How AIG’s Duncan Ellis builds a culture of underwriting excellence

Recruiting and developing diverse talent plays an important role.

Earlier this year, one of the world’s largest container ships got stuck in Egypt’s Suez Canal – essentially freezing nearly a week’s worth of international trade. While the world may have watched in dismay, AIG’s Duncan Ellis, head of Retail Property for North America, took it as a lesson in risk management, especially for companies that do business abroad.

This is because one factor that’s increasingly shaping the way we evaluate risk is the global nature of supply chains. Our underwriters consider a client’s network of systems and infrastructure as an indicator for how they will endure and navigate risks. More than ever, it’s critical for clients to have a strong business continuity plan.

“As such, we're probably going to lean more towards providing more capacity at a better price to the clients who have engaged in this critical business continuity planning, as opposed to those who haven’t thought those things through,” says Duncan, who joined AIG in 2019 after decades of experience helping clients manage risk.

How we think about risks

Supply chains are just one of several factors that have continually shifted the way insurers assess risk. While insurers have long considered hurricanes and floods some of the biggest risks to property, the dynamics of these threats and others have evolved significantly in recent years. This has led our underwriters to rethink the terms and conditions of our policies to sustain our business, and to also support our clients for years to come.

Critically, this involves our continued commitment to build a culture of underwriting excellence where our people operate with a strategic and detailed understanding of how risk is assessed, evaluated and covered. One of the key ways to do that is by recruiting and developing the right talent to address the diverse needs within the business communities we serve.

“If we were to take a loss, we want to be able to sit back a day or two later and say we’d write that same risk again.

Looking back at 2017, Duncan explains, the devastations from hurricanes Harvey and Maria prompted many insurers to reconsider underwriting practices. The storms struck the U.S. within one month of each other and ranked among the costliest hurricanes on record – Harvey estimated at $125 billion; Maria at $90 billion in U.S. damages, according to the US Department of Commerce. As a result, insurers reevaluated their risks and ultimately strengthened underwriting practices.

“We’re making sure that we’re putting out capacity that is sustainable,” Duncan adds.

One of AIG’s underwriting strengths is to proactively address catastrophic risks. While the focus in property has been floods and windstorms, wildfires across western U.S. states have become a major area of focus that our risk managers continue to pay close attention to. The same goes for terrorism and cybersecurity risks that continue to evolve.

Recruiting, developing, and retaining the right talent is key

In a world that’s more interconnected and complex than ever, it’s critical to recruit, develop and retain the right talent to respond.

“Our company needs to reflect what we’re seeing in the business community, which is increasingly diverse,” says Duncan, who sits on the board of the Spencer Educational Foundation, a non-profit aimed at developing future risk managers and insurance leaders through scholarships, grants, internships and experiential learning.

While the insurance industry values hard skills like proficiencies in math or computers, softer skills become more important over time. Duncan refers to those who are flexible and able to adapt to uncertainty and environments that continually shift and evolve.

Communication is also key. This is especially true for underwriters responsible for evaluating risks and deciding what terms and conditions are acceptable for our policies.

“Bad news doesn’t get better with time,” Duncan says. “It just gets worse to the extent that you need to communicate quickly, especially as an underwriter. If you’re not going to be able to write that risk or do what the broker and the client are looking for, make sure you communicate that quickly.”

Many aspects of the insurance industry have continued to remain the same, but areas that have either changed or will likely evolve require thoughtful leaders able to deepen our commitment to underwriting excellence. 


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