An Oblique View of a Day in the Life of a Busy Underwriter

It isn’t raining outside, but it is nonetheless wet – the air is full of drizzle and brooding, low-hanging clouds cover the sky. The 500-metre high mountains that surround the city (not exactly the Himalayas, although the local inhabitants could probably come up with a pretty good reason for comparing them) are no longer visible. They would normally dominate the busy centre of town, but not on an overcast day such as today.

But work is work, and it is so enjoyable just at that moment when the deal is done and the customer is satisfied. By the time she makes it home it is almost one o’clock.

Today, nothing is going smoothly, everything feels grey and sodden just like those heavy water-laden clouds that for the time being lash cascades of misty spray at her office window on the fourth floor.

The figures on the screen in front of her, the latest 23-inch screen model that dispensed with her need for glasses, mean nothing but remind her instead of an exam many years before where, with the best will in the world, she could not grasp any of the examiner’s questions, but thanks to her natural ability to communicate and her winning ways, managed to save the day from turning into a complete catastrophe. Now her normal day consists of figures – rates, premiums, risks, margins, dollars, euros – all in huge amounts and flowing at a tempo that she would rather wish was much more sedate. But such a scenario would also allow her the pleasure of utilising one of her greatest assets: her ability to communicate with others.

It is at such moments during her day, when figures and statistics take over, that she dreams of having a totally different type of job: a florist, an aroma therapist, or a confectioner maybe. In other words, a job that brings smiles to people’s faces, which is something – she has realised over time – that gives her energy. This is not exactly the case in her work now. Here, a smile or a burst of laughter is almost a career skill rather than something genuine and personal.

A Giant Leap

The day when some of the more computer-savvy at work had developed a programme that produced complete risk analyses was a happy day for her. Naturally, some of her digital-shy colleagues had expressed their dissatisfaction. They feel that the computer has now taken over the last bastion of the underwriter’s profession, declaring in highly dramatic indignation that this is the beginning of the end. Well, that is one trap into which she had not fallen – yet. She makes sure to keep her distance from the dinosaurs’ overblown and imagined psychosis (ok, they’re fine really – they know most of the tricks of the game - but to call them innovators are really going a bit far). The risk analysis programme that spits out green, yellow, and red recommendations as logically as the rush-hour traffic lights outside the office has really been one giant leap for mankind, or at any rate, one giant leap for underwriters.

In any case, the programme makes it possible to be rational rather than emotional and political, although the political dimension will probably continue forever in some form or other, with or without computer programmes. In her eyes, the political dimension only gives a new side to the profession, causing her to muse over the term The Profession of Underwriter. There isn’t exactly a defined description of the profession! (“What is the underwriter’s contribution to the Kyoto Agreement?”) Well, regardless of which fundamental positive principle is at the bottom of what she is doing, she knows the day is going to be a long one, but paradoxically enough she enjoys it that way. In fact, she is longing for whatever will happen next.

A high tempo is not normally a problem. Everything flows: e-mails, telephone calls, documentation, control checks, meetings, briefings, lunches and a long list of other tasks. Take yesterday afternoon: after having stopped work against her will just when she was in the middle of an excellent discussion with one of the new, fresh-faced brokers from the otherwise pretty staid brokerage firm we deal with, it was straight out to the car park, into the car, and a 15-minute drive home. A quickly prepared evening meal was then shared with the rest of the family, something she otherwise wouldn’t have eaten, as she would be dining later, then an hour with the kids (this is called quality time), a quick shower, and "Oh no!": She does not have time to go to football training with the kids. She feels a pang of guilty conscience as she says, "Dad will go instead".

A Late Meeting

This is the third time this month she has missed football training. In the taxi en route to the hotel she promises herself to make it to football twice next week. At the door of the hotel, a place she has become very familiar with, which is surely a bad sign, she switches her inner autopilot to “on” and makes straight for the bar for a quick drink with the foreign broker (he looks more worn out than earlier, doesn’t he?) prior to meeting the customer. They brief each other, discuss strategies, markets, the latest rumours (another group of employees will soon start their own business), empty the remains of the glass, order a taxi – it’s raining now – and arrive at the appointed restaurant ten minutes early, in order to ensure that they are well in place before the customer and his courtiers turn up.

As usual, the meal is excellent. The chef who participated in Bocuse d’Or seven years before (the year the Norwegian team didn’t make it to the finals) always makes a little spiral dish for dessert when we are dining there (is it only when Norwegian Hull Club is patronising the restaurant?). Regardless, the full course is perfect once again. It is almost as if the entire restaurant staff forms part of her team: the Norwegian Hull Club Team – integrated underwriting – brilliant! 

Balsamic-marinated strawberries with mascarpone cream and the chef’s chocolate truffles (perhaps it would have been better with simple strawberries and cream?) by which the customer is completely awestruck and allows them all to be totally impressed. The atmosphere is good, the ice is broken, stories are freely exchanged, the chemistry is just right and she knows that if the rate quotes are correct then the account will be closed within a couple of days - on Norwegian terms. However, when the clock creeps past midnight and she slowly realises that the customer is expecting the “avec” that usually accompanies the recommended South African wine served with the hors d’oeuvre, she knows that she has laid the groundwork for a rough day at work the next day. But work is work, and it is so enjoyable just at that moment when the deal is done and the customer is satisfied. By the time she makes it home it’s almost one o’clock. 

The Next Day

She grunts quite audibly when the alarm clock starts ringing. Her husband stretches himself and enjoys the luxury of having an extra half hour but doesn’t avoid commenting on how late she was last night (“It’s remarkable that he hasn’t learned to keep these remarks to himself after all these years”). The morning routine is rigid and consists of a shower, ironing, making lunchboxes, waking the kids, a few minutes in front of the mirror, and a quick breakfast before running for the bus, coffee in one hand, newspaper in the other. Just as she is sitting down, she remembers what her youngest son said as she raced out the door: “Mum, you are coming to the presentation of the class project this evening, aren’t you?” Knowing so well that it is going to be a tight schedule, she wriggles in her seat, squeezed a little by the passenger beside her (why is the bus so damp and crowded?). Feeling rather unwell and on her way to another grey day at work, she reads the first e-mails on her mobile phone.

“You can’t even get a few minutes' peace on the bus anymore. Could such a phenomenon be a symptom of the times we live in?

The computer has just produced an analysis coded yellow, causing warning bells to go off in her head. Shit, what is this? What it actually means is something that should have been a simple renewal has now turned into something more complex. The computer has discovered that the shipping company in question has had two ships detained in foreign ports last year due to various non-conformities. (“Naturally, there was not a word about this during the meeting last week”). The shipping company has behaved in exemplary fashion, but never said anything about their vessels being detained. All this now means extra work, which is so unnecessary. If they had simply declared these facts beforehand, most likely the episode would have been branded “no case”. Now, the cosy relationship will have to be tested; will the established chemistry be the same? Is this a case they can discuss in a professional and practical way? Or is this the harbinger of something worse to come?

In circumstances such as these, she is impatient, she cannot wait, she needs to clear things up immediately. She does not like these meetings that centre on explanations: She knows that they know she knows and that she is compelled to ask. Behind the soft and friendly expressions, everyone is blaming everyone else. As a rule, such incidents are generally not a problem and apart from anything else, quite unnecessary. And she knows pretty much how it is going to unfold anyhow: she has to contact the broker - not one of the new freshmen, but rather one of the old-school sly fox types that she never has been able to establish a rapport with. He really does do a great job for the customer, but the kind of person that he is - he continues to hold her with a clenched fist.

An Unexpected Meeting

The Director of Underwriting paces quickly through the open-plan office, waving his arms while maintaining a conversation with three different people at the same time and also managing, between bouts of conversation, to say that he wants everyone into a meeting in two minutes. A meeting in two minutes! And they are expected to be prepared, not to mention to have intelligent thoughts on some topic or other that they haven’t even been informed about. Before they know it, the doors of the meeting room are closing. Just the same, in some strange way, it is these kinds of events that make the average day exciting. She can feel the early morning heaviness of the night before lifting and the minor, but persistent headache beginning to abate. Without noticing, that winning feeling begins to take over, and with adrenalin flowing from the tempo of events, tempered with the feeling of floating zones, invincibility, and one’s own burning engagement, she reaches new heights, pushing her forward. It’s like a kind of love-hate relationship one would prefer to get out of because she cannot manage it. But it is also the place where she is at her best and because of that she knows that she is compelled to remain in it. That is the reason why she loves her work so much.

“Focus – focus”! “Profitability and rate development”! “Margins” and “expect more”! It’s the same old story – hey, what did he say? Some new words have been added to the mantra: “restructuring” and “new staff”? “Explore new market segments” and “take advantage of emerging possibilities”? “Offer NHC’s value-added services”! Today the Underwriting Director really punches it all in. “Loss Prevention and Technical Assistance are Norwegian Hull Club’s unique sales advantages” (Is there anything better than to offer benefits for free?). “Dynamics and selection” – he continues, and all of a sudden there is a lot of small talk to be heard from around the table – long before he is finished.

It’s her opinion that these hastily convened meetings are beneficial, they bring the individuals together, make them feel collectively stronger. Poetic? Perhaps, in a way, but it works. The meetings work as a type of cement between the teams
and make them proud of the job they do. And employing new people means increased internal competition (will she be passed over for promotion?), but on the other hand it means 
that NHC is in a period of growth, that the business is sound and that they are thinking and heading in the right direction.

It certainly presents the company as a healthy business to the outside world. Such circumstances mean that she will not lose her job, but that she applies herself ever more diligently to her work. She is one of the best – she knows it. She has worked hard to get there and now she has reached her intermediate goal – but she will go further!

Good News

The broker from the day before calls, causing her to sit rigid in her chair, excited about what he has to tell her – this is a customer she has invested a lot of time in. (“Tell me what I want to hear – now!”) The potential customer operates in a growth segment, has good statistics, an extended new-build programme, and not least, a well-integrated ship management department with some very capable people. The data analysis produced only green lights. “What are you saying?” “It’s ours! 30 per cent shares, claims lead for the entire fleet, and expectations of a long-lasting relationship! Fantastic!” A feeling of relief: she ought to go home straight away, secure in the knowledge that the quality product known as Norwegian Hull Club was every bit as sellable as it should be and that the Claims Department will now deliver the goods while Loss Prevention will follow up with drills and seminars. But she can’t let go so easily - she picks up the phone - brings her professionalism to the fore and rings the other broker about the shipping company that wasn’t so forthcoming about its two vessels being detained in foreign ports. She knows that only hard work will bring results.

A Lecture on Dinosaurs

At six o’clock the same evening, she is sitting at the second desk from the school window. Her son is standing by the blackboard, a little flushed and a tiny bit shy but nevertheless proud to be showing his audience pictures of dinosaurs and explaining how they most probably disappeared from the face of the earth: “They were not part of the new age, they represent another age. However, they remind us that while we are continuously developing, we must never lose sight of where we came from”. Just like the values of Norwegian Hull Club – “Create something new by building on the best that we have today”. That is what begets progress: that we are a collective group, and that is why she can now sit and think of him that she loves so dearly while he holds a charming homemade lectures dinosaurs. And not least - the family is there as a counter-balance for her life at work. She has already seen too many people who have developed job-related stress after losing sight of their perspectives by allowing the line between work and private life to blur.

When, later that evening, she falls asleep on the sofa, resting on her husband’s arm, it is with satisfied and happy thoughts that she made the right choice, both at work and at home, and tomorrow the weather forecast has promised sunshine and a cloudless sky. 

 


1. Dec. 2012