All-American guy turned globe trotter, DUAL’s ebullient chief executive has developed his own way of doing things over the past 40 years. And, while the journey hasn’t always been smooth, his enthusiasm hasn’t faltered
“I was a poor kid, brought up in New Jersey. I never thought I was going to leave New Jersey,” muses DUAL International chairman and chief executive Bob Van Gieson, before adding: “But it sure didn’t work out that way.”
You can say that again. Van Gieson has come a long way and, 40 years on, still maintains his enthusiasm for insurance. It’s a good thing too, because DUAL, the London-based liability underwriting agency he runs, has major plans and, as he approaches his second retirement, big hitter Van Gieson has been parachuted in to bring them to fruition – and quickly.
DUAL is part of the Hyperion Group, founded by David Howden. Howden wants the group – made up of DUAL, CFC Underwriting and Lloyd’s broker Howden – to float by 2012, while its private equity backer 3i will be hungry for a decent return.
To achieve that, there’ll be new faces to be brought in, a few acquisitions thrown into the mix, lots of deal-making, hand-shaking and, of course, the odd headline.
So far, the group is on track. Recent results show 2009 operating income up 19% compared with the previous year, to £57.2m. DUAL, along with CFC, played its part by pulling in combined gross written premium of £142m, a 34% increase.
But let’s go back a bit. Just who is Van Gieson?
With his veteran film-star looks, easy manner, and East Coast accent punctuated with chuckles, there’s no doubt he’s an all-American kinda guy.
But Van Gieson, tucking into a pot of freshly brewed coffee, describes himself as an “internationalist”. He started at Chubb back in 1967, when the Vietnam War was in full flow. Van Gieson, who was part of the reserve programme, had friends from high school and university who died in the war. “It was huge, unbelievable,” he recalls briefly.
Van Gieson’s early career was spent in New Jersey, Atlanta and Los Angeles, where he was trained in ‘the Chubb way’. It has become the foundation of his work philosophy.
“They taught us how to manage an insurance business in a way to achieve an outcome,” he explains. “They gave their key people educational opportunities by sending them to Harvard Business School for its management development programme.
“It contributed to my success in the businesses that I have been a part of. Chubb training was just outstanding. People would say ‘well, that’s just the way Chubb does it’.”
Van Gieson’s big break came when he moved to Canada to help Chubb develop one of its acquisitions, Pacific Indemnity. He spent the next 20 years there.
Impressed by his performance and commitment, top brass then asked him to head up London-based Chubb Insurance Company of Europe. His mission was to expand the business across the Continent.
He recruited a swathe of European trainees and, using Chubb’s reputation and brand to win business, the company grew premium income from $80m (£50m) to $687m (£444m) in just six years.
It wasn’t long before other insurers came knocking on the door with offers, and in 1996 Van Gieson became head of CNA’s global operations. But it didn’t work out.
Wrong turn made right
Van Gieson looks down and fiddles with his teaspoon, and for once you sense this larger-than-life character is at a loss for words.
He doesn’t go into much detail but, in quieter voice, says: “I had a bad experience with CNA: I was hired in 1996, fired in 1999. It was absolutely correct because I disagreed with everything they were doing.”
In other words, they didn’t do it the Chubb way. Van Gieson took retirement, but it didn’t last long. Within a couple of years, he was back in the game, this time as chief executive of Arch Capital UK, a new company set up by its Bermudian parent in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
With no legacy claims, and insurers across the world in retreat, the field was clear to grow rapidly. In just five years from 2003, Arch grew to a $500m company. It was during this time that Van Gieson formed a relationship with Hyperion.
Using Arch capacity, he helped Howden get DUAL off the ground as a liability insurer that would complement Arch’s big-ticket business. In mid-2009, he left Arch to take the helm at DUAL, his current position today.
Forget any talk of over-arching ambition or boardroom politics. Van Gieson insists his remit is clear. “I have a three-year contract. I’m hopefully going to help us continue to build the business with Arch and DUAL, which is very good and positive.
“And at some point, shortly after the flotation, I’m going to retire. Everybody knows I have no agenda, I’m not looking for David’s job, I’m not looking for anybody else’s job. I’m really helping both Hyperion and DUAL with the benefit of all this international knowledge I have.”
Van Gieson’s mission is to set DUAL on a course to $500m premium income. With offices in Ireland, Italy, Hong Kong and Germany, as well as a healthy slice of the UK SME market, there’s plenty of room to expand.
And what about the biggest piece in the jigsaw: the plans for a listing? Will DUAL float together with the rest of the group?
The normally straight-talking Van Gieson is a little bit reticent for some reason, perhaps not wanting to speak on Howden’s behalf.
“It’s in the interests of the management of the company that the float would permit us to have a number of things,” he says. “We would have an asset value in stock that we could attract teams, and things like that.
“If the broker was going to be involved in acquisitions, equity is another component they could use to make acquisitions and, certainly from the standpoint of our staff, it’s a compensation tool that helps them grow in the same direction.”
The expansion plans and flotation are huge tasks, especially with a soft market and stagnant economy. It’s clear that Howden was a key factor in Van Gieson agreeing to take up such a big challenge.
When asked about working with the entrepreneur, he enthuses: “He’s such an engaging character – enthusiastic and motivational.
“David has attracted people who might feel the constraints of a big insurance company. They like to be in an environment where they can do things, and certainly do them by the rules, but maybe the rulebook is not quite as thick as it may be in some of the bigger organisations.”
Maybe Van Gieson sees a bit of himself in Howden: entrepreneurial and flexible, and not a huge fan of the big corporate way of doing things, which can be high-volume churn combined with a textbook mentality.
DUAL will be the final chapter in Van Gieson’s career story. If his track record is anything to go by, it will make for an interesting read. IT