By DAVID KOSUB, a writer living in British Columbia
Back in 1985, risk manager Paul Barlow shared a dream with his colleagues at BC Transit Corporation: Relieve greater Vancouver's crushing traffic problems by building a fully automated light rail system reaching from outlying municipalities deep into the city's downtown core.
Better still, elevate that system and open up Skytrain in time for Vancouver's Expo 86 World Fair. Barlow's own role seemed straightforward enough: Ensure appropriate coverage for that system based on a comprehensive read of real risks.
Trouble was 1985 was also an especially hard market. "I was a risk manager, and an accountant, and all sorts of things," Barlow said. "But I couldn't buy insurance, no matter how much I threw at it."
We just don't have the financial capacity, insurers told him. And what's this about a driverless train they asked incredulously. How can you operate a train with no one at the wheel? Who's there to stop the train and prevent catastrophic loss?
"It was new technology and the 1980s," said Barlow, manager, risk management for BC Transit. "My job was to remind insurers that the main cause of accidents is not mechanical, but driver error. I then had to explain how a train without drivers works."
"He brought the underwriters over and showed them the systems," said Bill Morgan, managing director of Aon and one of Barlow's early colleagues. " 'This is what we do. If there's any sort of a problem on the system, it shuts down. This is safer than a system with drivers.' "
Morgan said that the hands-on approach has served Barlow and his employer well over the years. "Establishing those relationships and explaining from the company's point of view what the real risk was, I think, is what made him successful in getting a program together."
In the end, Barlow prevailed. Insurers did come on board eventually--but not, he added, without charging a $1million premium and an enormous $1 million deductible--nearly the cost of an entire railcar. For the next two years he had numerous conversations with insurers about lowering those costs. Insurers wouldn't budge.
Barlow's break came in 1988 when the British Columbia government allowed home-grown captives. Barlow had explored captive insurance companies before. The problem was most of these were in Bermuda, Barbados, or the Cayman Islands and the board of directors balked at transferring the Skytrain's risk offshore. Being able to set up your own captive changed the game.
Keith Gibson, risk manager for BC's Municipal Insurance Association, said the captive provided "access to different markets that traditionally you don't have in the commercial market."
It gave BC Transit something else, Bill Morgan said. "By being willing and able to take that much risk it provided commercial underwriters some more comfort and so they started writing the excess and that's pretty much where they've stayed," he said.
"They're more comfortable because they know you've got some skin in the game," Barlow said. He "learned to become an insurance company very quickly," he said, aided in part by his financial background as an accountant. But that didn't mean there weren't lessons along the way.
"Some of the challenges are dealing with the reinsurance business where I write a policy for this much money, and I go out there to a reinsurer and say 'Okay, we are a captive and we want you to take this part on here.' Dealing with the reinsurers means selling your company, selling how good you do things, Barlow said."
Scroll forward 23 years and Barlow's employer has a new name--Translink, a vast network of trains, buses, ferries, bridges and transit police services serving nearly 2 million people in the third largest metropolitan community in Canada.
Once again, Barlow is sitting at the center of the risk management portfolio, where the challenges are bigger and more diverse, and where character counts as much as sharp business skills. Translink CEO Ian Jarvis called Barlow "a terrier," someone with a passion for great ideas and who won't let go until that idea is reality.
"That's the sort of leadership that we look for in this organization, to look at better ways to do things, to keep cities moving," Jarvis said, pointing to Barlow's initiatives with regard to setting up the captive, pushing for the Golden Ears Bridge, or looking for cheaper, more efficient ways to manage risk.
Barlow insists you don't do any of this alone. He could be talking with engineers about the complexities of a Bombardier Mark 2 railcar, engaging Translink's 35 managers in an enterprise risk management exercise or guiding his own staff, but one thing remains paramount, everyone contributes, everyone is heard.
"One of the mistakes a lot of groups do is they don't share information with anybody other than their little silo. They forget that the goal is to get things done on time, on budget, to deal with it as efficiently as you can. To do that you need to bring the right bodies in to help and listen. That's the big one: people need to use their ears," Barlow said.
The other skill is knowing how to guide people in crisis. A case in point: A phone call Barlow received one night long after he'd left the office for home. A transit bus had just hit a parked truck along the side of a highway, killing three of the 28 people on the bus.
"Phone call came, and we took over, and basically issued commands to a whole pile of people to do work and get things done. Next morning, I knew exactly what had gone on. We resolved the issues of the file expediently and efficiently and with compassion," he said.
Nancy Thibault, Translink's claims manager, remembers that incident, too. But what stands out for her was not just the phone calls 24/7 over three days, but the tone Barlow established.
"There was a bit of panic, but he calmed everyone down. I have to admit I tend to get worked up a little bit, but Paul always brings me back down, saying 'Okay, Nancy take a deep breath' and we move from there."
Barlow describes Thibault and the rest of his staff as "very tough" professionals who "fight very hard" and take pride in "doing their homework."
Senior BC Transit claims examiner Sofia Spaphis won't disagree with her boss's assessment. "Paul sets a very clear direction. We research. We communicate. We dig deep so that when we do have a recommendation it's pretty much the facts speaking for themselves."
"At the same time, he trusts us," her colleague Tristan Laderoute said. "He lets us do our job."
"The other big issue for us is risk management," Laderoute said. "We've all taken the risk management courses so that we've been able to look at things not just from claims but from the risk management side, so if we see a problem we can identify it right away, work on it and advise Paul that this could be a problem."
The group suddenly erupts into laughter. Thibault has just reminded them of Barlow's other passion besides risk and insurance--running. Each September and January Barlow signs up staff for his an exercise regime that takes up to 20 staff members on an hour long trek between Translink's Metrotown head office in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby to Central Park on the Vancouver-Burnaby border.
"He takes people under his wing and encourages them to report out there three times a week in rain, snow, sleet, sun," Thibault said. Spaphis chuckles: "I think we're one of the healthiest departments around. Paul is the leader of the pack."
Barlow admits he's passionate about running and foreign cars, of which he has three in his garage. Mostly, through, Barlow's passionate about risk management. He'd like to see more companies charged up by it as well, pointing to recent events on Wall Street to underscore just how bad things can go when companies are not alerted to risk.
"At the same time companies are gaining a better appreciation for the profession. Their ability to really look at what is happening, I think, has gotten much better. Is there room to grow? Yeah, a ton of room to grow, he said. "That's what keeps me motivated and going every day."
May 1, 2011
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