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R&I Profile

Grace Under Pressure

Allied World’s Grace Meek pushes aside adversity and thrives in the programs business.
By: | October 3, 2017 • 10 min read

In insurance, success is frequently measured with numbers. Grace Meek, senior vice president, head of U.S. Programs for the Allied World Insurance Company, puts up very impressive numbers.

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When she joined Allied World in 2011, its programs premiums were at around $80 million. As of the end of 2016, premiums were on the verge of tripling at $223 million.

The executives that know Grace say she brings a rare set of skills and traits to the table. Grace also puts in play relationships built over more than two decades in the programs business, in which managing general agents bring business from various niche industries and professions to underwriters.

Programs in general are a thriving sector in insurance. The Connecticut-based investment management company Conning estimates that growth in the programs business outran that of the overall property/casualty commercial insurance market by more than 30 percent in 2016.

Lou Iglesias, CEO of Global Insurance, Allied World

Lou Iglesias, CEO of Global Insurance for Allied World, said when he first talked to Grace back in 2011, she wasted no time in making sure he understood the potential of the programs business.

“I knew she had heard that I didn’t have a programs background and she would be reporting to me,” Iglesias recalled. “Grace wanted to educate me quickly on how valuable the program space is. That was my first impression: She wasn’t going to wait for me to form my own opinion,” Iglesias said.

Iglesias said Meek possesses a combination of traits that few insurance executives can match.

“She has all the qualifications to be a strong executive and that is very rare. She is a strong leader, extremely credible, she understands the space she is in better than anybody and she knows how to execute effectively,” he said.

Meek said she set out to gain a lot of people’s trust when she took the reins of the programs business at Allied World. She also made it clear that she didn’t want to compete with different sides of the Allied World house for business.

Grace made an impression, when drawing on her connections, she brought in new business soon after joining Allied World in April 2011.

“The success started making people believers,” she said.

Meek’s friend Bob Kimmel is president and CEO of K2 Insurance, which does a lot of work with Grace and Allied World, helping them to run a large public entity program. Like others, Kimmel notes Meek’s toughness.

“You are not going to walk over her,” he said. “She’s tough, she’s fair and I think she can be creative.”

Kimmel said Meek has the good judgment to know which deals are worth staying with and which are not. But he said she also has the fortitude to find a solution when a program has merit, even if it presents challenges.

“I don’t think she walks away easily,” Kimmel said.

“Grace hangs in there and tries to look at things creatively. I think that has enabled her to get some things done that otherwise, in the market, don’t get done,” he said.

Meek said she’s found an environment at Allied World that suits her. Although she is a driven executive, she holds the happiness and future of her children as her highest priority. She said many of the key executives at Allied World have young families and understand the importance of making time for your kids and maintaining that all-important life/work balance.

“Lou has been the greatest boss and the greatest support,” Meek added.

Pushing Aside Adversity

Meek’s an industry star now, building a programs business at a rate that many would be envious of.  But her road to that success was anything but smooth.

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Grace’s twin daughters were only eight months old when her husband Michael died of a seizure while seeking treatment for alcoholism. Less than a month later, Meek lost her job with Delos Insurance.

Her husband’s illness and death left her with financial concerns. Grace, with three small children to care for, was compelled to negotiate with Delos over the terms of her severance agreement.

“Grace wanted to educate me quickly on how valuable the program space is. That was my first impression, she wasn’t going to wait for me to form my own opinion.” — Lou Iglesias, CEO of Global Insurance, Allied World

Through it all, Grace knew she needed to protect her children. She wanted to preserve her husband’s memory for them by limiting what they knew of his decline. She wanted them to remember the good things about him.

“Of course he left a financial mess,” Meek said. “I had two houses, three kids, no job,” Meek said.

She really wasn’t sure what to do next.

“I would have done anything at that time,” she said of her will to survive. “Whatever was going to be able to take care of these children. I knew that I wasn’t going to give up.”

Soon friends, associates and family came to her aid. Coincidentally, Meek’s doctor had just lost her husband to drug addiction.

“Grace,” she said, “remember this, the absence of a negative is a positive.”

Bob Kimmel, president and CEO, K2 Insurance

Grace was angry about her husband’s disease and what it did to the family.  But she knew the doctor was right. There remained hope and she needed to take action. Grace was always a planner and a hard worker. She got out a legal pad and started making lists.

“I have to sell this house. I have to clear this debt,” Meek said.  And on and on and on she went. Adding items, then crossing them off.

“The list was my way of coping because as things got crossed off, suddenly my life was becoming manageable again.”

Meek could point to more than 20 years in the insurance business, much of it in programs in her work with Delos, and before that, with Clarendon. She’d built a reputation as someone you can trust. Friends in the insurance business came forward to offer their support.

“There were people who came out of the woodwork to help me,” she said.

And her tightly-knit family helped her too.  Her parents put their lives on hold for two years to take care of her children when Grace needed a break.

“They didn’t miss a weekend,” she said.

Grace’s father is a second-generation Italian; her mother, first-generation. Grace learned from her parents the value of thrift and hard work. Her father spent his career living on Staten Island and working for the phone company.  It was not a glamorous life. But Grace and her siblings never lacked for anything.

“We always had a summer house. Always went on vacations, rubbed two dimes together and gave us the best,” said Grace.

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From an early age, Grace displayed talent.  She was so precocious that in the spring of her third-grade year, she got moved up to fourth grade. She started the following year in fifth.

“Grace made it tough because she set a high bar for everybody,” said her brother David Orsolino, who works in finance. “She was always the one that did great in school, she always walked the straight line,” Orsolino said.

Grace graduated fifth in a class of 805 from her New York City public high school. Displaying a propensity for science and math, she entered the engineering program at Stony Brook University.

Her college friend Donna Paglia recalls her as a stalwart study companion with a great sense of humor who was always active socially. Both women share the quality of having relatively thick skin and not being afraid to be blunt with each other. Paglia recalls staying up late one night with Meek to study for an exam and exasperating her friend by failing to retain some particular aspect of mathematics.

“‘We’ve been through this! Just memorize the theorem!’” Paglia recalled Meek thundering at her.

That directness is just one of the traits Paglia treasures in Meek.

“If I could pick a sister, I’d pick her,” Paglia said.

Allied World Beckons

Soon after Meek lost her job with Delos, a friend in the business got her a lunch with Todd Germano, who at the time was president, property/casualty with Allied World Insurance Company.

Germano informed Meek that Allied World was entering the programs business through its acquisition of Darwin but that it wasn’t ready to grow it significantly.

Meek thought that door was closed and crossed Allied World off her list. But within a month, Germano called her and suggested she meet with his boss. Gordon Knight was president of Allied World North America at the time.

Grace slogged from New Jersey through a January snowstorm in a business suit to interview with Knight in lower Manhattan. She was surprised when she met Knight to see him dressed in jeans, snowboots and a sweater.

“Here I am in a suit and I thought, ‘All right, this is not an uptight company,’” Meek said. Little did she know that Fridays were jeans days at Allied World.

From the way the interview went, Grace figured the job was hers. Once Grace took over the role, she set about ensuring that among other tasks, the right people were in the right places. That meant moving some talent out of her division and into other roles at Allied World.

“Grace hangs in there and tries to look at things creatively. I think that has enabled her to get some things done, that otherwise in the market, don’t get done.” — Bob Kimmel, president and CEO, K2 Insurance

“They were good people, but they didn’t belong where they were,” Grace said.

Grace also wanted to make sure the company had a strategy for programs. Allied World’s idea at the time was to run programs through all the divisions. She wanted no part of that.

“If you do that there is no way I would consider taking that job,” Meek said. “First things first,” she said.

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“We need a strategy. What do you want this to be?” she recalls saying.

The evidence is clear that Grace’s deep relationships in the business and her tenacity have paid off. Focusing on specialty business has also been key for Meek and her colleagues in Allied World’s program business. “We don’t do just general commodity business,” she said.

One of her division’s key endorsements is its arrangement with the American Psychiatric Association, through which it does a significant amount of business. Her team also insures wineries, country clubs and security guards. The security guards move raised eyebrows. After all, don’t they carry guns, the skeptics wondered?

“Everybody thought I was crazy,” Meek said. But she likes the risk. After all, security guards are … security minded.

What Matters

Building a good future for her children and raising them with the right values are paramount to Meek.  She also wants to retire in good enough physical and financial health to be able to play enough to lower her golf handicap.

Grace is used to leading and carrying responsibility. When times were really tough, there was only so much her family could do for her, according to her brother David Orsolino, because she is so strong and so resilient. There are some along the way who might have thought she was too tough. But she makes no apologies.

“She tends to defy all odds and in a situation of sinking or swimming, she always ends up swimming,” her brother said.

But Grace, for all her strength, picked up a good lesson in the value of getting support from others.

“I think, during that time of need, it was the first time in my life that I learned to ask for help. That’s not an easy thing to do,” she said. &

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

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

High Net Worth

High Net Worth Clients Live in CAT Zones. Here’s What Their Resiliency Plan Should Include

Having a resiliency plan and practicing it can make all the difference in a disaster.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 7 min read

Packed with state-of-the-art electronics, priceless collections and high-end furnishings, and situated in scenic, often remote locations, the dwellings of high net worth individuals and families pose particular challenges when it comes to disaster resiliency. But help is on the way.

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Armed with loss data, innovative new programs, technological advances, and a growing army of niche service-providers aimed at addressing an astonishingly diverse set of risks, insurers are increasingly determined to not just insure against their high net worth clients’ losses, but to prevent them.

Insurers have long been proactive in risk mitigation, but increasingly, after the recent surge in wildfire and storm losses, insureds are now, too.

“Before, insurance was considered the only step in risk management. Now, our client families realize it is one of the many imperative steps in an effective risk management strategy,” said Laura Sherman, founding partner at Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners.

And especially in the high net worth space, preventing that loss is vastly preferable to a payout, for insurers and insureds alike.

“If insurers can preserve even one house that’s 10 or 20 or 40 million dollars … whatever they have spent in a year is money well spent. Plus they’ve saved this important asset for the client,” said Bruce Gendelman, chairman and founder Bruce Gendelman Insurance Services.

High Net Worth Vulnerabilities

Laura Sherman, founding partner, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners

As the number and size of luxury homes built in vulnerable areas has increased, so has the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, including hurricanes, harsh cold and winter storms, and wildfires.

“There is a growing desire to inhabit this riskier terrain,” said Jason Metzger, SVP Risk Management, PURE group of insurance companies. “In the western states alone, a little over a million homes are highly vulnerable to wildfires because of their proximity to forests that are fuller of fuel than they have been in years past.”

Such homes are often filled with expensive artwork and collections, from fine wine to rare books to couture to automobiles, each presenting unique challenges. The homes themselves present other vulnerabilities.

“Larger, more sophisticated homes are bristling with more technology than ever,” said Stephen Poux, SVP and head of Risk Management Services and Loss Prevention for AIG’s Private Client Group.

“A lightning strike can trash every electronic in the home.”

Niche Service Providers

A variety of niche service providers are stepping forward to help.

Secure facilities provide hurricane-proof, wildfire-proof off-site storage for artwork, antiques, and all manner of collectibles for seasonal or rotating storage, as well as ahead of impending disasters.

Other companies help manage such collections — a substantial challenge anytime, but especially during a crisis.

“Knowing where it is, is a huge part of mitigating the risk,” said Eric Kahan, founder of Collector Systems, a cloud-based collection management company that allows collectors to monitor their collections during loans to museums, transit between homes, or evacuation to secure storage.

“Before, insurance was considered the only step in risk management. Now, our client families realize it is one of the many imperative steps in an effective risk management strategy.” — Laura Sherman, founding partner, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners

Insurers also employ specialists in-house. AIG employs four art curators who advise clients on how to protect and preserve their art collections.

Perhaps the best known and most striking example of this kind of direct insurer involvement are the fire teams insurers retain or employ to monitor fires and even spray retardant or water on threatened properties.

High-Level Service for High Net Worth

All high net worth carriers have programs that leverage expertise, loss data, and relationships with vendors to help clients avoid and recover from losses, employing the highest levels of customer service to accomplish this as unobtrusively as possible.

“What allows you to do your job best is when you develop that relationship with a client, where it’s the same people that are interacting with them on every front for their risk management,” said Steve Bitterman, chief risk services officer for Vault Insurance.

Site visits are an essential first step, allowing insurers to assess risks, make recommendations to reduce them, and establish plans in the event of a disaster.

“When you’re in a catastrophic situation, it’s high stress, time is of the essence, and people forget things,” said Sherman. “Having a written plan in place is paramount to success.”

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Another important component is knowing who will execute that plan in homes that are often unoccupied.

Domestic staff may lack the knowledge or authority to protect the homeowner’s assets, and during a disaster may be distracted dealing with threats to their own homes and families. Adequate planning includes ensuring that whoever is responsible has the training and authority to execute the plan.

Evaluating New Technology

Insurers use technologies like GPS and satellite imagery to determine which homes are directly threatened by storms or wildfires. They also assess and vet technologies that can be implemented by homeowners, from impact glass to alarm and monitoring systems, to more obscure but potentially more important options.

AIG’s Poux recommends two types of vents that mitigate important, and unexpected risks.

“There’s a fantastic technology called Smart Vent, which allows water to flow in and out of the foundation,” Poux said. “… The weight of water outside a foundation can push a foundation wall in. If you equalize that water inside and out at the same level, you negate that.”

Another wildfire risk — embers getting sucked into the attic — is, according to Poux, “typically the greatest cause of the destruction of homes.” But, he said, “Special ember-resisting venting, like Brandguard Vents, can remove that exposure altogether.”

Building Smart

Many disaster resiliency technologies can be applied at any time, but often the cost is fractional if implemented during initial construction. AIG’s Smart Build is a free program for new or remodeled homes that evolved out of AIG’s construction insurance programs.

Previously available only to homes valued at $5 million and up, Smart Build recently expanded to include homes of $1 million and up. Roughly 100 homes are enrolled, with an average value of $13 million.

“In the high net worth space, sometimes it takes longer potentially to recover, simply because there are limited contractors available to do specialty work.” — Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting, Private Client Group, Ironshore

“We know what goes wrong in high net worth homes,” said Poux, citing AIG’s decades of loss data.

“We’re incenting our client and by proxy their builder, their architects and their broker, to give us a seat at the design table. … That enables us to help tweak the architectural plans in ways that are very easy to do with a pencil, as opposed to after a home is built.”

Poux cites a remote ranch property in Texas.

Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting, Private Client Group, Ironshore

“The client was rebuilding a home but also installing new roads and grading and driveways. … The property was very far from the fire department and there wasn’t any available water on the property.”

Poux’s team was able to recommend underground water storage tanks, something that would have been prohibitively expensive after construction.

“But if the ground is open and you’ve got heavy equipment, it’s a relatively minor additional expense.”

Homes that graduate from the Smart Build program may be eligible for preferred pricing due to their added resilience, Poux said.

Recovery from Loss

A major component of disaster resiliency is still recovery from loss, and preparation is key to the prompt service expected by homeowners paying six- or seven-figure premiums.

Before Irma, PURE sent contact information for pre-assigned claim adjusters to insureds in the storm’s direct path.

“In the high net worth space, sometimes it takes longer potentially to recover, simply because there are limited contractors available to do specialty work,” said Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting for Ironshore’s Private Client Group.

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“If you’ve got custom construction or imported materials in your house, you’re not going to go down the street and just find somebody that can do that kind of work, or has those materials in stock.”

In the wake of disaster, even basic services can be scarce.

“Our claims and risk management departments have to work together in advance of the storm,” said Bitterman, “to have contractors and restoration companies and tarp and board services that are going to respond to our company’s clients, that will commit resources to us.”

And while local agents’ connections can be invaluable, Goetsch sees insurers taking more of that responsibility from the agent, to at least get the claim started.

“When there is a disaster, the agency’s staff may have to deal with personal losses,” Goetsch said. &

Jon McGoran is a novelist and magazine editor based outside of Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]