Simon Wilson – CQ

Speaking to The Insurer TV in the latest Close Quarter episode having recently transitioned into the role of president, Wilson explains how this mantra will be essential as the business unit seeks to take advantage of the opportunities available going forward.

Wilson joined Markel in 2010, having been lured by the opportunity his predecessor, William Stovin, put in front of him about taking Markel International from being a predominantly London player to becoming a “genuinely international organisation” and one day having a more global focus.

“The way we wanted to do that was to keep that strength in London in the areas that we were really focused on, but start building out into markets where we saw great opportunity for a specialty insurer to make a difference, specifically in Asia, Continental Europe, the UK regions and over in Canada,” he explained.

But that, as Wilson says, is not that easy due to the different skills required in those markets.

“The skills that you require in those markets are different from the ones that you need to be successful in London. In many ways, you have to be a much better sales organisation, you’ve got to be better with technology, you’ve got to be on the front foot and you’ve got to be very proactive at all times,” he said.

“I’ve always found it very strange in London that there are queues of brokers, at least there were back in the 2010s, waiting to go and talk to an underwriter. You don’t get that in Germany, you don’t get that in Spain.

“So, my vision is very much along the lines of what we’ve been progressing over the last decade or so and that is to get the balance between our wholesale operations and our retail operations right, which means we continue to invest in the organisation that we have today,” said Wilson.

Simon Wilson, president, Markel International

No dabbling

Overall, Wilson is happy with how the business has evolved, but acknowledges there have been lessons that have been learnt along the way.

“If you look at all of the lessons that we’ve learnt, there are many. But I try and bring that down simply to two words and that’s don’t dabble,” he said.

“I think some people refer to it as dabbling your feet in the water. Well, if you’re in specialty insurance, you’re inherently doing something which is dangerous, difficult and unknown to many. The reason that it’s coming here is that other people have decided they don’t want to do it. But if you dangle your foot in some water that you don’t understand and it’s dangerous, quite often you’ll have your leg bitten off. And that is what can happen if you dabble,” he added.

Another definition of the term “dabble” that Wilson leans on is something you do casually or superficially.

“If you do that in these types of markets, if you don’t commit to them, that is where accidents happen.”

Looking at Markel’s own past, Wilson identified some areas where the business has dabbled, including property catastrophe reinsurance, open market property and, in more recent years, contingency and event cancellation.

“The upsides of doing that, certainly to the extent that we were doing them, are pretty limited but the downsides we came to find out too late were quite significant,” he said.

Simon Wilson, president, Markel International 2

Wilson noted that Markel International’s strength lies more on the long-tail casualty and professional indemnity side of the business, in addition to its marine department.

“They’re things that we’re really good at,” he said. “And by not dabbling, we get to focus on the areas of the market where we can really add value, make a difference, create layers of depth in what we’re offering to people that make that difference.”

As the industry continues to move through and enjoy the current hard market cycle, Wilson believes the international business is poised to take good advantage of the areas it’s participating in.

“I’m really excited about the fact that I think we’ve really focused on the areas that we’re good at and Markel right now feels like it’s got a fantastic platform for growth over the next five to 10 years.”

Solving the industry’s brand problem

Wilson’s enthusiasm for the industry and its future is palpable during the interview and he wants future talent to see it this way too, but there’s an issue.

“We have a brand problem in this industry,” he said.

Indeed, this is not a new impression, but that in part makes it more problematic as people are still observing this, which suggests not enough is being done.

“Those people that find [the industry] want to stay here, they want to live it, but they talk to their friends in hushed tones about how great it is and we almost try to keep it a secret,” he said.

“But I think we need to get out there, speak the word. If we do that, not only will it make people like me [want to join the industry] – and I was a northern English chap who had never really heard of Lloyd’s of London when I first came into the market – but what about minorities? What about more women who can get excited about the industry that we live day-to-day and we’re all excited about?”

Wilson believes Markel on its own is doing a good job at projecting the industry positively, but thinks the industry can do more collectively.

“I think if we could do that as an industry, an international specialty industry, it would be that much more well-funded, well-backed, and I think we could reach a far bigger audience”.

He continued: “If we get that right, the number of people wanting to join in the first place will rise and the talent will increase on the back of it. And people in it will be proud to say that they work in insurance and at dinner parties it won’t be mentioned in hushed tones anymore,” he said.

Click below to watch the full 20-minute interview with Simon Wilson on what Markel International is doing to become a leader in the markets it operates in; why the company thinks in such long-term horizons; how the industry can do more to both attract and cultivate talent; and the journey Markel International been on since it was created after the Terra Nova Holdings acquisition back in 2000.