The new CEO of Swiss reinsurer Converium, Inga Beale, tells swissinfo one of her main priorities is to keep the company independent.
Beale, 43, who is British and took over the helm of Converium in February after the company had suffered two years of crisis, says good results are now helping to increase confidence in the Zurich company.
In 2004, Converium - the former reinsurance business of Zurich Financial Services – was hit for six with problems at its United States subsidiary and had to raise capital to plug a hole in its reserves and stay afloat.
The company made a small profit last year, but its credit rating needs to be raised to encourage further growth in a competitive market.
The sale of Converium's North American unit, which has been on the market for several months, is considered one of the preconditions for a rating upgrade to single-A status.
swissinfo: Reinsurance is often simply referred to as insuring the insurance companies. Is there a lot more to it than that?
Inga Beale: Oh yes, of course there is (laughs). Insurers are obviously dealing with members of the public and the risks they're taking on are quite simple. But when you come to reinsurance it gets more complex.
We're really providing more than just protection to insurers. We're protecting people, their reputations, the economy and properties all over the world.
swissinfo: How important is it for Converium to get its A rating back again because that seems to be the be-all and end-all in your business?
I.B.: Rating is indeed a factor, particularly for certain lines of business. We've had enormous loyalty shown to us by our client base. They've been very, very supportive throughout the crisis of the past two years.
In terms of getting an upgrade, that would open up new [growth] opportunities for us in other markets that we had to leave and some product lines that unfortunately we're not writing at the moment.
swissinfo: What have you done at Converium to make insurance companies confident in you as a company again?
I.B.: Good results – we've had good first and second quarters. We've shown very good retention rates of our business so we've kept the clients. All of this gives confidence, certainly to investors. We're working on that. We've strengthened the management team. We've got some real experts on the risk control side. I believe there's a lot there to give confidence.
swissinfo: What are your aims now at Converium?
I.B.: If we put the [rating] upgrade to one side, it's obviously to take Converium forward to good profitable growth. One of the key things that is very close to my heart is staying as a stand-alone, multi-line company here in Switzerland. I'm certainly enjoying being here in Switzerland and I think it's a great place to have a company.
swissinfo: Once Converium has bounced back, don't you fear you might be taken over by one of the "big boys"?
I.B.: That's always a risk if you're a publicly owned company. But what we know from market research is that our clients want an alternative to the "big boys", so we feel confident there's a place for us in this industry.
swissinfo: How did you get into the reinsurance business?
I.B.: It was purely by chance. I was given a week's work experience as a student in an insurance company and they had an opening and they immediately contacted me. I don't think I knew what reinsurance was when I joined the industry.
swissinfo: How do you feel as a woman in a male dominated business?
I.B.: I can't say I feel any different to a man. I just enjoy the business. I've been in it my whole career and I believe in its future. One of the key things I enjoy about my job is that I love leading and motivating other people and developing them.
swissinfo: How would you describe your leadership style?
I.B.: I would describe it as being very inclusive. I believe in giving the right level of empowerment and authority to your staff and making them all feel that they can actually make a difference to their future and the future of Converium.
swissinfo: What's been the reaction of employees since you've taken over?
I.B.: Maybe I'm not the best person to say this but generally I think it's gone down very well. They've really appreciated my open style of communication and trying to involve them. I think it's very important when you go into a new job to listen to the people... to really learn and hear about what's going on, and I've spent a lot of time doing that.
swissinfo-interview: Robert Brookes in Zurich
Converium is an independent international multi-line reinsurer.
It reported a first half-net profit for 2006 of $124.1 million (SFr153 million), up from $41.4 million for the comparable period in 2005.
In 2005, it wrote $1.816 billion in net reinsurance premiums.
The company employs about 600 people in 18 offices around the world.
Converium's shares are listed on the SWX Swiss Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange. Converium is rated "BBB+" by Standard & Poor's.
Inga Beale profile
Inga Beale took over as CEO of Converium on February 1 this year.
Her career in reinsurance began in 1982 when she joined the Prudential Assurance Company in London.
In 1992 she joined GE Insurance Solutions in charge of Britain's underwriting team. She held various positions within the company until 2004 when she was appointed CEO of GE Frankona in Munich.
Her appointment with Converium was announced last December.