By STEVE YAHN, who has written for and edited national publications for more than 30 years
In the course of a career spanning three decades, Mario Vitale, newly named president of U.S. insurance for Aspen Insurance Holdings Ltd., has served on all sides of the insurance business.
Whatever position he was in, one aspect of the business has always appealed to him most. He is a builder.
"In my career, I've built operations, I've fixed operations, and I've helped maintain operations by taking big companies and making sure they continue to do well and try to get some organic growth out of them," Vitale told Risk & Insurance®. "Most senior positions include an element of all three. But clearly the most fun I've had in my career was when I was building. It's the kind of thing that gets me up extra early, at 4 a.m. instead of 5 a.m., to start my day."
Bolstering the U.S. insurance business for Hamilton, Bermuda-based Aspen Holdings was what attracted Vitale to his new New York City-based position. Of the $2.076 billion in gross written premium reported by Aspen Holdings for the year ended Dec. 31, 2010, 57 percent came from reinsurance and 43 percent came from insurance.
So what was it about Aspen specifically that drew Vitale away from his prestigious job as CEO of giant Zurich in North America's worldwide Global Corporate business?
"I was approached by two absolutely terrific people at Aspen Insurance Holdings, Chris O'Kane and John Cavoores," Vitale noted. "I became convinced that this specialty company, this niche player, was an excellent company for this phase in my career. What Aspen had was a strong rating, a strong balance sheet, a strong reinsurance operation, and it was very interested in building out a first-class insurance operation.
"As part of that mission, they clearly were looking for an experienced insurance professional to help build up the insurance business, starting in the United States," said the 55-year-old executive. Vitale also acquired a seat on the executive committee of Aspen Insurance Holdings.
Vitale is most definitely a builder, but he is also a thinker when it comes to the larger issues of risk management.
"The most interesting take-away in the last couple years is not just that the world is becoming riskier, but also that the correlation between risk is becoming greater," observed Vitale. "The most clear example of this is the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, how it all started in the United States with mortgage-backed securities and what it ultimately did around the world."
Vitale also cited the recent developments in Japan. "It's absolutely horrible and we're all devastated by what we see and hear from there, and then you get down to supply chain disruptions," said Vitale.
"I pick up the paper and I recognize the same problems are going to happen in the automotive industry here in the United States when parts are needed to manufacture cars from Japan," he said, adding that the models for risk are outdated and really don't work.
"You must utilize looking back, but very importantly looking forward, in helping with risk transfer decisions--risk mitigation and risk transfer decisions--that will be made on future assumptions," said Vitale. "Going back to my actuarial experience, the best decisions are made with one eye on the past and the other eye on the future to model what's the most likely path to take."
GETTING WITH THE INSURANCE PROGRAM
Right from the start, Vitale's career had its roots in the world of insurance.
After graduating from St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School on Long Island, N.Y., Vitale joined the College of Insurance actuarial work-study program in New York City.
"The great part of the program, which still exists today, is that it's a program in which you're also sponsored by an insurance company that not only provides mentoring during the college education period but also provides a job during the off-season when you're not in school as well as after you graduate," said Vitale.
Vitale's sponsor was Home Insurance Co., which, said Vitale, was a very prominent company and had a strong training program. After graduation, he joined the carrier's underwriting program. For the next 10 years, he held various roles--property, casualty, directors' and officers' (D&O), liability, marine.
"It was a great foundation for the first stage of my career," Vitale recalled.
Stage two of Vitale's career came when he was attracted to a startup company called Reliance National, which was based in New York.
"I worked there until 1999, and while there, I built up its risk management business from scratch. I built up its property and casualty national account business. It started out as a North American business, but ultimately by the time I left we were doing business in both Latin America and London, as well as the United States and Canada," Vitale said.
ON TO WILLIS
In stage three of his career, the brokerage side of the business attracted him.
At the end of 1999, Willis was the No. 3 broker in the world during a time of heavy broker consolidation. Marsh had just bought J&H and Fred S. James. Aon was continuously gobbling up firms. It looked like Willis could be next.
"But the industry responded to this by saying it needed a third large, global broker," Vitale said.
Six large insurance companies, along with KKR, purchased Willis in a leveraged buyout.
"So that it wouldn't be sold to one of the big two brokers and remain independent," he said.
But KKR didn't know what to do with this asset. They hired Joe Plumeri, the current chairman and CEO, and Vitale.
"We had four breakfasts together, and we decided to start on the same day. Ultimately, I think we led a great team and did a terrific job of returning the company to profitability and taking the company public. Today, as you can see, the company is performing very well and providing the world with a third global broker," Vitale said.
OFF TO ZURICH
Although things were going well at Willis, Zurich offered him the chance to return to underwriting.
"Which made me recognize I was an underwriter at heart," Vitale said.
So began stage four of his career. Vitale joined Zurich in 2006 as CEO of its North American Global Corporate division. Two years later, he was named CEO of the company's worldwide Global Corporate business.
"Zurich offered me the opportunity to run a global business in excess of $8 billion," said Vitale. "It also gave me the chance to move to Europe. It was an exciting five years, and the business is in terrific shape now."
As he embarks on stage five of his career with Aspen, Vitale noted that, when he isn't living and breathing insurance underwriting, he enjoys reading, kayaking, bicycle riding and travel. His most recent trip was to Morocco earlier this year and he is looking forward to a four-day bicycle tour throughout Holland in April.
March 29, 2011
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