriters (LLU) report, “but it's also the soft verbatim 'qualitative' data behind the rankings that are providing exciting insights into why underwriters perform well or not.”
Great underwriters don't just affect profit and loss, experts say. They attract better risks, bring in new business and improve the customer experience. And in today's business climate, underwriters are expected to do more of that.
The role of the underwriter is expanding, both as a result of technology and as a result of market conditions. And the skills required to excel in this new environment may not be what you think.
It's not technology prowess that separates the good from the great, Bolton and other experts say. It's a series of intangibles—things like curiosity, critical thinking, leadership, a growth mindset and humility—that differentiate.
“What makes a good underwriter is the standard stuff—good technical skills, a sense of the marketplace and so on,” Bolton said. “What makes a great underwriter is a rather abstract idea—one of leadership, of creating a following. It's people who have a growth mindset.
“It no longer comes from this mythical technical prowess or a brilliance with numbers, although those are basics that are important. It's the ability fundamentally to be a great business builder, and that means having strong relationships and having insight into business risks that others don't have. That comes from curiosity.”
The underwriters who strike that balance are in high demand and add enormous value to their organizations.
“There is an absolute cascading effect to having an underwriter who provides superior service, is well informed and is constantly looking to be better informed,” Sanjay Godhwani, executive vice president of Berkshire Hathaway Specialty, said. “They can engage more fully with a broker, a customer and their teammates. If you want to be better informed, you're going to ask more questions. In general, customers will like that kind of individual. And if you're better informed, you'll have more to share. There's a good deal of momentum built from having someone like that.”
Experience also matters, experts say, especially now that the market is hardening.
“There's a segment of underwriting talent that hasn't ever seen a hard market,” Dave Seeley, consultant with Russell Reynolds Associates, said. “Absolutely experience does matter. You want people with the ability to operate in different environments, hard and soft. Underwriters who have that experience will certainly play a role in the success of an organization.
“Brokers recognize where the great talent lies, and part of their job is to make the appropriate selection of which underwriters to engage with on accounts. There are definitely reputations in terms of where the great underwriting talent sits.”
Gray hair matters. People who have been through cycles, hard markets and soft markets, understand how to pivot now that we’re trending toward a hard market.
U.S. vs. London
Exploration of the underwriting scene comes with a caveat: The U.S. and London shouldn't be compared.
“They're apples and oranges,” said Erin Hamrick, partner with Sterling James. “In Lloyd's you can be the top marine underwriter or the top aviation underwriter. The U.S. is not market-centric like that. What the U.S. does have—and this is a key differentiator—is executives who are underwriters at their core.”
Hamrick points to executives like Lex Baugh and Tom Bolt at AIG and Godhwani at Berkshire Hathaway Specialty as examples.
“They're in a class and league of their own,” she said. “They have years of experience and a natural inquisitiveness combined with an understanding of data and analytics to be forward looking when thinking about risk.”
Seeley said it's hard to point to individuals as being the driver of underwriting decisions in the U.S.
“In the States, at larger carriers, in particular, the underwriting governance and authority tends to be held more centrally, not at the front lines,” Seeley said. “So it's hard for underwriters to define themselves individually.”
Godhwani, one of the four founding members of Berkshire Hathaway Specialty, said great underwriters have a firm grasp of their company's underwriting philosophy.
“You have to very clearly understand the strategy of the company you work for,” he said. “All of us don't have the exact same goals. What makes a really good underwriting decision at company A isn't necessarily what makes a good underwriting decision at company B or company C.
“We have an underwriting process we expect an individual to go through. We have a strategy that says, 'The following is a good underwriting decision versus another one.' We spend a lot of time making sure our underwriters understand the strategy of the company.”
The London Market historically has operated a bit differently.
“The London Market is more concentrated and you have syndicates that tend to grant more of the authority right at the front lines,” Seeley said. “So, in a way, as a London underwriter you're able to really make a name for yourself.”
And many have.
“In the past, the balance in London has been in favor of the individual underwriters,” Bolton said. “They've almost been better known than the brand of their business.”
Richard Trubshaw, reinsurance underwriter at MAP, is a case in point. Trubshaw has ranked in the Top 10 since the LLU reports began and has been the top-ranked underwriter for three straight years.
“Richard is obviously a great underwriter, and he's very highly respected,” Bolton said. “His personal brand is probably bigger than MAP's. In fact, from what we've seen, I'd say it's definitely bigger than MAPs.”
Underwriting teams also are important, though. Over the years, Gracechurch has expanded its LLU report to include metrics on “bench strength,” the depth of expertise companies have within certain lines of business.
In energy lines, for example, Axa XL and Munich Re were deemed as having the deepest benches. Both also had two underwriters listed among the Top 10 in the class—James Grainger and Dominick Hoare of Munich Re and Peter Welton and Luis Prato of Axa XL. Meanwhile, MAP, led by Trubshaw, is known for its depth in reinsurance underwriting, as is Chaucer. This year Mike Clifton and Ryan Ward, both reinsurance underwriters for Chaucer, ranked among the Top 10 underwriters overall in the London Market.
“Teams really matter,” Bolton said. “You do need people who are well known, make decisions and lead, but it's hugely important to have great teams supporting those top underwriters.”
Hard vs. Soft Markets
Experience is also important, particularly as the market hardens.
“Gray hair matters,” Hamrick said. “People who have been through cycles, hard markets and soft markets, understand how to pivot now that we're trending toward a hard market.
“Great underwriters anticipate and are intellectually curious about what emerging risks will impact whatever risk it is they're underwriting. They analyze the data and the analytics to question it versus relying on it. Relative to today, they need to be able to do all of that within a market that appears to be hardening. Because really, we haven't had this kind of environment in the last 10 or 12 years.”
To Seeley's point, there is a generation of underwriters who have never worked in these market conditions. And, importantly, the last decade of soft market years coincided with a rise of technology.?“You have 10 years of people not knowing what a hard market is. And at the same time you have all these companies reducing that middle swath of management because they're deferring to more automation and more technology,” Hamrick said. “You're left with underwriters who don't have the right experience to be able to underwrite in changing market conditions. The submission comes in. It's on their computer. It either fits their requirements or not, and this is the price, push the button. You want underwriters who stop and think, 'Do we really want that risk at all?'”
While experience is important, it's not everything.
“There is no doubt there's an advantage to going through something you've gone through before,” Godhwani said. “You have some idea of what you're going to experience again. These transitioning markets are infrequent enough that I would never discount experience.
“But even if you don't have the experience, your ability to say, 'I'm sitting next to someone who does' or 'I'm going to get really informed and build a view of how I should manage through this' and then making sure you understand the goals of the company—those are important things.”
Technology and Consolidation
Not surprisingly, advancements in technology are changing the underwriter's job. But while automation has taken over much of the underwriting in personal lines and is creeping into small commercial, experts say technology will transform but not replace large commercial underwriting.
“In larger accounts, underwriters absolutely are playing a critical role as it relates to risk selection and pricing, and we will continue to see that,” Seeley said. “So while technology is having a significant amount of influence and will continue to do so, it will never entirely replace the underwriter as a whole in the commercial lines space.”
The key difference is that the underwriter's administrative tasks will be automated, which will shift the nature of the role.
“A lot of the journeyman underwriting jobs are going to be done in one way or another on a computer,” Bolton said. “Businesses don't need as many of those underwriters who just did the administrative underwriting job. They need fewer but better business developers and business builders.”
For the top underwriters, that's a net positive.
“They see a really positive future in which they're not spending most of their days dealing with systems issues, and bureaucracy, compliance,” Bolton said. “A lot of that humdrum boring stuff will be taken away, and they'll be freed up to do the thing that I think many of them—I wouldn't say most, but many of them—do actually enjoy, which is building relationships and developing business, and even innovating.”
The shift toward a more market-facing role is being driven not only by technology but also by market conditions, including an oversupply of capital that has created greater competition.
London has traditionally been a market of passing trade, with brokers coming to underwriters. That's changing, Bolton said. Underwriters are now expected to go out more and build business by being proactive.
“Consolidation and competition are meaning that businesses are having to be much more proactive about their strategy for growth, and they need underwriters to help them do that,” Bolton said. “Underwriters have become representatives not just of themselves as individuals, but also they represent the brand or the business they work for.
“They are, of necessity, much more at the forefront of the businesses and are increasingly expected to fall around that business-building objective.”
This ties back to some of the essential skills of a great underwriter, such as curiosity, collaboration and putting customers first.
“Great underwriters focus on the customer and their goals,” Godhwani said. “They also understand that if you work in a space that's large-account focused, you are absolutely going to need other people in certain cases to help make decisions. The decisions are bigger than an individual. You have to have the humility and confidence to say, 'I need to go get help on this decision' to fill out any knowledge gap you may have.
“All of that is wrapped in curiosity,” Godhwani added. “You're never going to do any of those things unless you're curious. You're never going to understand the market unless you're curious. You're never going to get people to collaborate with on the decision unless you're curious about other people's perspective.”