Ken LeStrange is no stranger to challenging times. The Endurance boss tells Liz Booth how he formed the company in the aftermath of 9/11 – and how that day continues to have a profound effect
Often brought in as a troubleshooter, Ken LeStrange shows no fear of tackling tough times. Throughout his career, he has been brought in to take on struggling businesses and bring them round to profitability.
Currently chairman, president and chief executive of Endurance, the reinsurance company he helped to form in 2001, LeStrange likes to keep tight control.
He has worked for many of the major global players and is all too aware of the pitfalls of becoming too large. “We have about 750 employees, handle about $2.3bn of business from 18 offices – and yet we are intimate,” he says. “We do a lot of thinking in our business. But because we are small enough and work together well, we can move fast.”
He cites workers’ compensation in California as an example. From 2006, Endurance has been ramping up its presence in that market, but is now moving out. “The environment has changed as profitability prospects deteriorate,” LeStrange says.
Bearing a passing resemblance to Walter Matthau, the 51-year-old LeStrange cuts an extremely sharp image in his immaculate dark suit and white shirt.
Very much the top executive, this is a man who clearly knows what he wants, expects to get it and will not suffer fools along the way.
LeStrange set high standards in forming Endurance as one of the Bermuda class of 2001.
Learning early on in his career that shareholders need to be looked after, he has built the business with the aim of achieving a 15% return for shareholders across the underwriting cycle. So far, he says, they have hit 14.1%, although he’s still pushing for that 15%.
LeStrange once planned to go into publishing or to read law but was encouraged into the reinsurance world by his father (who worked at General Re).
He then worked from the bottom up, starting on a management training programme at the Hartford
“The management technique was unbelievably robust,” he says, admitting that he was taught to be extremely disciplined and thorough, and that it was a real insight to the “real world”.
Along the way, he also worked as a primary insurer and learnt much from the experience of his customers. That period also gave him the chance to bring some of his personal passions into his work, such as working with car-racing clients and, from the world of cinema, Disney.
LeStrange says he learned that “it is not so important what you do as how you do it”.
“I have always tried to work to the best of my ability and that has served me well.”
Challenging times and obstacles are excellent learning curves, says the man who has spent much time cutting out dead wood in firms to bring them up to speed. Indeed, he was busy clearing his garden when the call for promotion came from his boss at American Re (AmRe), catapulting him up the corporate ladder.
His years at AmRe were educational. Brought in to fix a specialised underwriting platform, within two years he had axed all the original book and replaced it. “They knew it needed to be fixed but I don’t think they appreciated how much it needed to be fixed.”
From the mid-1980s, the insurance market had a tough few years, with massive tort inflation in the
USA and an alarming number of companies collapsing. Policy forms were redrafted on a claimsmade basis, prices went up and captives blossomed.
LeStrange also spent some years at Swiss Re before AmRe, which exposed him to some of the most appalling risks – risks he was always eager to shift in a hurry. It says it gave him an “eye-opening” experience of what can go wrong in businesses and showed him that his gut instincts were generally worthwhile.
Even now, he will form an opinion within minutes of walking into a company or meeting someone. He says he often bides his time and lets others do the due diligence, but then is always satisfied to have his first opinion upheld, good or bad.
The formation of Endurance came on the back of 9/11, an event that affected him deeply. At the time, he was chief executive of Aon’s retail brokerage operations for the Americas, with offices in the Twin Towers. He lost many colleagues – about 140 out of the 180 Aon workers who lost their lives worked for him – and some good friends. But what he remembers most are the selfless acts of courage on that day. The attack continues to have a profound effect and he hopes it is reflected in his desire to build a company in which people do not simply work, but choose to work well.
The name Endurance is no coincidence. As more and more mergers and acquisitions emerge, LeStrange says his firm is there for the long haul.
“The traditional Bermuda picture is to form a company, flip it, make a lot of money and move on.
That is not the plan for Endurance.”
Not only does the name reflect the long-term aims of the company but is also a tribute to Ernest Shackleton and his explorations in Antarctica. “His story was one of great leadership,” LeStrange says.
Having the right culture is key, he believes, so his company spends much time seeking out people with the right personal qualities as well as the right technical and business management skills. He believes it is a testament to the firm’s success that many of the original directors are still on the board.
WHY PRICING MATTERS
LeStrange is critical of companies that expand too far or too fast. He is a firm believer that “specialism is what specialists do. It is not just about product lines or even the customer.”
The trick, he says, is to establish the right pricing and then stick to it, but he is aware that lower prices will always win out. However, he feels strongly that companies must be able to walk away and not follow the market down too far.
In a homage to Bermuda, once described as a marriage of property/casualty to capital, LeStrange says it is home to people with astute technical abilities and a thorough understanding of risk.
LeStrange’s own key to success, he says, is in staying nimble. He lives by two mottos: “no plan survives contact with the enemy” and “man plans, God laughs”.
Although he acknowledges there is worth in size in terms of sheer financial power, he believes a company can outgrow its ability to stay on top of everything – something he does not intend to do.
Having seen the very best and worst of people throughout his 27 years in the industry, LeStrange knows what he wants and is determined to deliver.
Liz Booth is a freelance journalist
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Ken LeStrange has been Endurance’s chairman, president and chief executive since the company was formed in 2001. He has more than 27 years of experience in property and casualty underwriting, as a treaty and facultative underwriter and manager of treaty underwriting operations at Swiss Re and American Re (AmRe).
He began his underwriting career with Hartford Insurance Group, moved on to Swiss Re and then spent 11 years with AmRe serving as its executive vice-president and as president of the company’s alternative market subsidiary, AmRe Managers.
In December 1997, LeStrange joined Aon as chairman and chief executive of its alternative market operations and was later named chairman and chief executive of Aon's retail brokerage operations for the Americas. In 2001, he joined Endurance.
The eight years of Endurance
Endurance Specialty Holdings is a global provider of insurance and reinsurance with more than 750 employees in Bermuda, the UK and the USA. Launched in 2001, it is publicly traded on the NYSE and has grown to more than $7.7bn in assets and $2.2bn in shareholders equity.
It generated operating income of $198m during 2008, with a combined ratio of 93.5%. Gross written premium grew to $2.2bn, an increase of 26% from 2007, resulting primarily from the integration of the ARMtech operating subsidiary, the specialty crop insurer acquired in December 2007.
Net income for the first six months of this year was $227.4m and $3.65 per diluted common share. Net income was $181.1m and $2.67 per diluted common share for the same period last year.