Aon Power Broker Cynthia Fee Brings Capacity to the Fraught Utilities Space

After having two children while in law school, helping to manage wildfire risk in western states is not so scary for Aon's Cynthia Fee.
By: | August 13, 2020

Cynthia Fee, senior casualty placement specialist and senior vice president at Aon in Sacramento, appeared destined for brokerage from the start.

And she has indeed made her mark in brokerage, but not before a few detours that inform and support her career.

“I had a degree in business administration, with a concentration in strategic planning, and a second concentration in risk management and insurance from California State University at Sacramento,” Fee said.

“That got me a first job at Safeco in personal lines. My career was going okay when I had an opportunity to go to the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific, also in Sacramento.”

Her focus there was on insurance defense and employment law.

“You hear people say what a grind it is, but I enjoyed law school a great deal,” said Fee.

“It was an opportunity to reset my career. And I had two kids while in law school. The only way that was possible was with a great support network.”

Cynthia Fee, senior casualty placement specialist, senior vice president, Aon

The reset gave her a great career, but not a great work-life balance, so she shifted to a brokerage, specializing in complex claims and contractual risk management, with a focus on construction indemnification and limits of liability.

That practice opened the door to the next career move: senior analyst for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

“I was really getting into the details of analyzing risk,” Fee said.

“I learned a great deal about the utility business, especially risk analysis. I also enjoyed working closely with brokers.

“So much, actually, that I came to Aon to take my skillset to the brokerage side.”

Finding Her Footing in Utilities Brokering

Given her background, Fee has been motivated by anticipating challenges and developing effective ways of solving problems — sometimes before they even develop.

“I have a desire to continue to learn and collaborate with others who are passionate. Risk managers in the utility sector tend to be excited about what they do,” she said.

“They like to find new approaches. They are open to discussion, so the challenge is not working with them but enabling them to go back internally and drive change. We try to support that.”

At the other end of the equation are the underwriters.

“There are challenges with some markets,” Fee acknowledged.

“That is where a good team comes in, especially professional connections and others who are excited about the work we do.

“For example, wildfire is something I could talk about forever. If I have an environmental challenge, I know an environmental expert.”

In recent years, a major challenge has been underwriters reducing exposure to the utility sector.

“We lost about $85 million in excess liability capacity,” said one client, “and Cynthia helped replace that in Bermuda and some around the U.S.”

That was done using a mix of industry mutual capacity, new markets, shifting incumbent layer size and attachment points, and finding capacity through the Aon Client Treaty.

Another challenge, the one for which Fee was named a 2020 Power Broker, was advocating on behalf of utility clients that serve western states but are not on the Pacific coast. In several cases, that included taking clients to Bermuda to meet with carriers.

Working Through Challenging Times

Face-to-face meetings became impossible when the novel coronavirus global pandemic became an even greater challenge.

“Not being able to meet and interact in person means now we have to make a presentation online,” Fee said. “Even so, we’ve tried to add photographs and other personal touches.”

Far from being a distraction, Fee has found that the human element has been an enhancement to the process. “It is important to qualify the client to the market, to differentiate them” from presumptions on the part of the underwriter, especially those assuming that anything western is little different from her home state of California.

Learning from the Industry’s Best

Having shifted career tracks and companies several times, Fee said she “did not have one particular mentor. I’ve had a strong group of people around me; some risk managers, some carriers.”

Among those, one stands out: Her current supervisor, Christine Palombo.

“Christine challenges me to think differently about things,” said Fee. “We have very different backgrounds, which is highly complementary. She came up through a traditional brokerage path.”

Fee’s own path was not linear but has served her well, broadening and deepening her perspicacity.

“My path was good for me,” she said emphatically. “Someone else may be a great producer or underwriter. It is important to take the time to know your strengths and to learn what professional and personal experiences will build your skills.”

Her advice to young professionals is “never be afraid to ask questions,” even ones that may seem basic.

“Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’ Because if someone does know, they will know that you don’t know. So say, ‘I don’t know, but I will learn.’ Then follow through, or you will lose credibility and respect.”

She also urged to “make those connections. Ten years ago, I was the only female at the table. As my career has gone along, there are a few more. Aon has given me a lot of ability to help young women coming along in this profession.

“Christine and I have formed a networking group. It’s not an official entity yet, but we do have a steering committee for mentorship, and an event-planning committee.” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist currently based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected].