Risk Management

The Profession

Ray Van Eperen and his Kimberly-Clark team trained more than 6,000 of their colleagues in risk mitigation.
By: | February 22, 2016 • 7 min read

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R&I: What was your first job?

I delivered newspapers for the “Appleton Post-Crescent” for three years. I am an early morning person and my lifelong start in getting up early started with my newspaper delivery job. You will see me in the office many times at 4 – 4:30 a.m.

R&I: How did you come to work in risk management?

I was in Houston (with The Hartford) and my father came down for Thanksgiving and told me that Kimberly-Clark had an opening in risk management. I thought, “Why not try that?” and sure enough it turned out great. I thought it was a good transition to go from the claims arena to the world of risk.

R&I: What are some of the keys to doing risk management well?

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I tell people that you need certain skills. I call it blocking and tackling. Meaning you need to know how to manage claims and you need to know how to place coverage. No matter where we grow from a corporate perspective or a continuous improvement perspective, you still need those blocking and tackling skills. We’re doing a good job of that so I am real proud of seeing that continue on.

R&I: Where does risk management need to sharpen its game?

I think one area that we need to improve is quantifying risk appetite. Most companies are looking to determine what impact a risk could have on the business.

It is no longer just a property and casualty risk it’s an enterprise risk. It is difficult to quantify risk appetite. It’s very easy to work in ranges, we’re good at that.

We’re getting better at quantifying risk appetite, but I think it’s an opportunity for the whole industry.

R&I: How can people do a better job of quantifying risk appetite?

You need to understand your business. If you can do that, you will have a better picture over all. Bring in other people, legal, the business team, the HR team. Have that group sit and discuss risk appetite and try to move forward on quantifying it.

R&I: What resources are you using to expand your capabilities in enterprise risk management?

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A great example is our partnering with academic institutions.  At Kimberly-Clark, we partner with the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

R&I: How do you partner with the university?

I give educational presentations at least two times per year to the school of business there. Members of the university, professors and students, visit our annual risk management conference. We also bring in risk management students to spend a couple of days with the risk management department.

We’re getting better at quantifying risk appetite, but I think it’s an opportunity for the whole industry.

R&I: What’s the value of the RIMS conference for you?

I look at the risk management conferences as a great learning opportunity. At the most recent RIMS conference in New Orleans, for example, I had eight separate meetings with the CEO or president of a carrier. They allowed me to probe them on emerging risks. I love the fact that I had access to them and they’re all right there.

R&I: What emerging risks do you see?

We discussed emerging technology risks like driverless cars and drones, but as the risk manager for a manufacturer with operations around the world I think water shortages are also going to play a big part.

Another risk is social media. It just takes one person to post a video, or some other complaint about your company and it can cause you substantial reputational damage.

R&I: The reputational risks with social media are worrisome, are they not?

They really are and I need to see some strong insurance products. I am meeting next month with a carrier to look at some reputational coverage and see how that might apply.

R&I: Is there an emerging commercial risk that you think is most concerning?

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I don’t think it is emerging as much as it is problematic and I’m talking about political risk. Turn back the clock just a few years. All of a sudden Venezuela is in the news. Last year it was Russia. This year it’s Argentina. The world changes so frequently. That’s not an emerging risk but we have to determine how to manage that proactively. We have manufacturing operations in 37 countries and sell our products in more than 150.

R&I: Are there risk management tools that are very valuable to you?

I tell people the perfect tool is face-to-face collaboration. We get into the world of emails and texts, and the problem is if you don’t have the face-to-face tools, you can’t build your negotiation skill-set. You can’t read people, you don’t know how to respond to people.

As a result of the technology dependence, you see many new members of organizations not having that negotiation skill-set.

R&I: How happy are you with your carrier relationships?

I look at our carriers and our brokers and I can say we have a good rapport with them. My team members know all of our brokers, that’s obvious, and we know all of our underwriters.

I require the team to make sure that no matter if it’s a multi-year program, or a single year program, every year, at least once, you need to see that underwriter. Spend some time, tell them about where we are going, how the risks are being managed, sell the corporation.

And learn more about them. We have seen in the past, business results or senior management can change and it can have an impact on the company over all.

R&I: Is pricing the thing that’s most affected by those changes; terms or conditions?

The biggest changes and concerns are what lines they’re going to write. They might say they’re not that active in something and if they’re saying that, what they mean is they’re really not that competitive.

They really don’t want to negotiate much in the area of coverages. So you see more of a limited product. Then you go across the street and you see carrier “X” and they say I want to be in that business.

In order to leverage those differences you need to meet with the companies and understand them.

R&I: Are you optimistic about the U.S. economy or pessimistic?

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Optimistic. Kimberly-Clark’s stock price is at an all-time high. So that shows you what’s going on from a consumer perspective. But I mentioned it before. Political instability globally could impact us any day.

R&I: Do you or did you have a risk management or insurance mentor?

Every interaction is a chance to learn something. I have learned things from my executive assistant and my CEO and from everyone in between.

R&I: What in your career are you most proud of?

No question about it. The global risk management team drove a cultural change at Kimberly -Clark. We aggressively trained Kimberly-Clark employees to take smart risks. In the past four years we have educated more than 6,000 Kimberly-Clark employees live worldwide.

R&I: Your favorite movie?

“Taken” because Liam Neeson’s character and I have very similar skill-sets (laughs).

R&I: Do you have a favorite drink?

Stella Artois (the famous Belgian beer). My parents always told me work hard, play hard so when I get a break, I’ll grab a beer and relax.

R&I: You work for a global company. What’s the most interesting country you’ve visited?

The most interesting was Thailand. I was visiting a zoo there and was shocked at the number of risks. You’re standing in front of elephants and the only thing between you and the elephant is a two by four.

When I was there something grabbed my arm; it was a monkey. That’s a part of the world that has some opportunities for risk improvement.

R&I: Does the world have a modern hero and who is it?

It’s the men and women of this country who defend us. But we have a lot of heroes in this world and there is never just one.

R&I: What about your work do you find rewarding?

Our global risk management team maintains the freedom and the authority to make decisions and drive results. With that authority, you can find incredible value and satisfaction.

R&I: What do your friends and family think you do?

If you tell somebody you work in insurance they’re going to say, “Oh my God he’s trying to sell me a life insurance policy.”  But if you tell somebody about a lawsuit or some other risk that you are working on they will say that is a world that is pretty interesting.

How can you not enjoy tackling different challenges throughout your day?




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

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

R&I Profile

Achieving Balance

XL Catlin’s Denise Balan stays calm and focused when faced with crisis.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 6 min read

In the high-stress scenario of kidnap or ransom, the first image that comes to mind isn’t necessarily a yoga mat — at least, not for most.

But Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin, who practices yoga every day, would swear by it.

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“I looked at these opposing aspects of my life,” she said. “Yoga is about focus, balance, clarity of intent. In a moment of stress, how do you respond? The more clarity and calmness you maintain, the better positioned you are to provide assistance in moments of crisis.

“Nobody wants to be speaking to a frenetic person when either dealing with a dangerous situation or planning for prevention of a situation,” she added.

“There’s a poem by [Rudyard] Kipling on that,” added Balan’s colleague Ben Tucker. “What it boils down to is: If you can remain calm, you can manage through a crisis a lot better.”

Tucker, who works side by side with Balan as head of U.S. terrorism and political violence, XL Catlin, has seen how yoga influences his colleague.

“The way Denise interacts with stakeholders in this process — she is very professional and calm in the approach she takes.”

Yin and Yang

Sometimes seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary and interconnected. In Balan’s life, yoga and K&R have become her yin and yang.

She entered the insurance world after earning a juris doctor degree and practicing law for a few years. The switch came, she said, when Balan realized she wasn’t enjoying her time as a commercial litigator.

Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin

In her new role, she was able to use her legal background to manage litigation at AIG, where her transition from law to insurance took place. She started her insurance career in the environmental sector.

In a chance meeting in 2007, Balan met with crisis management underwriters who told her about kidnap and ransom products.

She was hooked.

Because of her background in yoga, Balan liked the crisis management side of the job. Being able to bring the calmness and clearness of intent she practiced during yoga into assisting clients in planning for crisis management piqued her interest.

She then joined XL Catlin in July 2013, where she built the K&R team.

As she became more immersed in her field, Balan began to notice something: The principles she learned in yoga were the same principles ex-military and ex-law enforcement practiced when called to a K&R-related crisis.

She said, “They have a warrior mentality — focus, purpose, strength and logic — and I would say yoga is quite similar in discipline.”

“K&R responders have a warrior mentality — focus, purpose, strength and logic — and I would say yoga is quite similar in discipline.” — Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin

Many understand yoga to be, in itself, one type of meditation, but yoga actually encompasses a group of physical, mental and spiritual practices. Each is a discipline. Some forms of yoga focus on movement and breathing, others focus on posture and technique. Some yoga is meant to relax the mind and create a sense of calmness; other yoga types make participants sweat.

After having her second child and working full-time, Balan wanted to find something physical and relaxing for herself; a friend suggested yoga. During her first lesson, Balan said she was enamored with it.

“I felt like I’d done it all my life.”

She dove into the philosophy of yoga, adopting the practice into her daily routine. Every morning, whether Balan is in her Long Island home or on a business trip, she pulls out her yoga mat to practice.

“I always travel with my mat,” she said. “Daily practice is the simplest form of connection to routine to maintain my balance — physically and mentally.”

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She said the strangest place she has ever practiced was in Lisbon. She was on a very narrow balcony with a bird feeder swarming with sparrows overhead.

After years of studying and practicing, Balan is considered a yogi — someone who is highly proficient in yoga. She attends annual retreats with her yoga group, where she is able to rejuvenate, ready to tackle any K&R event when she returns.

In 2016, Balan visited Tuscany, Italy, where she learned the practice of yoga nidra, a very deep form of meditation. It’s described as the “going-to-sleep stage” — a type of yoga that brings participants to a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping.

“It awakens a different part of your brain,” Balan commented. “Orally describing it doesn’t quite do it justice. One has to practice Nidra to fully understand the effect it has on your being.”

Keeping a level head during a crisis is key in their line of business, Tucker said. He can attest to the benefit of having a yogi on board.

“I’ve seen her run table-top exercises where there is this group of people in a room and they run an exercise, a simulation of a kidnap incident. Denise is very committed to what we’re doing,” said Tucker.

“She brings that energy. She doesn’t get flustered by much.”

Building a K&R Program

When Balan joined XL Catlin, she was tasked with creating the K&R team.

Balan during a retreat in Sicily, Italy, 2017

She spent time researching and analyzing what clients would want in their K&R coverage. What stuck out most to Balan was the fact that, in these situations, the decision to purchase kidnap and ransom cover is rarely made because of desire for reimbursement of money.

“I asked why people buy this type of coverage. The answer was for the security responders,” she said.

“These are the people who sit with the family. They’re similar to psychologists or priests,” Balan further explained. “Corporations can afford to pay ransom. They buy [K&R] because it gives them access to these trained and dedicated professionals who not only provide negotiation advice, but actually sit with a victim’s family, engaging deep levels of emotional investment.”

“I’ve learned to appreciate all moments in life — one at a time. The ability to think clearly and calmly guides my work, my practice and my personal life.” — Denise Balan, senior VP and head of U.S. kidnap & ransom, XL Catlin

Balan described these responders as people having total clarity of purpose, setting their intentions to resolve a crisis — a practice at the very heart of yoga. She knew XL Catlin’s new kidnap program would put stock in their responders.

“I’ve worked closely with the responders to better understand what they can do for our clientele. These are the people who run into danger — warrior hearts married to dedication to our clients’ best interests.”

But K&R is more than fast-paced crisis and quick thinking; Balan also spent a good deal of time writing the K&R form and getting the company’s resources in order. This was a huge task to tackle when creating the program from the ground up.

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“A lot of my day-to-day is speaking with brokers and finding ways to enhance our product,” she said.

After a few months, she was able to hire the company’s first K&R underwriter. From there, the program has grown. It’s left her feeling professionally rewarded.

“People don’t often get that opportunity to build something up from scratch,” she said. “It’s been an amazing experience — rewarding and fun.”

“She brings groups of people together,” said Tucker. “She’s created a positive environment.”

Balan’s yogi nature extends beyond the office walls, too. Her pride and joy, she said, are her kids. And while it may seem like two large parts of her life are opposite in nature, Balan’s achieved balance through her passions.

“[Yoga] has given me the ability to see beyond only one aspect of any situation” she said. “I’ve learned to appreciate all moments in life — one at a time. The ability to think clearly and calmly guides my work, my practice and my personal life.” &

Autumn Heisler is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]