The Radical

The beard and long hair may be long gone, but at heart John Wiik is still a good old-fashioned radical.

I think one of the reasons that the company has lasted 175 years is that we have a company culture that not only focuses on money, but also on values.
– John Wiik

By Siv Sæveraas, Bergen

There is a rustle in the blueberry bushes and a whisper through the budding catkins beside the garden path in John Wiik’s private paradise. It is a sunny day in May at Skjold and the wind has whipped up the fjord. Even the patio pool's surface, whose still waters normally mirror the sky above Nordåsvannet, has been launched into a churning dance. Only Ralph the Gordon Setter, king of the hill under the magnolia tree, seems unfazed by both the gusty weather and the arrival of strangers. “He’s so old he’s lost his voice,” says John from the doorway, sporting a wide and welcoming smile beneath his trademark moustache. He cannot stand being interviewed, but has made an exception. 175 years is a venerable age, and deserves commemoration.

What does it mean to the firm to have a history that spans so many years?

"I think one of the reasons that the company has lasted 175 years is that we have a company culture that not only focuses on money, but also on values. Throughout all these years we have also been able to look back without a sense of obligation, which has allowed us to be radically innovative at the same time," he says.

It was a series of coincidences that brought him to the marine insurance business. In 1975 John returned home to Bergen after studying in Madison, Wisconsin, where he had gained an MBA in Finance and Management. With him he had his wife Kari, their two small children and a whopping student loan.  “I was flat broke and had to get a job – any job – to pay the bills. One day Kari’s cousin, Hans Petter Henschien, came by and offered me a job as a marine insurance broker. I learned very much from him and worked alongside some of the cleverest and finest people I’ve ever met,” he says.

In 1979 he was offered a senior position in the mutual marine insurance society Bergens Skibsassuranseforening (now Norwegian Hull Club) at a time when the city’s shipping sector was on its knees. But through the gloom and doom John saw more opportunities than limitations, and he began to envisage how the small Bergen-based institution could evolve into something much bigger. This marked the beginning of significant efforts to expand both nationally and internationally.

As a result, 80 per cent of the organisation’s estimated NOK 1.2 billion annual revenue today comes from the international market. “We’re not the biggest in the industry, but we are the best. If you don’t aim at being a world leader in what you do, you might as well not bother. The mediocre die quickly,” says John.

How important is it to be based in Bergen?

"Historically it has meant a lot, and it still does because we have the best operating environments in the fields of shipping, oil and energy. If you are going to be world-class you have to be in a cluster with the best performers, at the centre of where things are happening. Bergen is also a place that offers highly skilled, stable human capital. There are an awful lot of damned clever and nice people here," Wiik says.

The sun floods in through the large picture windows overlooking Nordåsvannet. The spacious lounge makes you feel as though you are on board a beautiful ship. But this old tub won’t sink. It is firmly anchored in Norwegian granite, and its crew is steadily expanding.

Grandchild number nine is on its way. John serves coffee from a high-tech machine and says his greatest achievement in life is keeping his marriage and maintaining excellent relations with his children. These are deliberate priorities on his part. If he has some free time he would rather spend it with his family than quaffing champagne with the rich and famous. He would rather be in a boat, skiing or riding a bicycle. He spent the last weekend in Bekkjarvik with two grandchildren who, he says, nearly caused the death of their old granddad.

He and his wife Kari also share an intense passion for art, particularly visual art and sculpture.

What do you get out of art?

“First of all, it is aesthetically challenging. Secondly, the mind-boggling dynamism and innovation that finds expression there. It’s just the same as in business; if you're not innovative and don’t bring anything new to the table, you can just forget it.”

From New York and Miami, London and Hamburg, to Singapore and Athens: John is an unwavering believer in the value of relationship-building and face-to-face meetings in a business where trust is the product being bought and sold. A harmonious family life is not a given when you are always on the go and spend 100 days a year away on business. "This kind of operation swallows you whole. But at the same time I really enjoy all the travelling. I am a high-energy person. Like a hunting dog, I need something that engages my interest, that triggers new energy. Otherwise I’d have gone crazy living in this town all the time," he adds.

Have you always been this way?

"Yes, as a kid I was totally crazy, and was probably under-stimulated or under-challenged. I’m sure I had ADHD. May even still have it,” he adds. John describes himself as a child of the street. He grew up in Fosswinckels gate as the eldest of three children.

In order to marry John’s British mother, his father had to convert to Catholicism. John went to St. Paul’s School and was obliged to go to church every single Sunday until he was 15 or 16. He knew the Latin liturgy by heart. He recalls the Easter processions with a shudder, when he – as altar boy – had to walk behind the bishop through the streets around the church.

Were you embarrassed?

“God, yes. All my mates were standing around staring at me with footballs under their arms, saying ‘Blimey, John, what the hell’s happened to you?’” It was not until he enrolled at BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo and got involved in student politics that John really felt he was able to channel his energy in the right direction. He let his hair and beard grow, and spent far more time on politics than on his studies.

When he retires in two and a half years he does not rule out going back to school to realise his dream of studying art history. But will he be able to let go of the reins at NHC? 

Moving forward, what do you consider the major tasks facing the company?

“First and foremost we will continue to develop a good, overarching risk management system, often called enterprise risk management, which takes into account a strategic mixture of products, investments and human capital. Having more legs to stand on will make us less vulnerable.”

What is your most important task as a leader?

"Making sure we have a creative and positive atmosphere. In a business characterised by routine, tradition and repetition, you must retain a sense of curiosity and the ability to be innovative. Otherwise you'll be left behind. And going to work simply has to be enjoyable, that’s what I believe," John states.

 Are you a demanding boss?

“I think so, but hopefully in a nice way,” he says. John feels that working in an industry governed by external factors, subject to major peaks and troughs and considerable uncertainty has sometimes taken its toll mentally. He is glad that he will not have to experience 2008 all over again. Even after all these years in the business, he is still moved when crisis hits and lives are lost. It is particularly hard when accidents happen in your home waters.

“The sinking of MV Rocknes is one example. It was an extremely stressful process for all concerned,” John comments. He often finds himself in a game, where the companies’ fundamental desire to pay as little as possible must be balanced against respect and human dignity, and not least, a focus on good, long-term customer relations.

“Suddenly we are in the midst of a major shipping disaster that involves loss of human life, and we must try to act with both professionalism and humanity while dealing with a very hard financial reality in which millions and billions are at stake. It’s not always easy to keep cool. I certainly can’t,” he adds.

The sun has warmed the floors, and John has abandoned both shoes and socks. Watching him pad around barefoot on his own turf, dressed in jeans and a cotton shirt seems slightly odd. The moustache is all that is left from his years as a radical. At work he is always impeccably dressed and well groomed. John does not mind standing out from the crowd. On the contrary. He finds conformity and bourgeois trappings slightly ridiculous, and abhors the self-satisfied, provincial and self-absorbed. “I am a lone wolf,” he states.

You are known far and wide for your moustache. What does it mean to you?

“I haven't been without a moustache since the early 1970s. People probably think I look a bit like Zorba the Greek, but it’s me now. I would feel as though I’d changed my personality if I shaved it off, and that’s something I wouldn’t dare to do,” he says.

1. Jun. 2012