Reintroduce might be a more appropriate term, since I applied to work at a Lloyd's syndicate in 1972.
"How long do you see yourself staying with the firm?" I was asked.
The true answer was, "Just long as it takes to find something more interesting."
Instead, I went with the diplomatic "At least two years."
The correct answer, apparently, was "a lifetime."
I re-entered the London insurance market 38 years later, as it happened, on the day of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Rather than attacking the Lloyd's building itself, I chose Balls Bros., a wine bar just across the street. It being a Friday afternoon, a disreputable bunch of hacks and ne'er-do-wells lurked within the subterranean watering hole. It turned out I knew half of them and soon enough met the rest: market observers, commentators, PRs, writers, hacks, flacks and editors. Not a man-jack among us with a real job.
Emboldened, I wrangled my way into an evening at the Gherkin, a few weeks back. The Gherkin is the nickname given to a cucumber-shaped building with a green glass shell in London, officially known as 30 St. Mary Axe. You must have seen it. It was originally called the Swiss Re Tower and that company remains its prime tenant.
Officially, I was there to report on Allied World's launch of its Lloyd's Syndicate 2232, so numbered for British Airways' nightly flight from Bermuda to London, which forms an air bridge for Allied World management. Less officially, I could think of no better way to see London from a unique viewpoint not available to the general public. I know a few of the folks at Allied World, since the company was born in Bermuda on my watch there.
Allied World will never corner the market, or anything else, from their new offices in the Gherkin. The building has no corners. Built on the former site of the Baltic Exchange, the Gherkin stands almost 600 feet high, three times as tall as Niagara Falls, but without the tacky gift shops.
The penthouse fills the Gherkin's 40th and highest floor. Above it is the top of the building, a 100-foot high glass dome. At its very apex is the only curved piece of glass in the entire building. Some of London's senior insurance types and a phalanx of more than 200 brokers--like journalists, always up for a free something--made a tremendous din in the penthouse that evening.
Like Balls Bros., one arrives at the Gherkin by finding the Lloyd's building. You'll have seen this one, too. It's a space-age construction with truly dizzying and vertigo-inspiring views down into its interior from the offices of the chairman.
I'd like to say a few words about Lord Levene of Portsoken, who will retire later this year after nine years as chairman of Lloyd's. I greatly offended him once, inadvertently, by making a joke at his expense, but we both got over it.
He has served Lloyd's well. He inherited an organization mired in the working ways of the late 18th century and modernized it, despite itself. We'll miss him.
ROGER CROMBIE is a London-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
June 1, 2011
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