In Good Company

In Good Company: Ex-rugby player Inga Beale tackles new tests at Lloyd's

The firm's first female CEO, Inga Beale, is eager to explore new markets and technology

London's core financial district - The City, as it is widely called - is famous for its hoary masts such as bankers Barclays and Coutts, and insurers like Prudential, which locals refer to simply as The Pru.

In that list of financial institutions, no name is more hallowed than Lloyd's of London, which, unlike other insurers, isn't so much an insurance company as an insurance market. For the last three years, Lloyd's Insurance has been led by Ms Inga Beale, the first woman chief executive of the firm in 328 years. Last year, it announced a profit of £2.1 billion (S$3.7 billion) on gross written premium of £30 billion.

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with this remarkable personality who was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) - the equivalent of a knighthood - in the Queen's 2017 honours list.

Aware of her background as a serious player of rugby, a very physical sport whose traits I had assumed she would have carried into corporate life, I had been prepared for a bruising exchange. Instead, I found a person who never interrupted me, gave considered responses to questions, laughed easily and showed no impatience as she tackled a wide range of issues.

The focus since she took charge, she says, was to get Lloyd's more global. For far too long, it had depended on its traditional mature markets led by the United States, which brings in 40 per cent of the money. Part of the emphasis, therefore, was to secure more licences elsewhere.

So now, Lloyd's has opened a Beijing office in addition to its Shanghai operation, another in Dubai two years ago, and earlier this month started in Mumbai, India's business capital. That's in addition to representative offices it opened last year in Mexico and Colombia.


Ms Inga Beale was recently named a Dame Commander of the British Empire, the equivalent of a knighthood. She is against outsized executive compensation and is concerned about growing protectionism. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

A second track is modernising the way the insurance market works. Ms Beale, 53, has embarked Lloyd's on a £500 million technology programme that will see it working with 230 brokers, 84 syndicates and some 60 other companies in the London market. Eventually, the new technology will be rolled out across the world.

That money is well-spent because science is swiftly changing the game, thanks to startling advances in robotics and artificial intelligence. At the simple end of things, the human hand is getting eliminated as automated underwriting proceeds apace. The days of a human underwriter having to price risk and accept that exposure are long gone. The insurance industry has been something of a laggard in adopting technology. At another level, the risk landscape is swiftly changing.

Will it affect jobs?

"We believe it will," says Ms Beale, blue eyes staring straight at me as she doesn't duck the question. "But what is important is that we totally embrace technology and not feel threatened by it... work with it to see how it can benefit us, and particularly the customer."

Rather than slowing down adoption of technology to save jobs, she would like to see society fix the education system to cater to the changing requirements of the workplace. Britain is late to the game compared with some of its former colonies. In Africa, for instance, some countries are already teaching kids to do coding.

  • About CEO Inga Kristina Beale

  • Ms Inga Kristina Beale has been chief executive (CEO) of Lloyd's of London since December 2013.

    Born in May 1963, she studied economics and accounting at Newbury College in the UK.

    She started her career in 1982 at Prudential Assurance and in 1989 took a year off work to go backpacking in Asia and Australia.

    From 1992 to 2006, she worked at General Electric's Insurance Division, steadily rising through the ranks. She then worked as head of Swiss reinsurer Converium. In 2008, she joined Zurich Insurance Group as a member of the group management board. From 2012 until she was named to lead Lloyd's, she worked as Group CEO of insurance firm Canopius.

    Ms Beale played competitive rugby for more than a dozen years. She was instrumental in the launch of Pride@Lloyd's, an internal resource group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender staff. In 2013, she married Swiss jewellery designer Philippe Pfeiffer. The couple have no children.

Lloyd's was among the big voices that spoke out against Britain voting to exit the European Union (EU). On the morning of June 24, Ms Beale was as shocked as anyone else by the results. But now that the vote is through and Britain has notified the EU of its intention to leave, the nation and its businesses have to work with the result. Lloyd's has just announced it is opening a Brussels office to tap the EU market.

"Five per cent of our global business is directly affected by Brexit," she says. "That's nearly £30 billion. With insurance a highly regulated market, we require licences in every market and we risk losing those overnight if the UK doesn't succeed in negotiating single market access as it exits EU."

Belgium fits the bill because it has a strong regulator; high-calibre, multilingual talent; and easy access to every other part of the continent. There's another winning point as well: "Going forward, Belgium also has a high likelihood of staying in the EU."

Ms Beale, whose annual compensation is about £1.5 million, has been a strong voice against outsized executive compensation, particularly in the financial sector, believing this is one reason trust in big business is going down.

Living in Switzerland for a decade before she moved back to Britain, she saw how much of a hot-button issue it had become. The Swiss even held a referendum on the issue.

  • About Lloyd's of London

  • Lloyd's is the world's biggest insurance market. The business written at Lloyd's is brought to specialist syndicates, which price and underwrite risk via brokers and coverholders.

    The market began in Lloyd's Coffee House, opened by Edward Lloyd around 1688 in Tower Street in the historic City of London. This establishment was a popular place for sailors, merchants and shipowners.

    Today, it offers insurance services in 200 countries and territories. In March, it announced that it had chosen Brussels for its post-Brexit European Union hub.

With compensation levels at the top as much as 150 times what the bottom rung earns, this has been a recipe for the sort of resentment that was expressed in the Brexit vote, she believes.

Whatever lies ahead, it is important for the British government to have business on board, she says. Like other CEOs who make a living off the world beyond their immediate boundaries, Ms Beale too is worried about growing protectionist tendencies.

"Particularly in reinsurance, it is all about diversifying big risks," she says. "If you think of New Zealand that tragically got hit by an earthquake years ago, 80 per cent of the monies needed to rebuild Christchurch came from outside the country and they were very quickly up and running. That's the benefit of reinsurance and having global trade, if you like!"

Singapore, perhaps the world's most trade-dependent economy, has been an important regional platform for Lloyd's for some years. Growing in double digits, the Singapore office signs off on about US$600 million (S$839 million) of business here and the firm has some 240 underwriters on the island, three-quarters of them locals. A quarter of the 84 risk syndicates Lloyd's offers is available in Singapore.

IMPACT OF BREXIT

Five per cent of our global business is directly affected by Brexit. That's nearly £30 billion. With insurance a highly regulated market, we require licences in every market and we risk losing those overnight if the UK doesn't succeed in negotiating single market access as it exits EU.

'' MS INGA BEALE, on the Brexit challenge that Lloyd's is facing.

With a second licence in China and having recently opened in India, "future growth is undoubtedly going to come from Asia".

While US and European businesses have been complaining about the unhelpful attitude of the Chinese when it comes to market access, Lloyd's itself has had a happier experience. That's probably because Lloyd's offers very specialised products that aren't otherwise available in China, she says.

There was a time when piracy in regional waters, and then the Bali bombing of 2002, added to a heightened risk perception of South-east Asia. Has that eased, and are new risks on the horizon?

Ms Beale says the new big risk is cybercrime. The Asia-Pacific, she says, is not only the growth engine for the world economy, but also the heart of the Internet, with 53 per cent of Net users living in the region.

"From physical acts like piracy, we are moving to non-physical threats," she says. "In the next 10 years, we estimate the impact of cybercrime on the region could be as much as US$90 billion. Lloyd's is the biggest cyber insurer in the world with 25 per cent market share but we don't see enough being done in the region to mitigate against it."

IMPACT OF CYBERCRIME

In the next 10 years, we estimate the impact of cybercrime on the region could be as much as US$90 billion. Lloyd's is the biggest cyber insurer in the world with 25 per cent market share but we don't see enough being done in the region to mitigate against it. ''

MS BEALE, saying cybercrime is the new big risk in the Asia-Pacific region.

When you are one of the top women in global business, it is impossible to avoid questions on gender. Ms Beale says she has been fortunate to have worked for firms that have proactive policies on talent management and promoted people purely on performance.

Fundamentally, the world is changing and companies are looking at what people can deliver rather than the differences between them.

Still, "lots of successful women come across as very strong and tough and that might be intimidating. But over time, things will get into a natural balance", she believes.

Like Mr Tim Cook of Apple, who came out as gay some years ago, Ms Beale has made no secret of her bisexuality. Her voice does not change timbre when asked about it.

"There was a plea for role models from that community," she says, explaining her decision to be open about her own preferences. "If you talk about it, you make it okay for others to come out and be themselves. There is a lot of analysis that shows people are 30 per cent less productive when they are not 'out' at work, in safety and comfort. It affects everything when they are constantly hiding something."

The second child of an English father and Norwegian mother, Ms Beale is married to Swiss fashion designer Philippe Pfeiffer and she wears only jewellery that he's designed. After a hectic work week - "your time is never your own, Monday to Friday" - she finds enough downtime on the weekends, going to the theatre and catching up with friends.

She says she never checks office e-mail on weekends, and if something major requires her immediate attention, staff are instructed to call her directly. The letter informing her of her DBE lay unattended in her mailbox for days.

The Lloyd's appointment has given her unprecedented public profile and you wonder whether she'd parlay it at some point for a shot at public office. Britain, after all, has just got its second woman prime minister in Mrs Theresa May. It's not something she's considered, Ms Beale says, while also noting that her father, too, had never shown an interest in politics.

Yet, after he retired from teaching, he became a Liberal Democrat and successfully ran to be Lord Mayor of Newbury, a town in Berkshire.

"So, you never say never."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'Ex-rugby player tackles new tests at Lloyds'. Print Edition | Subscribe