Taking Flight: QBE North America’s Gregg Strange Shares How He Got His Start in Aviation

QBE North America’s head of major risks, aviation, talks the appeal of flying, the career lessons he’s learned and how they’ve shaped his time in insurance.
By: | June 5, 2024
Topics: Aviation | Q&As

The aviation industry’s impact on the world can’t be overstated. It’s an essential function of our economy and everyday life across the globe. From the transport and trade of goods to the accessibility of food and lifesaving medicine, some of civilization’s most significant developments wouldn’t be possible without aviation. The first-ever flight took off in 1903, and with a little over a hundred years under its belt, the industry is still soaring to new heights.

Gregg Strange, head of major risks, aviation, at QBE North America, was drawn to the field at a young age.

“You can get from here to anywhere in the world nonstop. In just 20 or so hours, you can be on the other side of the earth,” he said. “I like that freeing feeling.”

He’s turned this passion into a successful career, first spending time as an aviation underwriter and product manager before landing at QBE, where he focuses on helping customers navigate the (at times) turbulent aviation environment.

We recently sat down with Strange to learn more about his passion for aviation and how it sustains his efforts to manage risk for customers today.

Risk & Insurance: What drew you to aviation in the first place?

Gregg Strange: Growing up in Florida, I became close friends with one of my neighbors, who was a pilot. I was about 15 years old, trying to figure out, “What do I do after high school?” Nobody in my family had an aviation background — no pilots, no air traffic controllers, nothing.

I got to know my neighbor well and started picking his brain on aviation. I asked him to tell me about being a pilot, and he steered me towards college first, because airlines at the time wanted pilots to have a four-year degree, almost as a prerequisite. He pointed me to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University as an excellent place to start.

Long story short, that’s where I went to school and how I got into aviation in general.

R&I: When you started on this aviation journey, did you set yourself up to go in a specific direction — air traffic controller, pilot etc.?

Gregg Strange, head of major risks, aviation, QBE North America

GS: I did have my mind set on being a pilot as I entered Embry-Riddle. They have one of the top aviation programs in the country, so if you want to be in the aviation space, that’s a great place to start.

There are a few main tracks at Embry-Riddle: You can study aviation business administration, pursue the aeronautical science program (which is essentially the “typical” four-year courses alongside earning ratings to be a pilot), dive into the world of aeronautical engineering or train to be an air traffic controller.

When entering school, I wanted to give myself as many different opportunities and options as I could because, quite frankly, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do when I graduated.

R&I: I’m sure our readers understand the basics of aviation, and they understand the insurance side, but what are some of the ins and outs you had to go through to train for those different positions?

GS: The pilot and the air traffic route are very rigorous and strict programs. You’re following a university curriculum for both of those paths. I was doing that and attending school, and I think what ultimately drew me to the business world was that this was shortly after 2008, a time of a lot of economic uncertainty, both personal and professional, for a lot of people throughout the U.S.

I was already deep in aviation, and I saw an opportunity to start buying aircraft from private individuals at a lower price point than normally available due to the 2008 recession. I started buying many of those single-engine aircraft and working with a partner of mine — another student who lived in Europe — to buy these planes and export them to the EU. At the time, the euro was much higher than the U.S. dollar, and there was a demand for aviation.

I found that I liked creating my own path.

The “traditional” route of an air traffic controller or even a pilot is based on seniority, meaning whether you’re at an airline or are an air traffic controller, your compensation is based on the location that you’re in, how many years you’ve been there — and that’s about it. You could be the best air traffic controller in the world, or the worst, and you’re following a seniority scale.

Same thing on the pilot side. I didn’t like that. I wanted to be able to pave my way and create my own path, which ultimately led me into the insurance world.

R&I: What were some of the adventures you got up to on your road to aviation insurance?

GS: When I was purchasing those aircraft from all over the U.S., I was the one flying out there, bringing a mechanic with me. The mechanic would go through all the aircraft systems and do a pre-buy check as I was doing the back-end work of paperwork and registration. After we purchased the aircraft, wherever it was in the U.S., I would fly it back to Daytona Beach.

R&I: What is it about flying that you find so appealing?

GS: It’s undoubtedly freeing, for sure, whether you’re a private pilot like I was, purchasing small aircraft or using your own personal aircraft for business or travel, all the way up to a commercial airline pilot flying all over the world.

One thing that resonates throughout aviation is it makes the world accessible in a unique way. It makes the world go from feeling vast and overwhelming to much smaller and more navigable.

When I was flying in an aircraft that I bought, 10, 15 or 20,000 feet above the ground, it was very freeing. It feels as if you could go anywhere. Even if I was flying an aircraft from Alabama back to Daytona Beach, Florida, for example, I knew I could take a left-hand turn and be on the northern border of the U.S. in a couple of hours. It makes anywhere in the world feel within reach. That’s what I always appreciated about aviation.

R&I: How would you say your background and love of aviation has helped in your insurance career?

GS: The insurance industry is very stable. Regardless of who your clients are or what type of coverage they need, insurance is necessary to help transfer risk. No matter the economic conditions, people and businesses across the board will always need protection from known and unknown risks. Insurance is also very much a relationship business, whether with your brokers or with the client base.

However, aviation insurance is quite particular. Insurance, in general, requires a broad skill set, yet being a pilot requires technical skills and extensive training. Being a pilot and operating an aircraft is not something one can do without obtaining aeronautical knowledge and meeting the instructional requirements. What’s interesting about the aviation insurance space is that, whether it’s on the broker side or the underwriting side, you’ll find if you go and speak to a lot of people in this space that we had a love for aviation first, whether we were a pilot or a mechanic or whatever the case may be, and we then found our way into aviation insurance.

R&I: What would you say are the biggest lessons you’ve learned that you would share with others who may find themselves in a similar situation or on a similar path?

GS: I think the two most influential things that I’ve learned throughout my career are the importance of being flexible, and to make yourself available and go for opportunities others might not.

I started with aviation insurance in Atlanta, Georgia. Very quickly, there was an opportunity to move to New York to work on much larger, much more complex accounts.

Frankly, I wanted nothing to do with living in New York City or the New York area in general. At the time, it just didn’t interest me. However, I saw it as a path to quickly move up in my career, almost as a slingshot maneuver, and I did it. I think it worked out very well.

So, remaining flexible, even if it’s something you don’t want to do in the short term, can pay great dividends in the long run.

The other one I’d say is putting your hand up for opportunities that most people wouldn’t look for. This maybe ties back into New York, that assignment that you don’t really want to do but you know will leapfrog you. Be open and flexible to all those opportunities.

R&I: One last question: What is the coolest plane you’ve flown?

GS: A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to fly with the owner of Epic Aircraft. They’re a manufacturer out of Bend, Oregon. It’s a very high-performance single-turbine aircraft.

I went on an underwriting visit and spent the day with the owner walking through the factory, meeting all the folks, and then when we walked out to the flight line, he said, “Want to go fly?” And it’s Bend, Oregon, in June, a beautiful crystal-clear day. So immediately, my answer was “Of course.”

He had his personal aircraft there, an Epic 1000, which is the aircraft that they manufacture. We hopped in the aircraft, and I naturally went towards the right seat (where the co-pilot sits), and he goes, “No, no, go ahead and hop in the left seat.” It was a much more capable aircraft than I had ever flown, and it was an incredible experience.

I can still remember that flight today. It was an all-around beautiful day. &

Autumn Demberger is a freelance writer and can be reached at [email protected].

More from Risk & Insurance