Monday Face: Michael Diekmann

Michael Diekmann has had to weather more than a few financial emergencies in his decade and a half circling the globe with Allianz

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 5:30am

As chairman of German financial giant Allianz, Michael Diekmann is constantly on the go around the world, keeping up with the company's 142,000 employees and 78 million customers in 70 countries.

Shanghai, in particular, is a regular port of call for Diekmann, now that Allianz is chasing a listing on the Shanghai Stock Exchange's proposed international board.

But few know that his previous occupation also required a lot of travel - for an entirely different purpose.

Before he turned to the world of finance, Diekmann wrote and published travel books, a pursuit that took him to all corners of the globe in search of adventure.

He set up his own publishing company, Diekmann/Thieme, after graduating from university, printing a series of self-authored travel books on pursuits such as hiking in Malaysia, canoeing in Canada, and safaris in Africa.

"That was a time when there were no computers and you still used typewriters," he recalled. While he couldn't remember exact sales figures, the books ran into several editions, he said, proving they sold well.

But his writing career was interrupted, he quips, when his wife told him it was time he got a proper job, which to her meant going to an office at 8.30am and coming back home at 5pm. She also showed him an ad for a job at Allianz in Hamburg.

Diekmann, who was born Bielefeld, had always wanted to move to a city like Hamburg. So he went for the interview, got the job and joined Allianz's insurance sales department. That was in 1988, and Diekmann was starting his first serious job at the advanced age of 33.

If it was a slow start, he soon made up for lost time. Just 15 years later, in 2003, he became the group's chairman, leading the world's biggest general insurer, second-largest asset-management company, and third-biggest life insurer.

"I started at a late age so I had to accelerate quickly or people would consider I was too old," he said in his Singapore office. Diekmann said his rise to the top was aided by his family's background in the construction business, which gave him a taste of entrepreneurship. "I understood all aspects of business from my family background," he said.

He also learned valuable lessons running the group's businesses in Asia, the US and Europe. In 1996, he was asked to lead a small team to set up business in Singapore. Business was booming but the Asian financial crisis a year later led to a sharp devaluation of many Asian currencies. It was the first of a chain of crises he had to deal with. After Asia, he was sent to look after Eastern Europe - just in time for Russia's currency devaluation. And, then in 2000, he was sent to the US, where he had to manage a way through Argentina's "de-pegging" and the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks.

"Facing all these crises … [early in] my career was valuable experience as they taught me to always be aware of risk management. They [helped] me understand the importance of de-risking, and the technicalities of business risk management and underwriting," Diekmann said.

"I also learned … not to panic in any circumstance."

The experience also helped him to steer Allianz unscathed through the recent global financial crisis and to maintain its leadership in many areas.

Allianz's revenues from the growth markets of Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America grew to about 10 per cent this year, compared with 4 per cent a decade ago. And, in Asia premium income for this year would amount to between US$6 billion and US$7 billion, Diekmann said.

"Asia has come a long way. Twenty years ago China had little infrastructure but now it has all the highways, airports and other infrastructure. This is why my Asian experience is so important."

Looking ahead, Diekmann sees global interest rates staying low, although the outlook for global equities is hard to predict. Low interest rates were not good for the insurance sector, he said, but benefited the group's asset management business.

"This is a kind of hedging and explains why we have shown such a stable return in the past 10 years," he said.

Now that he has to fly around the world - not for canoeing or safaris but it to meet with customers and staff - he uses his free time to exercise and to spend time with his family.

"My family is what I like the most in my life. I have two boys and two girls and I am not chairman at home but I have to earn my position," he joked.

Will the former writer go back to his roots and write again? "Maybe one day I should write a book about my insights about Allianz," the chairman said with a laugh.