Whether in her role as one of the insurance industry's leading ladies, or while helping young musicians, Marie-Louise Rossi likes to feel she's had an impact. Yvette Essen reports….
Mention music, politics or education and she's bound to have an opinion. Touch upon Europe and the single currency and she'll become really fired up. One thing is for sure.
Marie-Louise Rossi, chief executive of the International Underwriting Association of London (IUA), is passionate about many things.
But Rossi, who comes from a traditional Catholic background, never envisaged a career in insurance. As a teenager, she studied English, Latin and Greek A Levels at St Paul's Girls' School, sang soprano in the choir and “played the piano rather badly”.
At St Anne's College in Oxford, Rossi read Philosophy and Ancient History, but left in 1979 unsure of what to do.
“I looked at banking and stock broking,” she says. “Then a job came up at Hogg Robinson (now part of Aon) and that seemed very interesting.”
Rossi eventually moved on to broker Sedgwick, which has been taken over by J&H Marsh McLennan, and then to the US firm Tillinghurst-Towers Perrin, which focused on regulation and risk management.
In 1993 a headhunter called, offering her the position of chief executive of London International Insurance and Reinsurance Market Association (LIRMA). She snapped it up.
Under her direction, the organisation merged with the Institute of London Underwriters five years later to form the IUA and represent some 200 international insurance and reinsurance companies from around 40 countries. Rossi is also now director of the London Processing Centre, which handles up to $16bn premium and claims annually.
“Working for LIRMA seemed too good an opportunity to miss,” she says. “At that stage, it was a fledging trade association and very much a new kid on the block. To get it to be seen as part of the establishment was an achievement.”
In 1999, the 45-year-old was voted Industry Personality of the Year in the Review Worldwide Reinsurance Awards and last year was listed in the top 100 leading women in the insurance industry in the American magazine Business Insurance.
“It was very nice to be recognised in this kind of way,” she says modestly. “If they'd tried to do it ten years ago they would have struggled to get that number of people.
“I have had experiences in my life where less experienced and qualified men have been promoted above me and insurance is still a decade or two behind banking in terms of new technology, education, training, general professionalism and employment of women.
“But it is fascinating – it teaches every aspect of life and has a wide range of both commercial and academic aspects. Women can have very satisfying roles and careers.”
Nowadays, Rossi has little spare time but still likes to listen to music. Her favourite opera is Mozart's Don Giovanni and she says she is “fascinated” by Janacek's Makropoulos Case.
Rossi is also on the board for the Foundation of Young Musicians, the home of the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, and has been on fund-raising boards for Westminster Cathedral and St Johns in Smith Square.
Educating youngsters is also a matter Rossi feels strongly about. From 1989 to 1992 she was chairman of the Local Education Authority and has served as a school and college governor.
She remains the trustee of several educational charities.
“The IUA and LIRMA have always promoted education and we have a very active education committee,” she says. “We have signed up to the European Union life-long learning (initiative) and published our own voluntary code of education.”
In addition, Rossi has a strong political background. She has held several prestigious positions, including as adviser to the Hungarian Ministry of Finance, and as the chairman of the Bow Group, a right-of-centre “think tank”, and the Foreign Affairs Forum of the Conservative party.
“When I started working for LIRMA I stood down for election,” she says. “I don't rule out politics in the future but I left the Conservative party as I thought it had gone mad on Europe.”
Rossi is adamant that the United Kingdom should enter into the European Union and has now joined the Pro-Europe Conservative Party.
“We are a truly international market and have customers from all over the world,” she explains. “We use more than 15 foreign currencies and had the Euro ready in October 1998 so anyone negotiating in the renewal season had the facilities available.
“My personal view is that we should join the single currency, as signing up to the Euro would be the completion of the single market.
“It is very important for the prosperity of London. We are technically a pre-in and a lot of decisions were made on the assumption we would join. If that assumption is changed, we are in danger.”
So far, lobbying has been a particular area of success for Rossi. At the moment, she is trying to bring about change for foreign companies trading in the States where licensing rules vary depending on where organisations are based.
“There is no level playing field and it is different for international trade associations in America,” she comments. “We would look to create a European standard in pursuit of trade liberalisation goals and have now got to a stage where there may be a new directive within ten years.”
To achieve some of her objectives, Rossi has had to work more closely with Lloyd's of London. Although the IUA sees Lloyd's as “a supplier and competitor”, Rossi says the two groups have united to implement the London Market Principles (LMP2001).
In March, only 30% of Company Market business indicated their support for the reforms to modernise the city's insurance centre, compared to 65% of the Lloyd's Market.
But Rossi says: “The sign-up has got people's attention. I am confident quite a number of IUA companies that have not signed will be able to demonstrate they are doing more than some of the Lloyd's syndicates that did so very quickly with less deliberation.”
Keeping the Company Market separate from Lloyd's is a “challenge”. Yet Rossi believes this can be achieved by focusing on the market's strengths.
“There are some cases in Europe where we would be looking to promote the possibility of having a new reinsurance directive and bring it into a single framework,” she says.
Rossi is more than ready to throw down the gauntlet.
“I do like to feel that I have made a difference,” she says.