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

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]