Abigail Clifford, president & CEO, BF&M.
31 October 2022Article

A different type of CEO

Being the first woman to lead a century-old company requires a head for business as good as any of her male predecessors, and Abigail Clifford has that, given her active focus on potential acquisition targets for BF&M. She also has the backbone to support a strategic review process as the company prepares for the exit of its largest shareholder.

It’s her heart for human resources though that is perhaps her calling card: she knows talent when she sees it and, crucially, how to make space for it to grow.

Clifford joined PartnerRe as an HR assistant in 1999. Within seven years she was its group chief HR officer. She had the same title when she moved to BF&M in 2013 but six years later became its chief operating officer (COO). By October last year, she was also its president and chief executive officer (CEO) designate. Succeeding insurance industry veteran John Wight, who retired in August, Clifford isn’t only the company’s first female CEO–which was a “major motivator” for her accepting the job–she is also its first new CEO in more than 17 years.

Right out of the blocks, Clifford promoted Stephanie Hanson from chief legal and compliance officer to take over from her as COO. This isn’t positive discrimination: it’s not allowing unconscious bias around gender and age to get in the way of making a good hire.

“Stephanie’s a strong performer who is on our executive committee. She’s unbelievably talented. Good hiring requires a commitment to taking the untraditional approach sometimes,” Clifford says.

“I’m a different type of CEO because I haven’t come up from financial services. I’ve certainly had international business experience and been part of phenomenal opportunities, but the human piece is important to me, the purpose is important to me, and I do think the industry needs a shake-up.

“It’s an exciting time to be in the industry, but creative solutions need to be considered. The space to allow that creativity includes embracing diversity, which means welcoming people who think differently and bringing on the next generation.”

Bermuda’s re/insurance industry is no stranger to female CEOs, but the number of women on BF&M’s leadership team is eye-catching: 20 out of 34. There is also diversity within gender, Clifford stressed.

“I grew up in re/insurance, when I was one of very few women in the room, but there are different types of women: women who have children, women who don’t have children, women from the various ethnicities, women with different sexual orientations. This is also true for men, of course, and we need to see ourselves in a spectrum,” she said.

It helps that BF&M has “supportive men” who see diversity as an asset and not a threat.

“Our diversity and inclusion committee is chaired by Larenzo Ratteray who is also our P&C Group Head of Consumer Solutions. He is fantastic in that role. When we rolled out our diversity strategy, there were cheers all round. This is a collective effort and what you get from that is a cohesive organisation focused on doing the right thing.”

"Almost immediately, he gave me access to all parts of the organisation and provided me with a really long runway."

Inspirational leaders

In terms of role models, being in a female minority for the early part of her career wasn’t a disadvantage thanks to two “inspirational” male bosses. One was Patrick Thiele, who was CEO of PartnerRe from 2000 until his retirement in 2010.

“I worked at PartnerRe for 14 years, and worked directly under Pat for six. He was extremely strategic and consistent about where the organisation was going. He just made it very easy to get on board because you understood what your job was and how it was adding value because he was focused on people. He was very clear on internal and external governance, meaning he knew what a CEO should pay attention to and what they should delegate. Working so closely with him was very impactful, and resonated.

“And I was fortunate to work with John Wight at BF&M. Almost immediately, he gave me access to all parts of the organisation and provided me with a really long runway. That trust was invaluable. I was able to watch how he made decisions, particularly around the regulatory, governmental and political environment, which was very helpful.”

An independent senator in Bermuda’s parliament, Wight is a vocal supporter for healthcare reform.

“John is very connected with the community and I learned a tremendous amount from him about the importance of paying attention to the landscape. It’s essential as an insurance provider to do that in order to understand the context in which you’re operating,” Clifford said.

Leadership style

As BF&M’s COO, Clifford said she had stressed the value of “preparedness capacity”.

“In January 2019, I took on responsibility for the life & health and pensions division, so a year before COVID. The timing was interesting, no one knew at that point the market would be preparing for significant losses. It was a very challenging time but, fortunately, BF&M fared well. I loved having the P&L responsibility and really understanding the elements needed to shape the business.”

She highlighted the three main components of her leadership style.

“I see my strength as a builder in that I like improving organisations. And I’m not only comfortable with change but excited by it. And I’m passionate about people. Those components and having had an international background, including living and working overseas, are what I bring to the table and they impact how I lead.”

She recalls her “fantastic” two years of a “reverse commute”, living in New York City and travelling by train to PartnerRe’s office in Greenwich, Connecticut. She admits though that “being on a plane every five weeks” to the company’s Paris or Zurich offices, was difficult to sustain. “It was tough going for a while, doing that and having young kids,” she adds.

It is the empathy she developed from experiences such as these that means, as a leader, she has never limited herself to the clichéd “my door is always open” policy.

“For me, leadership is being able to identify talent and to promote that talent. It’s not just having the door open for a chat, which can be quite superficial, where you come in, say ‘Hi’, then you leave and nothing changes.

“I have robust discussions about talent with the executive committee, take a 360-degree view of talent, and I am prepared to take risks on talent. I’m a big believer in ‘80 percent ready’, which means giving people projects that test their capabilities in a safe way.”

"I think the next generation are going to be the change agents, quite honestly.”

Inspired by the new

Clifford says she herself draws inspiration from young professionals.

“They’re energised and passionate, and they can find solutions. That’s why I see value in creating space for the next generation. Being in the insurance sector is a huge responsibility, and I want our people to feel that we’re serving such a greater good here. I think the next generation are going to be the change agents, quite honestly.”

A recent example of her respect for young talent is when BF&M faced an unexpected situation–even as Bermuda’s biggest pension provider that thought it had ‘seen it all’.

“There were emergency pension withdrawals the government announced that had come out of nowhere and which we had to support from an operational perspective quite quickly. Our summer student swiftly created an automated solution. It was interesting to see how, at first, some people didn’t quite know how to react to his idea, but I listened, asked him what he needed and told him to ‘go for it’. Talent is about giving people the opportunity to run with an idea and not being afraid of the changes that they might make along the way.”

Her commitment to young talent is driven by the fact Clifford is Bermudian.

“I grew up here. I’ve spent a lot of time in the US, so I sound American. My mother’s English, but you’d never know that from my accent! I’m passionate about Bermudian talent and I believe in clearing the decks where necessary to allow the next generation to come through because there have been blocks in front of people. As part of that, we need to represent the communities that we serve.”

Thoughtful and prepared

A characteristic of Bermudians is their resilience, which they display particularly well during hurricane season, said Clifford, who was speaking to Bermuda:Re+ILS in the wake of Hurricane Fiona and in the early part of Hurricane Ian.

She said: “We have a new chief financial officer, Bruce Walker, who joined us in May, and he had never experienced a hurricane before. It was nice for us to see it through new eyes, because he was saying how impressed he was with our response. There’s a matter of fact approach that everyone takes—it isn’t panic, it’s about being thoughtful and prepared.

“It can be unbelievable though when, like this time, the very next day we had beautiful weather and you would never have known there had been a hurricane. We definitely have some deep debris, but there hasn’t been a lot of damage. There have been very few claims thus far. It’s early days still and they do trickle in, but the impact has been nowhere near what one would have thought.”

With offices in the Caribbean and Canada, BF&M tracked the hurricanes closely to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its staff.

“After Fiona passed by Bermuda, we had Hurricane Ian impact our Cayman office, and they were thankfully fine, and then Hurricane Fiona went up to our Halifax office. We have had a week of tracking and making sure everybody’s okay. Thankfully, everyone weathered the storms well and the damage has been minimal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be the case with some of the other islands, and certainly not for Florida,” she said.

”I always say, ‘we’re small, but we’re complex’.”

Defining qualities

The company’s culture and connection with Bermuda’s community is one of BF&M’s two defining qualities, Clifford said, and why it can count on loyalty from its staff. Wight spent almost the whole of his career with BF&M and Clifford is approaching a decade there.

“We believe in who we are and what we do. Our purpose, essentially, is protecting people’s assets and being there when they need us most, and that really resonates with our employees because most of them have been brought up in the communities that we serve. This goes beyond a business relationship and it’s why our employees want to go the extra mile.

“Certainly the reason I joined BF&M is its legacy of giving back to the community and being very present across all sectors. For us, it’s not only about the high-visibility events, but also about local support to ensure that the infrastructure is maintained. That connection is really important to us and it generates goodwill on a continual basis.”

The company’s second defining quality is, simply, that it provides an interesting place to work.

“You can have a very fulfilling career here because we’re small enough that everybody knows each other, meaning you can make a difference and have an impact in your role. But we’re also big enough that the work continues to be challenging. I always say, ‘we’re small, but we’re complex’,” Clifford said.

BF&M operates with 17 jurisdictions and has offices in the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Cayman and Halifax. It is spread across multiple lines of business within P&C and life & health, and with both direct and broker-led distribution channels.

“We have it all,” she said, “and our expression within the organisation for each and every new project is, ‘it’s never a dull moment!’”

Never a dull moment indeed: Clifford became president and CEO on September 1, but she presented her strategy to the board in December last year, and rolled it out as soon as the following month.

“Everybody’s excited. We’ve had town halls and people are looking forward to the future. I want to enhance the value that we have by growing organically to diversify our portfolio, but we’re also targeting potential acquisitions that are going to strengthen our position.”

Acquisition targets

As a hint about those target acquisitions, she said the Caribbean market is “saturated” and that “we are going to continue to see consolidation there”.

“We’re large enough to be approached about acquisitions, and we’re being strategic in which we respond to—as our goal is to continue to diversify.” What types of companies would it acquire?

“Those that are in the P&C, life & health or pensions space, but in particular we’re looking at the growing economies in the Caribbean, and Cayman is very attractive to us,” Clifford said.

“We’re not interested in biting off something huge for the sake of it. We’re focused on finding those companies which will allow for a smooth integration and that we know we can continue to succeed with. We’re not necessarily expanding, because we already have a broad skillset. It’s more about finding something with the right fit, and that’s why we’ve turned down some potential acquisitions. In fact, we have been in discussions around acquisitions for five years now as we are approached quite often, which also speaks to the challenges currently facing the P&C market.”

These talks are amid the challenge of a review Wight began in July for BF&M to explore strategic alternatives “to maximise shareholder value”, which may include the sale of the company. The initiative arose from discussions with its principal 37.4 percent shareholder, Camellia, a UK-headquartered family of companies focused on agriculture globally. Camellia valued its stake in BF&M at £57.7 million at the calendar year-end. Wight, who remains BF&M’s chairman, established a special committee, which has retained Desjardins Capital Markets, the investment banking firm based in Montreal, Canada.

Asked for an update on this, Clifford said: “We are in the middle of the strategic review process driven by our largest shareholder to divest its interests in non-core assets. Depending on the outcome, we see this as a potential opportunity for the organisation to leverage the timing of both a new shareholder and a new CEO to accelerate our group transformation strategy with new capital and risk appetite.”

”We want an entirely digital experience on both P&C and life & health.”

Move online

Clifford is also focused on BF&M’s move away from legacy systems and manual processes.

“We’re a 100-year-old company, so we have a lot of legacy systems at play, and we want to become more efficient, more customer-centric and automated. The Caribbean has historically been slow to move on the digital side but that is changing. In fact, I think we’re in a digital race with our competitors in the Caribbean, and so it’s important that we move quickly.

“Our customers are wanting ease and convenience, and the pandemic accelerated that trend. A by-product of these transformation efforts is it will bring cost efficiencies. We want to be as efficient as possible.”

In short, the aim is to move the company’s entire customer base online.

“With ourselves and our competitors, particularly in Bermuda, a lot of the systems are not online and more ‘behind the scenes’. We want an entirely digital experience on both P&C and life & health, so that people can serve themselves online. That’s the goal.”

On the P&C side, BF&M has such a project under way that will take the next 18 months to complete, she said. For life & health, it is reviewing potential new systems but, once it makes a choice, it will “execute on that decision relatively quickly”, she added.

“Capital projects are notoriously multi-year, but we’re going to do the best we can. After all, we’re still the only insurance provider in Bermuda providing online quote and bind capability on the P&C side.”

Peer review

How else does BF&M stand out from its peers?

“We have a very solid balance sheet and our financial strength ratings are the highest of any Caribbean insurer,” Clifford said.

“We also have the differentiator of going ‘above and beyond’ servicing, to being proactive and communicating transparently to our customers. It’s that which builds a lot of loyalty in our customer base. Having a new CEO after 17-and-a-half years is a time of change. We have a very energised team, and we’re all really excited about this next chapter.”

More on this story

23 August 2022   This was largely due to fair value losses on the company’s investments.
5 July 2022   It has initiated a strategic review following discussions with its principal shareholder.

More on this story

23 August 2022   This was largely due to fair value losses on the company’s investments.
5 July 2022   It has initiated a strategic review following discussions with its principal shareholder.