Allianz’s commercial lines director’s easy manner – and nose for deals – has had a lot to do with his company’s continuing success. Just as well that he feels like a man half his age and he has no intention of stepping aside just yet …
Go to any industry party, and you’ll see Chris Hanks standing in the centre of the room. An insurance grandee with few parallels, he’s been at the centre of the UK market since taking the job as Allianz’s commercial lines director in 2003.
It’s nice, then, that he’s stayed so down to earth. This afternoon, for example, Insurance Times’s photographer is demanding all sorts of smiles and poses. Move back, move forward, sit here, stand there. You can hear the giggles from the watching Allianz staff. But Hanks isn’t fazed. He’s cracking jokes and looks his usual relaxed self.
This easy manner, with his huge experience and nose for deals, has helped Allianz to produce solid commercial results consistently where rivals have failed. Last month, the insurer bucked the market once again to post combined operating ratios for the half year at 95.2%, against a market all too often coming in at over 100%.
“Chris has been one of the most consistent traders in the market for the past five or six years,” Towergate chief executive Andy Homer says.
“He’s always prepared to consider a trade and he’s a hard negotiator with a good team around him, who’s technically sound and good at underwriting.
“He doesn’t always follow the pack and try to copy the rest of the market. He’s very shrewd in taking advantage of RSA or Aviva when they’re losing market share.”
High praise, but has Allianz’s success really been built on the misfortunes of its rivals?
“It is a misnomer that we took loads of Aviva business. We did take some, but we’re probably a net gainer off Aviva every year,” Hanks says, in reference to suggestions that Allianz aggressively capitalised on Aviva’s loss of premium under controversial former chief executive Igal Mayer.
“Most of Aviva’s business did not go to Allianz, Zurich, AXA or RSA – it went into other markets,” he continues, adding that Allianz had taken over from Aviva as lead on Towergate’s Fusion panel “at a very substantially reduced commission and a different profile to the book”.
Aviva is now fighting hard to regain some of that lost premium by re-entering the corporate space, along with AXA.
Ever sanguine, Hanks doesn’t bat an eyelid at the new competition. “We have no strategy to confront either Aviva or AXA coming in,” he says emphatically, adding a warning: “If you go for rapid growth in the corporate area, it will end in tears. Some of these buyers are very sophisticated.”
It’s tough work grinding out consistent results in a soft market, but Hanks says he feels like a man half his age (for once he’s a little coy, not giving the exact date of his forthcoming 60th birthday). There has been widespread speculation that he’ll stand down next year but straight-talking Hanks is having none of it.
“With the changes to retirement laws, it’s unlikely they can force me out until I wet my seat without noticing,” he chuckles. “So definitely a few more years. It’s strange, though, because conversely you don’t want to overstay your welcome. I’ve been doing this job eight years, and they have been the best years of my career.
“I’ve got a team of late 30s/early 40s coming through and they deserve a chance to run the business, so eventually I’ve got to get out of the way. But I can’t say that fills me with delight because I like it, it’s fun and I don’t want to give it up. I’ve no ambition to live on a beach.”
Hanks began his career at National Employers’ Mutual in 1987, which was taken over by AGF and then, in 1997, by Allianz. He worked in a range of departments including claims, process and underwriting before landing the commercial director’s job seven years ago.
Anyone can make a profit …
He is people focused and a great believer in the Allianz underwriting academy – even though there’s the drawback of well-trained staff being poached from time to time. Armed with the right skills, he believes that anyone can make an underwriting profit, although that’s not easy in today’s market, with rates scraping the bottom.
Hanks believes the market will move by only two to four points this year, as cash-strapped customers fight hard against increases, despite the commercial lines market requiring a six- to eight-point improvement. Results across the commercial lines market therefore will be worse than 2009 – and 2011 will be even harder.
But Hanks says there’s always room for “opportunistic growth” for the stable insurer – a theory Allianz has proved only too well.
He has a well-established partnership with Allianz’s chief executive Andrew Torrance, and speaks of him with respect. “I’ve learnt a lot from being with Andrew and he’s given me the opportunity to run the commercial business,” he says.
Who else does Hanks rate? He name checks Oval’s chief executive Philip Hodson and Towergate chairman Peter Cullum, with chief executive Homer.
So why did such a good dealmaker never consider following Cullum and Homer’s example and cross the floor from insurer to broker? “If I had known then what I know now – whoah!” he exclaims.
But he’s joking. “I haven’t made the big money that some brokers have by selling their businesses, but if I was motivated by money, I wouldn’t have stayed with the same group all my career. I have much more interest in being settled as a person.”
Away from the day job, Hanks is newly crowned president of the Chartered Insurance Institute, something he holds close to his heart. His mission is to see the Aldermanbury Declaration embedded across the industry as this, he believes, is a “once in a generation” opportunity to get more qualified professionals in the market while also improving the image of insurance to consumers.
He’s a tough cookie, Hanks: frank and confident in his well-established position in the market. One topic gets below the skin, though.
“We held a management conference two years ago for my team, at Blenheim Palace,” he recalls. “We knew that we had blown away the competition and would have a fantastic 2009. Bearing in mind that most of that team – there were about 100 people there – had been recruited or nurtured by me, it was probably one of my proudest moments.”
Hanks’ voice lowers as he says: “You can see, I get emotional.”
Yes; but rarely. Successful, experienced, established, and a good laugh to boot, the market will be pleased to hear that Chris Hanks is sticking around. IT