Grace Under Pressure
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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. &