It's a moment that often occurs somewhere around the middle of our careers: a reappraisal of our progress to date; a thoughtful summing up of our accomplishments measured against our goals and dreams we had when first starting out. It comes to everyone in professional life, and if you're lucky, that moment of assessment feels pretty good, so good in fact you often commit yourself to working even harder along your chosen path.
But for Wayne Snow, senior vice president for risk and insurance for AMEC Americas, part of the U.K.-based AMEC Plc., one of the world's largest engineering and construction firms, it was a moment that came much sooner than he'd expected.
By 1980, the 25-year old was already a well-regarded underwriter trained in commercial lines, including property and casualty, auto, and general liability. He was popular with colleagues and managers at his Halifax employer, Canadian Indemnity.
The same had been true when he worked at Royal Insurance in his hometown of Saint John, New Brunswick, a few years earlier. Wayne Snow, it was clear, was on his way up--or so it seemed.
But something troubled him still. Snow couldn't shake the feeling that life wasn't working out the way he'd planned. That feeling only deepened when he paused to dwell on the careers of three friends.
"One was a general surgeon, one was a dentist and one was an accountant," he says. "And then there was me who always felt like the black sheep somehow."
"It's true," says Bill Shaw, a dentist in Saint John, New Brunswick. Snow "was never one of those guys who was made to believe that he was really anyone special." As a result, he tended to undervalue his underwriting career.
"He just felt like, 'What the heck have I done with my life? Where has it left me? Have I really amounted to anything?' He suffered from that for some time."
"I had difficulty seeing how I could rise and do very, very well, which as it turns out is a bit of an irony," says Snow, looking back on what now appears to have been an early midlife crisis. As a young man with a family, Snow was ambitious.
After flirting briefly with a career in science, Snow found his first job with Bernard Freedman who owned an insurance agency in Saint John, New Brunswick. Snow's job was to track down deadbeats for Freedman, who was intent on solving his collections program.
"That was the first thing he taught me," Snow says. "I went around knocking on doors and learned how to collect money."
That job was quickly followed by sojourns at Royal Insurance and Canadian Indemnity until Snow, unsure about his future path, decided to return to university where he took a crack at a degree in dentistry.
Married, with a young child, he was quickly reminded, however, just how tough student life could be. But even if he wanted to get back into the insurance business, it would be hard. By this point, in the early '80s, a new word had entered the corporate lexicon: redundancy. Like other companies, his former employer, Canadian Indemnity, had frozen hiring. "But then they started calling around," Snow recalls, "and spoke to Reed Stenhouse on my behalf."
Mel Earley, vice president and marketing manager of Reed Stenhouse, distinctly remembers taking that call and being impressed with Snowfrom the beginning.
Reed Stenhouse, which consisted of about 30 people in Halifax, was looking for a broker who could handle a range of policies from auto to property and casualty. "In our office you have to be an all-rounder and it was that kind of work that Wayne excelled at," says Earley. "I was also impressed by his enthusiasm and his enquiring mind and so we decided to take him on."
"That's when my career really started, on March 15, 1982," says Snow. A year later the market hardened. His ability as a broker had earned him kudos from Reed Stenhouse, however, and he was asked to take over as branch marketing manager.
Wearing dual hats as broker and account executive, Snow transferred in 1990 to AON Reed Stenhouse's risk management office in Vancouver. Along the way he would also graduate with a diploma in risk management from the Insurance Institute of Canada--one of the first to do so since the fellowship program had been reorganized in the mid-'80s. During the course of his study, he discovered a knack for handling major commercial accounts in the pulp and paper, transportation, shipbuilding, energy and petrochemical industries.
THE VALUE OF BREADTH
Snow also began to notice something else--that a broad range of skills and experience often serves you better than an inexhaustible expertise in a single discipline--something that became apparent when he got to Vancouver.
In the office to his left worked two of the most senior property brokers in the country. In the office to his right were two of the most accomplished casualty brokers in the country--individuals who were very good in their disciplines, says Snow, but also somewhat limited in their perspectives.
"I was never as good as them in any one of their things, but I at least could talk property and I could talk casualty, where they could only talk one discipline. And this helped a whole lot in the early '90s, because the industry changed and got into packaged policies."
The seeds of that diversity, coupled with a curiosity about how different industries operated, had now taken root, along with a deeper interest in risk management. Snow recalls one particular client, a large food manufacturer that owned an adjacent property in a high-density high-traffic area of Montreal in the mid-'90s. For years the property had largely gone unnoticed by upper management.
"I said, 'Let's go over and have a look at that vacant piece of property,' and when we arrived there were some junked cars on the property and it wasn't fenced," he recalls. "It was a property that they owned and it was pretty clear they had a premises risk."
Lurking in the back of Snow's mind, as he and his client toured the site, was the memory of a case in Ontario in the mid-'80s. It concerned a vacant parcel of industrial land used by the neighborhood kids to ride their mopeds--a parcel of land that became especially expensive the day one kid flipped his moped, cracked his spine and cost the owner $5.3 million. Snow shared that story with his food-manufacturing client.
"Needless to say they fenced in that yard," Snow says.
One of AON Reed Stenhouse's major clients by the mid-'90s was British Columbia Transit (now Translink), a public agency in charge of public bus, commuter rail and ferry transportation in the greater Vancouver area.
At that time, says risk manager Paul Barlow, BC Transit was having trouble filling its insurance requirements--third-party liability insurance at $100 million to cover the bulk of the agency's operations.
Barlow was introduced to Snow, who showed his value to a very diverse organization almost immediately upon taking over the account.
"You don't get an underwriter who wants to do rail, light rail, auto and ferry systems because he's carrying all the risks now," says Barlow. "What Wayne did is find some underwriters that we hadn't approached yet and sold them on the idea that we're a pretty good organization. He got them to come to us."
Nowadays, Snow puts his insurance and risk management background skills to work in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for AMEC Americas. AMEC's diversity matches that of Snow's, who deals with clients in a panoply of industries, including aviation, forestry, mining and metals, defense, oil and gas, highways and construction.
The risks run the gamut from premises liability, such as a hammer falling off a machine and injuring aworker, to meeting deadlines for very big projects.
The biggest challenge, says Snow, is getting those in an industry largely unacquainted with risk management to accept the concept. The second-biggest is the converse?to get those who have accepted risk management as a bona fide profession to work less intuitively.
Firms that trade on the London Stock Exchange, he says, "are miles ahead of North American companies" in the formal, more transparent way they treat risk.
AMEC's Total Risk Management program for example, is an internal seven-step process that includes risk identification, assessment planning, management. The program includes a new feedback loop to identify what went right on a particular project, what went wrong, and how the company can improve the next time around.
"But I don't sit here and try to be God on risk management," Snow says. "I prefer challenging the businesses and the project teams to, in a very conscious way, be mindful of the risks and the need to manage them."
That diligence and his hands-on approach have become something of a working credo in the rest of Snow's shop at Reed Stenhouse. At the same time, Snow is careful not to micromanage when he knows that he has capable people around him to take on tough tasks. One of those is manager Annette Smith who values Snow's ability to inform staff about new projects coming down the pike while keeping to a grueling travel schedule.
"It's amazing the way he can work from wherever he is. I don't know very many people who can do what he does--stay on top of just about whatever is going on from wherever he is. I wouldn't be able to do it."
Ironically, says Snow, the career he reluctantly embraced has turned out to be the best decision he ever made. "Most of us in this business fell into it," he says. "It wasn't by design, it wasn't one of the jobs at the job fair when you went through high school or university."
As for his friends the dentist, the surgeon and the accountant, they've come to envy him, a gratifying response to a career long in the making. "He always had inherent ability," says Shaw. Once he found the proper road to travel, he flourished.
"This industry has a very long gestation period," Snow says. "You almost needed 15 years in it to get to the beginning--and a lot of on-the-job type training."
a freelance writer based in Vancouver, writes frequently for Risk & Insurance®.
February 1, 2005
Copyright 2005© LRP Publications