By Alistair Gray
Before 1972, women were not even allowed to set foot in the underwriting room at Lloyd’s of London. It was not until the following decade that female brokers were permitted to wear trousers. Even today, for all the assertive modernity suggested by its arresting Richard Rogers-designed building in the heart of the City, the insurance market remains a place where old habits die hard. Nearly all the underwriters are white, most are British and almost two-thirds men.
This week Lloyd’s moved to break with that past when it appointed as chief executive a 50-year-old woman who has prided herself on breaking down stereotypes. Inga Beale has pledged to champion diversity at the City institution that retains huge global reach – Lloyd’s provides cover to about nine in ten members of the Dow Jones Industrial Average – but also risks becoming increasingly less relevant as rival centres develop, especially in emerging markets.
“This is a brave move for Lloyd’s – and also for her,” says Barbara Schönhofer of insurance headhunters Jacobson. “The forward-thinking people in the market are very much behind it but you’re going to have an old guard who will be cynical.”
If she does encounter any prejudice, friends say the new chief executive is unlikely to flinch. Ms Beale has brushed aside sexist bullying in the past to rise through the ranks of insurance. As a junior underwriter in the early 1980s she once took issue with posters of half-naked women that had been put up around the office. Colleagues responded by removing them from the wall – and plastering them across her chair and computer instead. “There have been a few interesting moments in my career,” she told a conference for women in insurance earlier this year.
Such experiences have allowed Ms Beale – a former competitive rugby player for Wasps, who almost made it to international level and continued to play into her thirties – to develop a steely edge. “She’s not someone you want to mess with,” says an associate.
At the same time, friends describe the middle of three children of a Norwegian mother and English father as a warm person with plenty of emotional intelligence who is highly articulate if not especially academic. Her home counties childhood in Berkshire was comfortable, though not pampered. An aptitude for numbers was honed in accounting and economics studies at Newbury College, but a streak of teenage rebelliousness led her to spurn the university degree and accountancy career that her father had in mind and take a job in insurance instead.
Ms Beale’s combination of toughness and tact will be useful in her new role, which comes at a critical time for Lloyd’s. Mounting competition is squeezing premiums, weak investment returns are cutting into profit margins and insurance brokers are starting to put pressure on smaller syndicates.
David Gittings of the Lloyd’s Market Association, which represents underwriters, describes the position as a “three-dimensional role”.
On the one hand, it is in effect a quasi-regulator, ensuring that the competing underwriting syndicates that comprise Lloyd’s do not rack up the disastrous losses of the kind that ruined the fortunes of thousands of people at the start of the 1990s.
The job also requires a big dose of business acumen. After the crisis two decades ago, Lloyd’s is no longer the domain of wealthy individuals – or “names” who underwrite the market – but largely financed by big multinational corporations.
The market, founded in 1688 by Edward Lloyd in his coffee house overlooking the Thames, has carved out a lucrative, specialist niche insuring complex risks ranging from movie stars’ limbs to elephants being transported across the Atlantic. But it needs a strategy to remain relevant. Companies based across the world still turn to London to secure coverage – but local insurance industries in markets from China to Brazil are growing fast.
As a result, says Ms Beale, diversity makes good business sense. The UK insurance industry, which she has described as being “chauvinistic” in the past, needs to become “more reflective” of the customers it serves, she argues.
Ms Beale, who helped set up the global Insurance Supper Club for top female executives, sets a high standard for worldliness. She might have spent her entire career in insurance – unlike the outgoing Lloyd’s CEO Richard Ward, a former head of the International Petroleum Exchange – but is no corporate apparatchik. She took the best part of a year off from the industry to backpack around Asia and cycle around Australia. Ms Beale has previously lived with a female partner, though is now engaged to Philippe Pfeiffer, a jewellery designer.
Although her first job was at Prudential in London, most of the senior positions she has held have been outside her homeland. She remains better known in continental Europe than in UK. After leaving the Pru in 1992 she headed for General Electric’s insurance arm, starting as an underwriter before switching to management in Kansas in 2001, an experience one associate says “changed her life”.
Two years later she was moved to continental Europe, taking on increasingly senior roles in Paris and then Munich. But it was not until she left GE in 2006 that really made her name as head of Converium, a struggling Swiss reinsurer that she helped turn round. Ms Beale returned to London two years ago to run the Lloyd’s insurer Canopius, though she continued to commute between the UK and Zurich. It was from Canopius – which this week agreed to be bought by Sompo of Japan for about £600m – that she was headhunted to run Lloyd’s.
This all seems a world away from the young woman who, like many insurance lifers, stumbled into the industry. “For the first 10 years I didn’t really care about the job,” Ms Beale recalls. “I just made money and continued to do my sport. I wasn’t focused on my career at all.”
The writer is the FT’s insurance correspondent