Along with everyone else in the professional liability insurance industry , I was fascinated by the news that my good friend David Bell, with whom I served on the Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS) Board of Trustees, was leaving Bernuda and his position at Allied World Assurance Company Holdings, to return to Montana, where he would be taking up a position as President and Chief Operating Officer of ALPS Corporation, a Montana-based lawyers’ professional liability insurance to over 12,500 attorneys nationwide.
I was so intrigued by the news of David’s move that I communicated with him to see if he would be willing to be interviewed for this site about the reasons for his move and about his plans and objectives going forward. I am pleased to report that David accepted, and the interview is reproduced below.
Until May 1st, David was the Chief Operating Officer of Allied World Assurance Corporation, AG (NYSE: AWH) a position he held for more than four years. Prior to that David was one of the founding executives at AWAC, where he had worked since its formation in 2002 as the SVP and Global Professional Lines Manager. Prior to that David had been both an Executive Protection Manager and in External Affairs with the Chubb Corporation.
Over the course of his career, David has served in a number of leadership positions in the Professional Liability Society, serving as its President in 2008-09 and as a Trustee from 2004-08. David is also a cofounder – along with John McCarrick – of Grateful Nation Montana, a first-of-its-kind in the country public private partnership that provides tutoring, mentoring and a full college scholarship for every child of a Montana solider killed in action (KIA) in Iraq or Afghanistan. Montana has the highest KIA rate per capita of any state in the nation. He serves on the board of The Mansfield Center, which promotes a better understanding of Asia, and of U.S. relations with Asia. He has also presented to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), focusing on expropriation and kidnap/ransom in Asia and the Middle East
My interview with David follows. My questions appear in italics and David’s answers are indented and in plan type. I would like to thank David for his willingness to participate in this interview, for the frankness of his answers, and for his willingness to allow me to print the interview here.
Why did you decide to move from Bermuda to Montana?
I think the best way to articulate it is to say that I feel I am following my own “path”. I really do believe that there is a unique path available for each of us to choose whether or not to pursue. Call it fate, or spiritual inspiration (perhaps both), but whatever the name, it subtly illuminates each of our paths;, often running counter to the direction society says we should go. I believe that one has to listen carefully for it and be willing to look at a possible future through a lens that doesn’t necessarily correlate “success” with money or influence. My path pointed west and it was time for me to take my own leap of faith.
You were COO Of a $3 billion market cap publicly traded international insurance company, but you traded that in to become the President and COO of a relatively small risk retention group based in Missoula, Montana. How have your reconciled the ambition that put you into a senior role at Allied World at such a relatively young age with the decision to move to Montana in this new role?
It certainly was not an easy decision. Steady, increasing success can create its own inertia, and I candidly found it difficult to walk away from a successful career with a great company. That said, there is more to life. I left a wonderful career opportunity, talented colleagues and many friends to join an equally great, albeit much smaller, company. But make no mistake about it: that decision comes at a very real monetary and reputational price. But for me it’s absolutely the right decision. I’ve come back to Montana, a state I’ve loved since I first arrived here as a college freshman, and where I hope to make an impact in ways both inside and outside of our industry.
I am certain from the decisions I have made in my own career that there are personal reasons behind your decision to return to Montana, in the form of life lessons that have guided your decisions about your career and your family. What were the life lessons that guided your thinking and how did they affect your decision-making?
A pastor at a church my wife and I attended years ago gave a great sermon about “joy”. He compared “true joy” to just being “happy,” especially in the context of how the word “happiness” is commonly defined these days. I couldn’t do his comparison justice in a few lines but I have to tell you that his sermon spoke to me in a powerful way that has stayed with me for all these years. The direct answer to your question, though, is that my life lesson is about trying to stay on my own path toward true joy and awareness; being always conscious and careful about who (or what) it is that I serve.
Your move is not only a big chance for you but for family as well. I know that you and your wife Brittany have two small children. What do you think the effect of this move will be on your family and why?
Kids are resilient and that has certainly proven to be true for my two young children in the short time since we’ve been back in Montana. Trent and Ivey instantly adapted happily to their new life here. I marvel at that gift: I grew up with a single mom and never lived in the same place for more than four years while growing up. My wife is just the opposite: Brittany is a fourth-generation Montanan who was raised on a Montana ranch her whole life, so we bring very different perspectives from our respective upbringings. In many ways, Bermuda was an easier place for me to live given my upbringing. Bermuda is a transient place by nature. During the years I lived there, people seem to be constantly moving on and off the Island. But here’s where it’s really different: when one leaves Bermuda it’s not like leaving a neighborhood you can later go back and visit, and where everything has stayed the same — except for your departure. As I think about it, life in Bermuda is more like a point-in-time: defined by one’s friends that happen to have stopped in Bermuda on their career journey at the same time you stopped there on yours. We developed great friendships in Bermuda, and many of them will stay lifelong friends –wherever in the world we – or they — are. I have no doubt, though, that when we next visit Bermuda, it will feel like a very different place.
Bermuda has changed significantly since you first arrived there in 2002. What were the biggest changes during your time there, and what changes do you see in the years ahead?
In my opinion the biggest change to Bermuda between 2002 and 2012 has created its biggest challenge going forward. In 2002 the Island began struggling to keep up with and manage the infrastructure strain created when significant amounts of capital and guest workers flooded the Island during the post-9/11 hard market. Over the next several years, Bermuda expanded its infrastructure it relied more heavily on various elements of that outside capital to fund and support that growth, and it became more dependent on the expectation of permanent outside capital. But, alas, economists tell us that capital moves where it can be deployed most efficiently (and where it feels most welcome), and other offshore jurisdictions have made a compelling case for several companies to move their base of operations away from Bermuda in recent years. I expect that trend to continue in the future. So Bermuda has some real challenges these days, some visible to the visitor and/or macro economist, but others more subtle while equally important. All of these challenges will need to be addressed in the years ahead by the Bermudian government in conjunction with the sources of outside capital. The ability to address these challenges head-on will make a tremendous difference to Bermudians and ex-pats alike — all who call the Island home.
What advice would you give to others in our industry who are thinking about taking a position with an insurer, reinsurer or broker in Bermuda?
Bermuda can add a fantastic dimension to an insurance career. It’s one of very few places where large company professionals rotate through regularly, and where those professionals are much more accessible and visible – especially in comparison to New York or other insurance markets. I strongly believe that two of the most important ingredients for success in our industry are technical competency and relationships: these are what comprise your personal brand. Both can be achieved to greater career success over time in Bermuda. By the same token, notwithstanding its tropical appeal, Bermuda is not a place where insurance professionals can kick back and relax. It’s a small marketplace where everyone knows everyone else. So it’s critically important to work at and maintain a strong work ethic, a reputation for integrity, and strong professional relationships if one wants to make the most of a Bermuda work experience.
We have all seen a lot of changes in the professional liability insurance industry over the past few years. What do you think are the most important changes in the industry since you first joined, and what do you see for the industry in the years ahead?
One of the most important changes I’ve seen over the years has been big companies retreating from robust entry-level training programs. Some of this training has been picked up by PLUS and other organizations, and I certainly understand that it is a challenge for companies administering in-house training to quantify with any certainty the return on the training investment. But I worry about any drop-off in technical competency among the newest generation of professional liability underwriters and brokers. That would hurt our business in almost every way possible. Our industry is becoming even more complex, and we should all be very concerned about the prospect of an underwriting environment where risks are taken that aren’t clearly understood, and where underwriting companies simply follow the decisions of other underwriters because they lack the technical skills or experience to conduct their own risk/reward analysis. I would favor a comprehensive -back- to-basics educational and training commitment for new folks pursuing a career in professional liability. The great news is that our industry is full of experienced professionals who already have demonstrated – through PLUS and other educational outlets – their willingness to share their insights and experience with the upcoming generation of professionals.
What advice would you have for someone just starting out in the professional liability insurance industry?
I would say the following: find someone in the industry who really understands technical language and who has witnessed the carnage of loss examples. Stay close to that person and learn from their experience and history. Otherwise, history will surely repeat itself – for you.
I know that throughout your career, you’ve devoted considerable time and energy away from work to support organizations and causes, including your service as a trustee and officer of PLUS, your role as a founding member of the Grateful Nation Montana charity, and your participation in numerous charity efforts. What are your motivations for these activities and why are they important to you? How have you been able to reconcile all of these activities with the demands of your various jobs? How do these activities fit into your longer-term career goals?
I was blessed with many things growing up — although financial security and a traditional family structure weren’t among them. So I don’t take either financial security or a traditional family home life for granted. To the contrary, I feel blessed every day to have my family around me. As a corollary to that thought, I believe that once blessed with resources – family support, monetary and otherwise, we have an obligation to extend ourselves for others who are less fortunate. I suppose the main driver for me (and for Brittany too), certainly with respect to Grateful Nation Montana, is the admiration and respect we have for both those brave men and women serving in our military, and for their families back at home who provide the primary emotional support for our warriors serving in the most dangerous places in the world. Through our work with Grateful Nation Montana, Brittany and I have been privileged to walk a small part of a very tough journey with a parent, sibling, spouse or child of a soldier who has just been killed in action. It’s been a humbling and special gift to be invited into that circle of grief and healing. It’s a circle where outsiders are not often welcome. Brittany and I often marvel at the strength and courage of these family members, and how our experiences with them make us better people because of these interactions.
In many of your outside activities, you have teamed up with your alma mater, the University of Montana. What is it about the school that gives this University such a prominent role in your philanthropic and Foundation activities?
I have had a unique opportunity to build a strong, mutual trust relationship with UM over the past several years. I believe they know I will execute on part whenever we partner on an initiative, and that gives them confidence in me as partner. With that greater level of confidence, I notice that UM now seems to move in a more progressive, less bureaucratic, way on our joint initiatives. Together we have been able things that neither of us could have accomplished independently. My proof of concept? There is now a large, moving war memorial to Montana’s fallen soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars now situated prominently on the main campus of a public state university. I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else besides the University of Montana.
Now that you are your family are off in Montana, will we ever see you again?
Of course!, I am hoping to make Montana and ALPS into a destination for quality professional liability insurance.