In the past 25 years, Kiln’s Ashley Lawrence has been first on the scene for the world’s biggest catastrophes. The calm and collected claims head talks to Insurance Times about September 11, a killer instinct for scams and his concerns for the future

Twenty-five years ago, a small newspaper advertisement looking for someone to “sit on a box at Lloyd’s” caught the eye of a teenage Ashley Lawrence. After growing up in Sunderland, he had just completed his A-levels and was “resigned” to plodding through a business studies course for the next couple of years.

But here his life took a turn for the unexpected. On a whim, he applied for the role of trainee underwriter with insurer Kiln, grabbing his escape route from the books to the bright lights of the capital.

“I always wanted to live and work in London, so this was killing two birds with one stone,” he grins. Little did he know that this impulsive move would lead to a career dealing with the fallout of some of the world’s most catastrophic events.

Lawrence is now head of claims at international insurance and reinsurance underwriting agency Kiln. A wholly owned subsidiary of Tokio Marine, the company has five syndicates in Lloyd’s and specialises in reinsurance, accident and health, aviation, marine and special risks, and property.

With a capacity of over £1bn, Kiln is one of the largest agencies operating in LIoyd’s. Lawrence leads a team of 16 and during his career has dealt with a whole host of disaster-related losses, ranging from hurricanes, bush fires, typhoon and earthquakes losses, to the attacks of September 11.

This is a far cry from his humble beginnings as a junior assistant at Lloyd’s, where he quickly found himself drawn to the unpredictable world of claims. “The enjoyable part about it is you really don’t know what is going to happen or what claim is going to come in,” he explains in his precise and methodical way.

Mild-mannered and understated, Lawrence is cautious when speaking. But you sense that this unassuming persona masks a steely resolve when it comes to getting to the bottom of some of the most complex claims in the business.

Back in 1989, Lawrence had just been appointed claims manager when he had to take charge of his first major catastrophe – Hurricane Hugo. The category-five hurricane swept across the Caribbean and eastern North America, causing billions of dollars worth of damage. It was a daunting task as Lawrence confronted the long queue of brokers demanding payment.

But it taught him to trust his gut instincts. “It was very much a baptism of fire in terms of making decisions and going with them. From my point of view, it was basically a sink or swim situation,” he says.

Suspicious mind

Over the years, this instinct for making the right call has served Lawrence well, especially when it comes to spotting suspect claims. One of his most memorable cases landed on his desk ten years ago, when he received a claim for a life insurance policy from a woman whose husband died in a car accident in Nigeria.

As the country was a hotspot for fraud, he was immediately on the alert. Lawrence sent out a loss adjuster to Nigeria, but after speaking to the taxi driver involved and the insured’s business associates, and rooting out hospital records, the adjuster reported that everything was in order. Despite Lawrence’s persisting doubts, Kiln paid out $500,000.

But these suspicions returned to the surface when he received a letter from a former colleague of the deceased months later, stating that the claim was an elaborate hoax. Despite the loss adjusters’ protests and the decidedly dodgy tenor of the letter – the informant wanted $25,000 for his co-operation – Lawrence launched an investigation, tracking down the direction of the insurance proceeds.

After painstaking research, it transpired that cheques payable from the woman’s bank account in London were now being banked in Nigeria. The trail led to an unfamiliar name. “Following further investigation, it turned out to be our insured, who was alive and well and living under a different identity,” Lawrence says. It soon transpired that all the witnesses interviewed by the loss adjuster had been part of a massive scam.

“I wrote to the Interpol section of the Nigerian police. They promptly arrested the guy, who was in the process of doing the same thing to another insurer,” he says, with a note of satisfaction. The company later succeeded in recovering two-thirds of the fraudulent claim.

Raw emotion

His greatest challenge was yet to come, however. On 11 September 2001, Lawrence was in Santiago, Chile, dealing with a reinsurance dispute on a cargo policy involving soft fruit. Then he received a phone call telling him that

two planes had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York, an event with huge implications for Kiln.

“My immediate concern was how I was going to get home, given that most airlines were grounded. Then it dawned on me the extent of what we were faced with and how we are going to manage the expectations of our clients,” he recalls.

Kiln’s main classes of business were affected by the terrorist attack and the firm was also heavily involved in the reinsurance of the centre. It now faced a host of panic-stricken clients and a net loss that reached £18m by the end of the year.

The period presented a huge personal challenge for Lawrence, especially when dealing with the raw emotions of clients who had been directly affected by the terrorist attack.

“You can’t underestimate the strength of feeling in the US when dealing with clients, especially with those brokers that had a lot of staff who worked in the World Trade Centre. It is still a raw subject for them to talk about, so certainly from an emotional point of view, it was very difficult for them to deal with.”

He admits it was a struggle to take a detached approach when making sound decisions on claims from traumatised clients. “Trying to deal with that in a business relationship and adjust claims according to the terms of the reinsurance claim, was very difficult,” he says.

Biggest challenge yet

Lawrence may have first-hand experience of some of the greatest challenges confronting the claims sector over the past 25 years, but he warns that the future may hold an even greater struggle if the industry does not address the growing skills gap in loss adjusting. “I think our concern is how we are going to be able to adjust those claims in a timely manner if the resources are spread that thinly.”

He argues that while loss adjusters need to make the profession more attractive to graduates, insurers also have a role to play. “Large composite insurers have taken more claims in-house, which has prevented the junior loss adjusters from experiencing dealing with run-of-the-mill claims and developing their careers.”

He adds that the insurance industry needs to take more responsibility in helping trainee loss adjusters to gain valuable experience on claims. Otherwise, he argues, insurers will get a nasty wake-up call when the next major catastrophe erupts.

You might expect that having to deal with the fallout of heart-rending events for over 20 years might prey on his mind outside of work. But Lawrence is adamant that he has little trouble switching off. He spends his working week in London, while the weekend is devoted to family life in Suffolk.

“Nothing keeps me awake at night. I tend to sleep pretty soundly. I don’t tend to wake up and think about cases,” he says. It is just as well he is able to relax when he gets the chance because he knows that next portentous phone call could come at any time or place. IT