Risk Report: Technology

Insuring Innovation

For a company that’s changing the way people drive, building the right insurance program was a collaborative accomplishment.
By: | April 9, 2018 • 6 min read

In 1999, Netflix launched not just a new way to rent movies but a new way to buy — pay one price and swap out titles as often as you please. In the two decades since, companies have applied the same model to high-end handbags and designer clothes, among other things.

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Clutch is one of a handful of companies that has taken that concept and kicked it up a notch.

This Atlanta-based startup partners with automakers and dealers to offer vehicles by subscription as an alternative to buying or leasing. The prospect is appealing: pay one monthly fee, flip vehicles as often as you like to suit your needs. Everything is included except gas.

But the model created a gray area as far as insurance was concerned. It’s a commercial venture, yes, but the vehicles aren’t driven for commercial use, nor are they being driven by employees. It required a commercial policy that responded like a personal policy — certainly not an off-the-rack program.

“Subscription is blurring this line between personal and commercial silos. What are we? Where do we fit?” said John Phelps, the company’s vice president of strategy and business development.

As other innovators have discovered, issues inevitably arise when you try to fit the company to the policy rather than the other way around.

“Where traditional carriers try to apply traditional products, it just doesn’t quite work,” said Iain Boyer, partner and head of product/underwriting management for Y-Risk, an underwriting management company.

“When you put a square peg in a round hole, sure, you can probably fit it in. But both the peg and the hole might be damaged a little bit. [With insurance] there’s a risk that if it doesn’t quite fit, there may be problems down the road.”

Building a Lasting Policy

Clutch experienced that early on with a traditional commercial fleet policy. Phelps characterized the policy as “very vanilla.”

“They looked at us like, ‘Well, if you were a plumbing company with X number of cars and eligible drivers, we would generally do pricing that looks like this.’ ”

It didn’t give them what they needed. It couldn’t accommodate the kind of features that Clutch wanted for its customers. It was also prohibitively expensive.

To get the coverage right, Clutch needed a broker committed to understanding their unique model. Phelps was introduced to Jillian Slyfield, managing director and U.S. sharing economy practice leader, Aon. Slyfield is a 2018 Power Broker®.

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Together, Clutch and Aon had to tackle a problem many new products or business models face: a dearth of data.

“It’s the early days of a new industry and so we didn’t have … 10 years of experience from 100,000 drivers. But the data we had started to grow and become more statistically relevant.”

With Slyfield on board, the team leveraged data to look like an approximated personal risk — something underwriters could wrap their heads around. Slyfield reached out to Y-Risk, which specializes in the sharing and on-demand economy. Y-Risk’s strong relationship with Hamilton Specialty gave the project the momentum it needed.

“Y-Risk was ultimately the one to say, ‘I get it, I like it, let’s do it this way,’ and Hamilton was the one who said, ‘I trust Y-Risk to do this.’ All of the entities came together to create something that has never existed,” Phelps said.

“I enjoy working with people like Jillian and John and their teams, because collectively, we’re trying to solve a problem and we’re trying to do it in a cost-effective manner,” said Y-Risk’s Boyer. “So it becomes a really collaborative thing.”

Thinking everything through in advance is critical. The teams carefully considered every possible scenario, mapping out every possible circumstance that could impact the platform, the vehicles or the subscribers.

That’s how you avoid surprises, said Slyfield: “I liken it to painting a room. If you just started with a paintbrush and a can of paint it would look like a disaster when you got done. You start with tape. And it takes twice as much time to tape off the room and make sure … everything’s ready. But then painting is really easy, and it looks nice when it’s done.”

John Phelps, vice president, strategy and business development, Clutch

Problems arise when covering something new, “and [the insurer] discovers six months down the line that they priced it wrong, the losses are worse than they thought, the losses are coming from places they didn’t anticipate, or the price was inadequate because they applied it to the wrong exposure base,” said Boyer.

“Things don’t work as they were intended. That’s bad for everybody.”

Another pain point: Unforeseen coverage problems could affect the claims experience, added Boyer. People engaging with a platform like Clutch are typically active social media users.

“They’re not just going to brood about it. They’re going to let people know that they weren’t happy. So it’s more important than ever that we’re certain the insurance will do what it’s intended to do.”

Supporting the Future

Said Phelps, “We can’t just show up to the table and say ‘Hey, we’re new and we’re technology driven, therefore you should understand us.’ We feel a burden and a responsibility on our side to be a good partner [and that means] us working really hard to help them understand exactly what the risk is.”

Jillian Slyfield, managing director and U.S. sharing economy practice leader, Aon

Boyer said he relishes the opportunity to face fresh underwriting challenges.

“As an underwriting management company, we get back to, ‘How do you underwrite this new and emerging space? How do you think about insurance that helps your clients grow and be successful?’

“That’s what makes it interesting and exciting. [It’s] an opportunity to do what you joined the industry to do, which is underwrite risks, and think about and [identify] the right coverage — not just apply traditional products and underwrite the product. You’re underwriting the company.”

“We can’t just show up to the table and say ‘Hey, we’re new and we’re technology driven, therefore you should understand us.’ ” —John Phelps, vice president, strategy and business development, Clutch

Slyfield and Boyer know that they’re in the unique position to enable and empower new companies and support their mission of changing the way business is done.

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“What I’m doing,” said Boyer, “is trying to develop the products, the structure, the methodologies and the mechanics of the insurance that enables them to grow and be successful.”

Moving forward, it will be progressive brokers, underwriters and carriers who have the clear path to run. Encouragingly, both Boyer and Phelps said insurers are very receptive to understanding new risk.

Despite the industry’s reputation as a plodding, cautious innovator, Phelps said some carriers “are moving more quickly and are more willing to entertain this conversation.”

Those carriers, he said, “have their lines in the water, so to speak. And that’s a great thing. Those are the people we end up setting our meeting with faster.” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]