Putting a premium on a full life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 October, 2009, 12:00am

Bouncing through potholes and malarial rainforests for a day and a half to visit a hydroelectric project in remote Indonesia is not every executive's idea of a business trip. But for John Wilkinson, such expeditions have made his job fascinating, providing the chance to meet experts, understand diverse industries, and be sure that no two days are ever the same.

'As an insurer, you actually go and see your risks. It was hard work, but great fun and tremendously exciting,' he said, looking back on his time criss-crossing Asia in the 1990s to gauge the risks attached to everything from tyre factories and chemical plants to skyscrapers and airports.

Munich Re's chief executive for Greater China is quick to stress that, without the insurance sector, business can't function and infrastructure won't get built.

'You can basically look across the whole skyline of any city and say this was insured locally and reinsured somewhere else to split the risk into bite-sized chunks,' he said. 'The industry plays a very important part in the economic life of a nation.'

With a real sense of mission, he explained that a reinsurance company did far more than provide capital and financial backup for direct insurers. It also has at its disposal a multitude of professionals - geologists, engineers, doctors, meteorologists, master mariners and much more - ready to advise on risk mitigation and best operating practices in the appropriate areas. Their recommendations can help, for example, the developer of an office tower or tunnel to build to standard, complete on time and, thereby, reduce costs and premiums, while enhancing overall efficiency.

Though making a successful career in insurance, Wilkinson's own approach to life has never been safety first. His philosophy has always been to eschew certainty and 'grab every opportunity' on the assumption that a pioneer generally learns more, gains broader experience and gets to see the world.

He started out as a broker with the London firm Willis in the early 1980s, attracted by the buzz of the financial district and stories of a family friend's flights on Concorde to New York. Against that glamour, the prospect of following various relatives into textile manufacturing seemed unenticing.

'I was a bit of an impatient young man and very fascinated by what was going on in the city,' he said. 'And, clearly, it was better to go into a sunrise rather than a sunset industry.' On-the-job training led to a role handling North American liability claims. It involved working with clients, lawyers and underwriters at Lloyds to determine the status of claims and payments to be made. A subsequent transfer to the Asia department gave him more of a chance to develop new business, acting as the intermediary for deals covering larger risks and placing them with the best underwriters. This also opened his eyes to the vast potential of a region where the need for every kind of cover could only grow.

'In those days, there wasn't a large reinsurance market in Asia, so a lot of the business went into Europe,' Wilkinson said. 'As a broker, you had the opportunity to see many different fields and were always learning from the people around you.' Offered a year in Germany in 1990 to study the effects of liberalisation on the continental market, he didn't hesitate. The experience provided a much broader perspective and firmed his resolve to switch to the underwriting side of the business. This went well beyond concluding transactions and working within sharply defined limits. Instead, it involved knowing which risks were good, understanding where claims might come from, anticipating issues, and forming a view on what kind of policy to write and what to charge.

'There were fewer [software] aids back then; it was more based on tables and experience,' he said.

Joining Allianz's recently formed international department in Munich, Wilkinson soon found himself taking lengthy swings through the Middle East and Asia. In drumming up business, the priority was to get to grips with the reality of risks - whether from natural disaster, management processes or common hazards - and then write insurance policies beneficial to both sides.

Things went well, so when the company proposed opening a Singapore office in 1994, he was first to put up his hand. As general manager for industrial business across Asia, there were obvious opportunities with new infrastructure projects everywhere and global clients needing suitable coverage for expansion in the region.

'I enjoyed it immensely, having a free hand and managing a team, and the scope increased to include Australia and New Zealand,' Wilkinson said. Sensing the need for progression, he returned to Europe in 2000 to join Munich Re. Having worked with the company as a client, it seemed like a logical step to move from direct insurance into reinsurance.

'I felt I needed a change, but soon found myself working with Asia again and was made responsible for Greater China,' he said. 'My clients were now insurance companies, but I could understand their problems and maybe come up with ideas and solutions based on my experience.'

Relocated to Hong Kong this year to oversee a local team of about 80 and a similar number in Beijing, he feels this is the right place and the right time.

'China is the future, no doubt about it,' he said. 'We are working on a wide scale and really trying to help poor people by getting involved in micro-insurance products. In a region exposed to natural catastrophes, I hope that governments will put more emphasis on this.'

Spare time

Plays the clarinet as part of a musical family who practise and perform together

Likes walking holidays in the mountains with his wife and three children

Listens to recordings of Winston Churchill's speeches for his command of the English language

Stepping up

Senior district division manager
HK$35,000 to HK$70,000 + C
12 to 15 years

District division manager
HK$25,000 to HK$60,000 + C
10 to 12 years

Senior unit manager
HK$22,000 to HK$60,000 + C
Eight to 10 years

Unit manager
HK$20,000 to HK$40,000 + C
Six to eight years

C: Commission
Source: Centaline Human Resources Consultants


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