By JACK ROBERTS, senior vice president at Breckenridge Insurance Services and former editor in chief of Risk & Insurance®
No, Patrick Ryan did not win a 2010 Power BrokerTM award. But he has been busy.
After spending some 15 months in a losing effort trying to persuade the International Olympic Committee to hold the summer games in Chicago, he decided to return to the insurance business because "that's what I know best," he said recently.
You bet he knows it best, maybe better than anyone in the insurance brokerage business. He started Aon from scratch and turned it into the largest insurance brokerage business in the industry. But at 72, will he succeed with his new firm, Ryan Specialty Group?
And what about Aon and, in particular, its shareholders? Ryan owned 6.7 percent of the outstanding shares of common stock in Aon as of last year, according to the 2009 Aon proxy statement, making him the largest individual shareholder. For years, as CEO and then as chairman of the company's board of directors executive committee, he was required to exercise fiduciary responsibility to protect the interests of the shareholders. Now, gone from the board for a bit more than a year, he starts a new company that sounds very much like the way he went about building Aon.
In fact, Ryan's new company is headquartered in Chicago's Aon Center on the 20th Floor, only a few floors up from Aon's corporate headquarters.
Indeed, rumors are rampant in the industry that Ryan's new company is maneuvering to acquire Swett & Crawford, one of the largest wholesale brokers and once a part of Aon before it was spun off.
At the rate he's going, and armed with a war chest full of Aon stock worth well more than half a billion dollars, Ryan's in a position to attack the core of Aon's brokerage business and hire away some of its best people.
And he has. These former Aon executives are already on the Ryan payroll:
-- Michael Rice, former Aon executive vice president and CEO of a number of Aon subsidiaries including Aon Risk Services America
-- Debra McLenahan, former CEO of Aon Underwriting Managers
-- Jerry Tegan, former chairman of Aon Specialty Product Network
-- Kevin Schrage, former head of Aon's small business brokerage operations
-- Frank Phillips, former president and CEO of Aon's U.S. brokerage operations for personal lines and small commercial businesses
-- Diane Aigotti, former corporate office, senior vice president and chief risk officer for Aon
And be sure that Ryan will be going after many more of his former colleagues at Aon. One would have thought that, when Ryan left Aon, he would have had some kind of ironclad noncompete that would have prohibited him from setting up shop, looking down at the Aon corporate offices.
Forget the weak public statement upon the announcement of the new company that Ryan's new firm isn't in competition with Aon's brokerage operation or any retail brokers. He's focused on particular attractive niche product lines and lucrative brokers that serve especially attractive industries--just like Aon.
Ryan Specialty Group plans to develop managing general agents and managing general underwriters and a wholesale brokerage business. Its first subsidiary, ThinkRisk, provides underwriting and claims services to the media and technology markets.
Another subsidiary, Ryan Specialty (Europe), is a U.K.-based managing general underwriter agency focused on financial institutions with directors' and officers' and professional liability product lines.
There's an excellent chance that Ryan new brokerage firm will hurt Aon and Aon shareholders. As the largest individual shareholder in Aon, it's hard to understand why Ryan would compete with his former company, especially because he owns so much of the company and this venture would hurt his own investment if he's successful.
Even though he is no longer CEO or a board member, Ryan has to be privy and understand Aon's long-term growth strategy. Indeed, rumors are rampant that Aon management has been thinking about re-entering the wholesale business and maybe even acquiring Swett. This move may have pre-empted that option for Aon.
And as the largest shareholder, Ryan would also seem to hold fiduciary responsibilities to his fellow shareholders. At minimum, you could argue conflict-of-interest.
This whole development smacks of retribution. If Ryan wanted to return to the business he knows best, why didn't he just rejoin Aon? His return surely would have been seriously considered. Or, perhaps what really happened is that Ryan did want back in, and the board and current management said, "No, thanks." Aon is in the midst of transitioning into a new, very successful brokerage firm. Why bring back the old guard when the culture is far different today, and performance is much better.
I can only think that Ryan wants to teach Aon management some kind of lesson--regardless of whether or not it hurts his own stockholdings. But Ryan isn't the sole shareholder, and his move may cost the other shareholders hundreds of millions in value of their stock.
At minimum, the board and Aon management shouldn't be sitting on the sidelines silent; they ought to be out there protesting Ryan's new venture and protecting the interest of their bosses, the Aon shareholders.
Editor's note: In the spirit of full disclosure, Jack Roberts' current employer, Breckenridge Insurance Services, has a growth and acquisition strategy similar to Ryan Specialty's strategy.
February 1, 2010
Copyright 2010© LRP Publications