Innovation

A Renewable Impulse

Swiss Re insures the first solar plane to fly across the United States.
By: | August 1, 2013 • 6 min read

Every cynic that derides the promise of renewable energy should have a chat with the Swiss pilot, businessman and adventurer Andre Borschberg.

Borschberg, along with his partner and countryman Bertrand Piccard, successfully piloted the first solar plane to fly across the United States in the spring and early summer of 2013. And insurance was there to help make it happen.

Swiss Re Corporate Solutions provided hull insurance, aircraft liability and crew personal accident coverage for the Solar Impulse, a solar-powered plane conceived, engineered and built in Switzerland.

After shorter flights in Europe and North Africa, the entirely solar-powered SolarImpulse_0813plane and its pilots took on the adventure of flying from the west coast to the east coast of the United States in five stages.

The plane, which has two propellers and is self-powered on takeoff, left Mountain View, Calif., on May 3. After stops in Phoenix, Dallas, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., Solar Impulse arrived in New York on July 6, completing its adventure across America.

The ultimate goal of the project, a primary premise of which is to realize the promise of renewable energy, is an around-the-world flight sometime in 2015.

The insured value of the plane is some $9.17 million, according to its Zurich-based insurer. The total value of the project to date is some $112 million.

HB-SIA, the prototype that is crossing the United States, was not built to fly around the world, but data collected from the flight will be used to construct HB-SIB, the prototype that will be built for the global voyage.

There was no small amount of pressure on Borschberg and Piccard as they took on this cross-country trip. Investments from as many as 80 companies went into the plane, which has a 208-foot-wide wingspan, and yet at 3,527 pounds, weighs only as much as the average car.

The lightness of the plane and its great width require a soft touch at the controls. The pilots must act with deliberation and under no circumstances can they overcorrect.

One of the beauties of recording modern adventures is that, in many cases, a journalist can communicate with the explorer in real time. So it was on June 13, that Risk & Insurance® through its relationship with Swiss Re, was given the opportunity to connect by telephone via satellite with Borschberg as he flew the Solar Impulse from St. Louis to Cincinnati.

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“What is interesting about the plane is that you discover a whole new way of flying,” said Borschberg, who despite long hours at the controls of the single-passenger plane sounded relaxed and happy.

The plane is equipped with four brushless motors and is powered by more than 11,500 solar cells on its wingspan and horizontal stabilizer. It cruises at around 40 mph, which gives the pilots plenty of time for reflection.

“This is an airplane where duration is not a problem,” Borschberg said. “Of course, we fly at low speed but we can fly day and night; there are no limits,” he said.

“So time is not an issue anymore and you can enjoy what you do. We are not in a hurry. A day like today is truly an experience. It is a possibility to enjoy each moment and to be present in each moment,” he said.

As he flew on June 13, Borschberg enjoyed good flying conditions, with relatively clear skies and manageable winds. One of the purposes of the United States flight was to test the plane and its support team in different weather conditions.

Earlier, as the team prepared to fly to St. Louis, the convergence of an increasingly volatile climate driven by a warming planet collided with the ambitions of this Swiss project dedicated to the promise of renewable energy.

On May 31, the airplane hangar in St. Louis that had been tapped to serve as the temporary home of HB-SIA was damaged by a tornado. The Solar Impulse team adjusted, inflating a temporary hangar that stored the plane snugly.

“That was one of the goals of the flight here across America … to be exposed to different weather systems, different conditions, from the ones that we experienced in Europe and North Africa already, so that was part of the training,” Borschberg said.

The team behind this record-breaking flight is an impressive and well-qualified one. Borschberg served as a Swiss fighter pilot for more than 20 years. In addition, he earned a Master’s in Management Science from the Sloan School at
MIT and has been involved in numerous aviation start-ups.

Piccard, who comes from a family of scientists and adventurers, gained fame as the winner of the Chrysler Challenge, the first transatlantic balloon race in 1992. He built on that feat by being the first person to pilot a balloon around the world in 1999. Piccard, chairman of the Solar Impulse project, began thinking about a solar-powered plane in 2003, but he needed a lot of help to see his dream realized.

Major corporate partners on the project are Frankfurt, Germany-based Deutsche Bank, the Belgian chemical company Solvay S.A., Swiss watchmaker Omega S.A. and the Swiss elevator maker Schindler.

Additional corporate partners include Swiss Re, Bayer, Swisscom and Altran, but there are more than 80 companies associated with the project. That’s in addition to a team of scientists and engineers based at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

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Apart from the tornado that trounced the hangar in St. Louis, the trip across the United States was an unqualified success.

“Touch wood, cross my fingers but the airplane is doing great,” Borschberg said.

“The solar technology is something which is fully reliable. You cannot wear this out … it lasts,” he said.

“Electric motors also have few moving parts, so that is a big, big advantage. They function at low temperatures, so you don’t have the thermal shock that you have with other technologies.”

In its brief life, Solar Impulse already possesses several aeronautical records for a solar plane, including an absolute height of 30,300 feet and duration of flight at 26 hours, 10 minutes and 19 seconds.

Both Borschberg and Piccard are well-seasoned pilots, which is an advantage because the physical demands of flying Solar Impulse are considerable.

The plane can only carry one person, so there is no one to relieve the pilot, even as he stays at the controls for 24 hours or more at a time.

For Borschberg, the sheer joy, not only of flying itself but of being a pilot on this particular project are more than enough to carry him along.

“Of course Bertrand and myself, we are really passionate about the work we are doing. We are passionate about flying and when you truly like what you are doing, you have a different kind of energy,” he said.

“Second, we are carried by the potential of this airplane and also by the ideal that is around that,” he said.

“I think the other part, of course, is that flying is a wonderful way to look at the earth and see the beauty of it. And so when you fly, you are captivated by that.

“It can be by day, it can be by night. It can be at sunset, it can be at sunrise, so all of this makes the trip truly memorable.”

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Insurance Executive

A Leader for Turbulent Times

Lloyd’s CEO Inga Beale is tasked with guiding the venerable insurance market through Brexit and the demands of the fiercely competitive global specialty business.
By: | July 6, 2017 • 12 min read

Underwriters at Lloyd’s are accustomed to taking on complex, even daunting, risks. The company’s leader looks at the world today and sees plenty of opportunity, but also much to be concerned about.

“Political instability is something that troubles me more than anything else because I think there is now more uncertainty across the world than there has ever been,” said Inga Beale, CEO of Lloyd’s of London.

“It feels that all of the norms that I grew up with are being challenged — openness, globalization, acceptance, inclusion — on a global scale.”

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Appropriately, we’re sitting around a table in Beale’s modern glass-fronted office at the top of the Lloyd’s Building — itself a vision from the future — to talk about Brexit and Lloyd’s newly announced Brussels subsidiary.

Add to the mix Donald Trump and the threat of nuclear attack from North Korea, the bombing of Syria and a spate of terrorist attacks across Europe, and it’s clear we are living in the most dangerous period certainly since the Cold War, or possibly ever, believes Beale.

That belief received even more chilling reinforcement when terrorists detonated a bomb at an Ariana Grande performance in Manchester, England on May 22.  Twenty two people, some of them children, were killed and more than 50 wounded in that attack.

Three years ago, it was Beale herself making world headlines with her appointment as the first female CEO in Lloyd’s 329-year history. But now Brexit and other seismic disruptions to world order have taken center stage.

Lloyd’s announced at the end of March that it would establish a new European subsidiary in Brussels in time for January 1, 2019 renewals so it can continue writing risks for all 27 European Union (EU) and three European Economic Area states after the UK exits the EU.

Currently, it uses its passporting rights to serve EU customers from London, but the expected loss of those rights after Brexit necessitated the establishment of a new subsidiary.

For now though, it’s business as usual, said Beale, with the UK remaining a full EU member for at least two more years. She added, with a reassuring smile, that there will be no immediate impact on existing policies, renewals or new policies written during that time.

“We were campaigning very much to remain in the EU before the referendum because we knew what the likely impact [of leaving the EU] would be on Lloyd’s,” said Beale, whose impressive resume includes stints with GE Insurance Solutions, Zurich and Canopius.

“We rely very much on our licensing network, and being part of the EU means that from London we can write insurance and reinsurance for all of the EU countries with our passporting authority.

“But with the UK exiting the EU, it now means that we lose those licensing powers to offer insurance with immediate effect. To counteract this, we have determined to set up a subsidiary within the EU, meaning that about five percent of our global revenues will have to go through this subsidiary because it is insurance business offered to our EU-based clients.”

Beale and her team also negotiated that most of Lloyd’s underwriting business will remain in London, as will the majority of the transactions and decision-making powers. Meanwhile, the manpower needed to run the new Brussels operation will be in the “tens rather than hundreds,” she is quick to point out.

“It’s not a huge raft of people having to move over,” she said.

“Lloyd’s will continue to do 95 percent of its business as it has always done — it’s only the other five percent that will have to go through a separate legal entity, and we’re not anticipating any further changes to our business model as a result.”

Beale, whose dual role is both supervisor and advocate for the market’s 100-something member underwriting syndicates, says that the franchise board chose Brussels over other locations including Luxembourg, Dublin and Malta because of its “robust and quality” regulatory regime.

“At the time, I didn’t even know that reinsurance existed, but once I discovered it I absolutely loved it.” — Inga Beale, CEO, Lloyd’s of London

It also provides access to a multilingual talent pool, is near to London, and, most importantly she stresses, is located in a member state with a “very high certainty of staying in the EU.”

“We want people who reflect our customers,” she said.

“The London insurance market is littered with people from all over the world because London is such a global insurance hub, so we need experts here who speak the language and understand the different cultures.”

North American Footprint

Despite its large European market, it’s the other side of the pond where Lloyd’s really thrives. Approximately 46 percent of its business comes from the U.S., mainly California earthquake and East Coast hurricane risks, she said.

Lloyd’s also remains the No.1 excess and surplus lines insurer in the U.S. and the largest non-U.S. domiciled insurer, she added.

“We have done really well in terms of growing our E&S market share over there,” she said.

“That’s our sweet spot; those non-standard risks that are hard to place.”

By contrast, Beale said that reinsurance has become a much more competitive market with new entrants offering alternative types of reinsurance putting a squeeze on prices. As a consequence, Lloyd’s has focused more on insurance, she said.

“We have also done well in Canada and with our delegated authority through our Managing General Underwriters and Managing General Agents,” she said.

“It’s this very local and specialist distribution channel that has been our success story across North America.”

In January, Beale was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire — the female equivalent of being knighted — and is also the Association of Professional Insurance Women’s Insurance Woman of the Year for 2017.

“What concerns us most is not individual risks such as earthquakes and hurricanes, but rather assessing the aggregation of our exposures to financial and liability-type risks with no geographical boundaries.” — Inga Beale, CEO, Lloyd’s of London

As the person directing Lloyd’s, she is also acutely aware of the shift in power towards emerging economies, with McKinsey recently reporting that 67 percent of commercial insurance growth will come from those markets by 2020.

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In response, Lloyd’s has focused its efforts on Asia and Latin America, transferring more than half of its managing agents to its Shanghai and Beijing platforms; and it was recently granted final approval to open a reinsurance office in Mumbai, she said.

“That’s where the future’s going to be,” she said.

“We know that a lot of the business is no longer coming to London in the traditional way, hence we have set up a Singapore platform and platforms in China, and opened up an office in Dubai as well as in India to be closer to our clients and brokers there.”

Lloyd’s profits last year were flat at $2.7 billion, while GWP was up $3.9 billion.

The market made a profit despite taking a $2.7 billion hit for major claims — the fifth highest such total since the turn of the century — primarily due to Hurricane Matthew and the Fort McMurray Wildfire in Canada.

Although natural disasters are Lloyd’s bread and butter, its real strength is in insuring complex risks, from cargo ships and satellites to political and terrorism risks.

Lloyd’s Role in Cyber

It’s the aggregation of those harder-to-quantify risks such as cyber security that concerns Beale most. Expected to grow to $7.5 billion in global premiums business by 2020, cyber is a big focus for Lloyd’s. It has a 25 percent market share and aggregate limits of approximately $650 million per risk, she said.

“What concerns us most is not individual risks such as earthquakes and hurricanes, but rather assessing the aggregation of our exposures to financial and liability-type risks with no geographical boundaries,” she said.

“We saw that with the financial crisis and the collapse of Fanny and Freddie, and its impact on Greece, but now it’s cyber.

“We have interviewed numerous risk managers and they are telling us that they are only insured against less than 10 percent of the risks that their businesses face on a daily basis. Our challenge is to make sure that we are continuing to adapt as fast as their businesses do and that we are delivering the relevant products that they need.”

Another area where Lloyd’s has seen an uptick is political and terrorism risk, said Beale.

The U.S. standoff with North Korea, Brexit and a swath of ISIS terrorist attacks across Europe have only exacerbated the problem, heightening fears among those countries’ citizens and tearing whole communities apart.

“We would love to get to a stage where a client can track something being quoted or a claim being paid, just like you do with a package being delivered [to your home].” — Inga Beale, CEO, Lloyd’s of London

Just witness the anguish of the victims and families in the Manchester concert bombing.

“We have seen a dramatic increase in demand for these types of products because of the political instability everywhere at the moment, particularly for companies that are trading cross border with countries where governments can suddenly intervene at a moment’s notice,” she said.

“Similarly, businesses are looking to protect themselves against the ever-growing threat of terrorism, which is where Lloyd’s can step in to give them the confidence to keep on trading.”

Reforming Lloyd’s

Within Lloyd’s itself, Beale has been at the forefront of trying to modernize the aging institution. Despite its modern metallic and glass exterior, inside Lloyd’s there’s still very much what some might term a stuffy “old boys’ club” culture.

Men are required to wear a tie and women weren’t allowed into the underwriting room until 1972. Brokers still walk around with leather slipcases crammed full of paper.

The Lloyd’s headquarters on Lime Street.

Beale’s predecessor, Richard Ward, tried to modernize Lloyd’s but left plenty for Beale to address in that respect.

Beale committed $700 million over the next five years to upgrade Lloyd’s aging computer and IT systems, with the end goal of achieving one-touch data capture to speed up the premiums and claims process.

“It’s about following that data all the way through the process from the client to the intermediary and the underwriter, and the processing of the premiums and claims,” she said.

“We would love to get to a stage where a client can track something being quoted or a claim being paid, just like you do with a package being delivered [to your home].”

Another area Beale is keen to shake up is diversity within Lloyd’s itself. Currently the market is two-thirds male, while only 11 percent of the whole London insurance market are non-UK nationals — a damning statistic that Beale is all too aware of.

“The Lloyd’s market doesn’t reflect the demographics of the whole of London and we are very conscious that we’re not tapping into all of the available talent that’s out there,” she said.

“We need to cut out the old ideas, try to challenge the unconscious bias and create an environment that is welcoming for people who are a bit different.”

Beale has also been pushing the [email protected] initiative, currently in its third year, and in September Lloyd’s will host the third annual Dive In festival to promote diversity and inclusion in the insurance industry.

In addition, 95 percent of the Lloyd’s market has already signed up to its Diversity & Inclusion charter to improve diversity, she said.

“To attract the best talent we need to modernize and look at how we can change our working practices and hiring decisions for the better,” she said.

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“There’s a vast amount of work that we are actively doing to encourage people to be more open and seek more diverse talent.”

On a personal level, Beale readily admits that she was late to the leadership game, and it was only her mentor, Annette Sadolin at GE, who convinced her to take her first promotion.

That lack of confidence is something that, as a leader, Beale has witnessed in her own team and she is keen to help overcome.

“Annette became very much a mentor for me throughout my career, so whenever I have had to make key decisions I would always ask her view,” she said.

“The key lesson that I have learnt from her is that things move so quickly and you need to take opportunities when they come along that give you exposure to something new, even if they don’t seem like a natural career path at the time.

“For me, being a leader is all about inclusion and being passionate about the people you work with because you need to inspire and motivate them. But there is also nothing more rewarding than watching people progress their careers.”

A Truly Global Journey

Beale, who initially harbored ambitions of being an architect, admits that she “fell into reinsurance,” starting as a trainee international treaty reinsurance underwriter at Prudential Assurance Company in London in 1982. But once she had a taste there was no turning back.

“At the time, I didn’t even know that reinsurance existed, but once I discovered it I absolutely loved it,” she said.

“I fell in love with the global nature of the risks that came to London; one day you could be looking at a piece of business from Chile, the next from Australia.”

But, back then, working in a male-dominated industry where she was the only woman among 35 men, Beale struggled to fit in. So she quit and went travelling for 10 months.

It was during her time as a receptionist at the BBC in Sydney, Australia that Beale worked under her first female boss, a formidable woman, she said.

Inspired by her boss’s strong work ethic, Beale decided to return to the insurance business.

She soon landed a job with GE Insurance Solutions in Kansas City, where she held various underwriting management roles, before being appointed president of GE Frankona and head of continental Europe, Middle East and Africa for GE Insurance Solutions in Germany.

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After 14 years at GE, Beale moved to Switzerland with Converium as group CEO in 2006.

Two years later, she joined Zurich Insurance Group as a member of the group management board in Zurich before being appointed global chief underwriting officer, prior to her appointment as group CEO at Canopius in 2012.

The breadth and depth of her experience makes Beale a natural fit for the demands of the Lloyd’s top job.

There’s no doubt she’ll be drawing upon every ounce of that expertise and experience to keep Lloyd’s at the cutting edge of this harrowing new world we live in.

Alex Wright is a U.K.-based business journalist, who previously was deputy business editor at The Royal Gazette in Bermuda. You can reach him at [email protected]