Armed with fluency in three languages and decades of management experience honed on three continents, Samira Barakat, senior vice president of risk and underwriting for GE Insurance Solutions, has moved across the Atlantic to aggressively manage the multibillion-dollar risks of her employer.
For the past five years, the Egyptian native has brought a clarity and razor-sharp focus to a company that wrote more than $8 billion in premiums last year and handled risks around the globe that are as tricky as asbestos and terrorism, or as mundane as auto insurance.
As the chief risk officer for General Electric's giant insurance unit, Barakat is successfully using a mix of flexibility, vision and inclusiveness--qualities she believes any senior executive needs to manage a multinational--from the home office in Kansas City, Mo., to direct a staff of 160 people spread around the globe.
"I enjoy a challenge. To look at the risk and challenges of a business, develop a plan and then execute that plan," says Barakat, who is especially proud of her management skills in execution and delivery. "In risk management, you make the job. There are a huge number of issues in enterprise risk management ... it's very exciting."
And as an Egyptian Muslim woman who grew up in Cairo with a diverse professional career that spans Northern Africa, Europe and the United States, Barakat is a perfect fit for a global insurer that does business in nearly 30 countries with exposures around the world. The 47-year-old executive carries a professional and personal perspective that acutely recognizes the need for a flexible management style that envelopes various cultures.
"I've worked across many divisions of GE around the globe and with many groups," says Barakat, who reports directly to Ron Pressman, the chairman, president and chief executive officer at GE Insurance Solutions. "You have to be able to include different styles as you go through the process of creating and then distilling a policy across the company in different markets."
David R. Nissen, the head of GE Consumer Finance who brought Barakat back into the GE fold nearly 10 years ago, says Barakat's international experience played a part in his decision to hire her as chief credit officer at GE Consumer Finance.
"She's very comfortable with different cultures and people and works hard ... whether in the office or outside the office. She gets out and travels around the globe," says Nissen, adding that at the time of her hiring, all of the company's business was overseas. The president and chief executive officer of GE Consumer Finance also lauds Barakat's analytical skills and her vision.
"Samira's very comfortable with complex mathematical and statistical models. She can take a complex insurance problem and break it down and forecast what to expect in the future," Nissan says. "She can spot problems before others can see them."
Marc J. Saperstein, senior executive vice president of human resources and communications at NBC Universal in New York, has known Barakat since 2000, when he became her mentor as part of the formal mentoring program at GE Capital.
"Samira is great analytically and has a great feel for risks as well as a good business headset," says Saperstein, who left General Electric in 2002 but still has an informal mentoring relationship with Barakat. "She also has a sensitivity to other people and their cultures. She understands the nuances of different environments.
"I have a lot of respect for Samira. That's a big job she has, and I'm sure her boss, Ron Pressman, is happy with her."
Pressman is indeed satisfied with Barakat's performance. "Samira brings great analytical skills, dedication and tenacity to her position as chief risk officer," says Pressman in an e-mail response to questions about Barakat's work at the company. "She is willing to proactively drive change where needed and organize teams to effect the change required. Her focus on data capture, analytics and portfolio strategy has changed the game for GE Insurance Solutions by dramatically increasing the transparency of our underwriting."
Barakat firmly believes that her aggressive stance--especially when handling emerging risks--is an essential technique for any risk executive who wants to run a successful enterprise risk management program in today's rapidly changing world. New risks--from environmental risks like mold to infectious diseases such as SARS to unpredictable risks like terrorism--are constantly evolving. Instead of reacting to these risks after the claims come rolling in, risk mangers need to use risk modeling and other techniques to assess the probability of these risks and be sure contract terms and conditions are dealing with possible losses.
"You have to ask yourself, 'Have you been proactive enough?' Last season there was the issue of global warming and all the changes in the weather. We're looking ahead at technology and cell phones ... everything is evolving, and we're learning what we can do," she says.
Another important facet of a strong enterprise risk management program is managing volatility.
"You have to manage your volatility by diversifying your portfolio ... it's very challenging," says Barakat. "You have to look at what would be the worse-case scenario for an event and how it would impact your capital, your ratings. You have to know your risk appetite."
Paying attention to how they optimize their company's portfolio of risks is another technique risk managers should use to run a successful risk management program, says Barakat.
"You want to optimize your portfolio and decide, 'In which areas do I want to grow? What areas do I want to exit?' " she adds. "You need clarity around your risk appetite and emerging risks."
Barakat manages the company's multibillion-dollar portfolio of reinsurance and primary insurance risks with a 12-hour day that generally starts at about 6 a.m. with telephone calls and video conferences with staff in Asia and Europe. She generally travels twice a year to Europe as well as Asia to complete reviews of accounts and portfolios.
Barakat says one of the toughest parts of her job is when people disagree with her decisions.
"The nature of a risk management job is to manage change. You have to navigate your way, and you need the backbone to say no," she says. A manager, for example, may want to go ahead and assume a certain risk while she--corporate policy mandates that Barakat sign off on deals that carry significant risk--says no. The clash, she says, can be uncomfortable.
But the chemical-engineering graduate says she hasn't encountered any problems as a woman working in several male-dominated professions.
"Men may outnumber women, but I'm not sure they dominate. Both GE and American Express have a lot of inclusiveness. You're able to learn from your colleagues, and the best dominate," says Barakat, whose 10-year career with American Express spanned various positions in Cairo, Paris and Brighton, England. "Once you establish yourself as a professional, there isn't a problem. You can disregard some of the small things."
A 1981 graduate of the American University in Cairo with a Bachelor of Science in materials engineering, Barakat began her career with General Electric in Cairo that same year as a sales engineer in business development. Even in a profession and society dominated by men, Barakat says she didn't encounter any discrimination. Egypt is a diverse culture, and while the university population is about equally split between men and women, men hold about 60 percent of all the positions in the business world.
"I was really accepted and helped by many older folks, and I can't remember my sex being an issue," she adds.
Being an Arab and a Muslim was actually an advantage while working in France, where the cultural differences frequently served as a conversational ice breaker. Now, living halfway across the planet in Kansas City, she hasn't faced any problems despite the tensions created by global terrorism and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
She admits that the move from Paris, where she was management director of consumer business at GE Capital, to Kansas City in early 2000 came as a shock about six months into the job, when she suddenly realized what she had done. "But I've learned to never compare cities. Kansas City is very friendly and very refreshing," says Barakat, who relaxes in her spare time by jogging and hiking. "I love the job and enjoy the city."
PAULA L. GREEN is a freelance journalist based in New York City who writes about national and international business topics.
September 15, 2005
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