As she follows a morning in his working life, underwriter Charles Franks of Kiln tells Yvette Essen that you need nerves of steel to write such huge risks and still get a good night's sleep....
Ask any young boy what he dreams of becoming, and “astronaut” is a common answer. Being a policeman, fireman, footballer, model or rock star generally comes next on the list. But nearly everyone agrees on one fact – no one wants to spend their life as an underwriter.
Most youngsters think insurance is boring. It's a male-dominated industry, filled with dark suits, dull statistics and long hours. Why would anyone voluntarily choose to go into it?
Charles Franks did. He studied geography at Exeter University, completed a summer work placement at Hogg Robinson (now taken over by Aon) and finally joined Sedgwick in 1983.
Three years later, Franks decided he was better suited to the broader scope of risks offered by underwriting and went to work at Lloyd's. He landed up at The Street in 1993. His first association with his current employer, RJ Kiln, was when it managed the amalgamation of The Street's syndicate 123 into syndicate 510.
“It was the buzz of the Lloyd's market-place and a cocktail of things that attracted me,” he says. “The types of risks were interesting, it was a face-to-face industry and young people had some responsibility.”
Now a deputy underwriter for Kiln's marine and special risks division, the 38-year-old is firmly settled in his career. So, what is his job all about?
Franks's day begins when he awakes and sets out from his little village in Kent. The journey to the office takes an hour door-to-door, and he reads the paper on the train and occasionally taps on his laptop computer.
The father of three arrives at the office that he shares with active underwriter Robert Chase. The pair run the division in partnership.
Franks and Chase evaluate the previous day's business with the rest of the team.
Although both partners specialise in underwriting marine insurance, they also take risks in energy, North Sea platforms and drilling rigs.
“The marine market has been going through a rocky patch, especially during the past three years,” says Franks somewhat wistfully. “Why did I end up in marine? Because I love sailing. Since I was four, I always went on family sailing holidays. I'd love to have my own boat.”
Surprisingly, the morning isn't spent pushing around paper. Instead, Franks attends a series of meetings. Half an hour is spent discussing the company's training programme with staff and managing director Edward Creasy.
Kiln has eight graduate trainees in different parts of the company and Franks is the project manager for training.
A paper has been written for presentation to the board of executive directors and the team is preparing themselves.
A quick march to the other side of the office and Franks just makes it in time for meeting number three with the ecommerce manager. Although he doesn't have an operational role, Franks is also director in charge of ecommerce and keeps an eye on online developments.
In their weekly rendezvous, they discuss the company website and plan the third revamp in two years. The site gets 400,000 hits a month and Franks hopes it will ultimately make global trading a lot easier.
Finally, he heads off to Lloyd's for the rest of the morning, to do what underwriters are best known for – writing insurance.
Within minutes of our sitting down, Aon broker Bill Pelham rushes up to the box, puts down his yellow file and takes a mint from the glass bowl on the table.
Pelham wants to alter some coverage details and finalise an insurance policy on a drilling rig owned by a Middle-Eastern client. Franks agrees to the changes and signs the slip.
Peter Gibson of Agnew Higgins Pickering is next up. His client has a compressor worth around $3m (£2.1m) which is being moved to a port in India. Franks, who writes up to $30m (£20.9m) for a single risk several times a month, says he'll get back to him.
As he waits for more business, Franks describes how he feels about his job. “At first you do feel nervous about writing risks,” he explains, “but it becomes part of everyday life and you have to take quite a clinical view of it. If it keeps you awake at night, you are probably better off being a broker. We don't live a roller coaster of emotions. If you did, you would wind up in an early grave.”
But this doesn't mean he is unaffected by large claims.
“I remember I was in the bath listening to the radio when the news of Piper Alpha (the oil rig disaster) broke in 1988. Apart from the human tragedy, it was by far and away the biggest loss on a North Sea platform that had ever been seen. It got me into work quite quickly.”
Like other underwriters, Franks finds that the number of brokers who visit him varies wildly, depending on the renewal season and time of year. On average, though, 15 will stop by each day.
Still waiting, Franks quickly checks his emails. A broker has asked him to provide “weather downtime” insurance for someone who is laying a pipeline in the South China Sea.
The client wants cover for $150,000 (£105,000) a day for two weeks, but a firm of consultants has sent Franks a report, predicting a spell of bad weather during that time.
A couple more brokers pop by to place deals and swap market gossip, but, before long, it's lunch time. As he leaves the tall steel building, Franks reveals the driving force behind his career.
“When you are sitting at a box, you never know what risk the next broker will show you. That is one of the attractions of the job. You get up in the morning and who knows what the day will bring.”
And with that, he grins, bids farewell and scuttles back to the office… but probably not without stopping for what is reputedly one regular feature of an underwriter's life – a long lunch.