Early in his insurance career, Mario Vitale had a key encounter with a supervisor that inspired his ascent through the ranks at his first employer and beyond.
While newly employed in the Property department at the Home Insurance Co., Vitale was a young gun mapping risk exposures and aggregating which policies were written on a particular structure. It was boring, tedious work in a dismal setting, but he excelled at it.
“In those days, they had very long rows of grey desks, and the youngest trainee would always sit in the front desk — and the most experienced person in any product line or function sat in the back and they could watch,” he recalls. “If somebody left or died, you’d move back a desk. That's just the way it worked. It was very, very uniform.
“I did this for two weeks, and I completely, absolutely nailed this job,” he says. “So I take the long walk down to the supervisor of the department. I said, ‘Mr. Swystun, this is a great job, I’ve learned it. What's my next assignment?’”
Vitale leans forward in his chair to deliver the punchline.
“He looked me in the eyes and said to me, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. First of all, I did that job for 20 years, and you’re asking for a promotion to do something else after two weeks? Who the hell are you? What are you trying to be, president of the company?’”
Vitale smiles, continuing the story in his spacious, well-appointed office at Aspen Insurance. “He says, ‘You’re never going to be president. There's never been an Italian president of an insurance company in the history of our business, so you don't have a chance. So cool your jets, don't be so excited about the job. Go back and card some more risks.’
“That's a pretty depressing conversation to have,” he laughs. “I walked back to my desk and I sat down and thought, ‘I’ve got to do this job for another 20 years, and I’m not going to get a promotion because I’m Italian-American.’
“So I decided, I’m going to prove him wrong. Someday I’m going to be president of an insurance company.”
That same tireless work ethic, which he has not lost after nearly 40 years in the property and casualty industry, has served him well. It led to executive positions at Willis and Zurich, among several others, before his appointment as CEO of Aspen Insurance.
“As I started to get promoted along the way, I’d call Mr. Swystun,” Vitale says. “He’d go, ‘Smartass.’”
Hearts and minds
Born and bred in Brooklyn, N.Y., Vitale is the product of a working-class family. At age 10, he was already cutting lawns, working in restaurants and supermarkets, and learning the value of an earned dollar.
At St. John's University College of Insurance in New York City, he found his way into the insurance business through a work/study program in which he was sponsored by the Home Insurance Co. It paid for two-thirds of the student's education and books, an appealing prospect to someone who knew he didn't want to become saddled with a student loan. Plus, in those days, if he stayed with the company for two years after graduation, Vitale would be reimbursed for the remaining third. The deal was sealed.
Around 1975, the concept of risk management was just starting to gain traction in the insurance industry. Vitale, who was adept at math and originally considered a career path in actuarial science, shifted his focus to risk transfer and mitigation.
“This industry was and is a lot more interesting, a lot more specialized and a lot more fun than most people think,” he says. “A lot of people dropped out. But I was hooked from day one.”
Vitale was commercial lines supervisor of property and casualty for the Home Insurance Co.'s Melville, N.Y., office at age 29 when he learned that the position overseeing all underwriting for commercial lines in the North Haven, Conn., office was open. The results in North Haven at that time, he explains, were such that no other Home executive would touch the job, as it was regarded as a losing position.
Where some see only potential for failure, others see golden opportunity.
“I raised my hand for the job,” Vitale says. When his bosses finished laughing, he adds, “they said, ‘If nothing else, no one will try harder.’” They put him in charge of both personal and commercial lines.
“I walked in there and I had three strikes against me,” he recalls. “I’m only 29 years old; everyone who worked there was older than me. Two, I’m a New Yorker in North Haven, Conn., right in the center of the state. And three, I was a Yankee fan, and they were all Boston Red Sox fans.”
Undaunted, he walked in determined to win hearts and minds and rallied the staff. “Over the next two to three years, it was a magical experience,” he says. “When I got there, they thought the only reason I was there was to close the office. I had to tell them, ‘No. This is your chance at turning things around and making something of it.’”
The key to achieving that end was clearly communicating goals to the staff, in order to reverse the office's fortunes. Because everyone had to walk in and walk out of the same door, Vitale constructed a large communications board that clearly illustrated what the office's goals were on a monthly basis and targets for revenue (premium), expenses and the like. “You couldn't walk in or out the door without seeing how far along we were on achieving our objectives,” he says.
It worked. “In general, I found that people would rise to the occasion,” he adds. “If they believe in themselves and they believe in the team, they would give their all. There was no reason why we shouldn't be successful, if you have the right players.”
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Leading from the front didn't hurt, either. “I was the first person to open up the office in the morning and I was the last person to leave,” he says. “If somebody came back to work after dinner or on a Saturday or Sunday, they always saw me there.”
Some employees had to go, replaced with ones who wanted to be part of a team that was focused on winning. It was one of his first successful experiments in team building. Vitale understood, as he does today, that insurance is about selling a relationship — a promise, not a product.
“The nature of our business is, it's not the product that is so unique, so proprietary or so special,” he explains. “It comes down to people, the process, and the service that you give. If you have good service levels, people will come back for more. It's a people business — which is why I like it. People do business with people that they like doing business with, so we surrounded ourselves with good people, good attitudes.”
In the end, Vitale turned things around in Connecticut. “We made money,” he says. “Everybody was really excited, and I was just at the peak of happiness. I was embedded in the community and I was having the time of my life. And then they said, ‘OK, good job. Now we’re going to move you to New York.’”
Vitale was named head of commercial lines for the Home Insurance Co.'s then-Manhattan office at 80 Pine St., a move that he now considers a transition into a war zone.
“This is where the toughest brokers, the toughest business, the highest stakes were,” he says. “The first day I walked in, everybody was incredibly aggressive. The brokers, the underwriters, everyone.” Vitale relates how one broker, when meeting with underwriters, would sit in a chair next to his desk and cross his leg to show he meant business. “He was a big, tall guy, and he had a gun in an ankle holster,” he marvels. “I quickly figured out his thing was to try to intimidate the underwriters to write bad risks that he was bringing them.”
That was just the beginning. “There were people cheating, they weren't paying their claims, they were sending bad risks, they were manipulating the applications and saying there were no losses and there were losses … it was hardcore stuff,” he adds.
It was baptism by fire, but after a year spent weeding out the bad seeds, in 1985 Vitale was granted the opportunity to forge a brand-new specialty operation in Chicago. He was given a clean balance sheet and was challenged to build a nationwide casualty operation starting from scratch — no legacy book, no underwriters, zero.
“Just start it up,” he says of his boss’ instructions. “Go hire your own underwriters. You can hire from inside or outside the company. Take our best and brightest and create a brand-new venture, and market it within the Home umbrella.
“That was probably some of the most fun I ever had, because up until then, I was fixing and maintaining but not truly building,” says Vitale. “This was a chance to build something, and it stayed with me the rest of my career. I love picking the players that are going to be on my team, but also the progress when you harness the energy of that team and give them good direction and support what they can do.”
Commuting out of O’Hare Airport became standard practice most days, he recalls — and as taxing as that could be at times, it was still enjoyable for a person of Vitale's energy. Along the way, some important business lessons had begun to crystallize for him.
“As you start to rise in an organization, you start to learn that from a business standpoint, your job can be broken down into three categories,” he relates.
“They can be broken down into: Your job is building, fixing or maintaining a business — and the higher you climb in an organization, the more your job responsibilities include an element of all three. But one has to be predominant. And the predominant one for me, starting with this particular venture, was building something.”
Then, a funny thing happened: Other companies began courting this dynamic self-starter from Brooklyn.
“I’d been with the Home Insurance Company, technically speaking, from 1973 as a work-study student until 1986, and all of a sudden I had suitors,” he says. “That had never happened to me before. Up until then, I’d never even dreamed of leaving.
“Then all of a sudden you get to a point in time where you stop for a second and say, ‘Let me listen to one of these offers,’” he adds. “They said, ‘How’d you like to be president of your own operation? President of Reliance Risk Management, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.’”
“President?” he beams. “Well, let me think about that.”
Vitale knew the first person with whom he’d share that news.
At Reliance, Vitale went from selling millions of dollars’ worth of business to selling hundreds of millions to billions. It also led to international experience, as part of the carrier's acquisitions in those days included trips to Europe and Asia. The experience further honed his skills as an international player.
It was a 13-year run during which he also developed and launched training programs, brought in some of the brightest trainees from the best schools, and provided them a solid foundation for their insurance careers. Among them: Marsh President and CEO Peter Zaffino; Anna Machalska, vice president of excess casualty for ACE Group; XL Catlin Vice President/Underwriting Manager Michael Simone; Willis Executive Vice President, National Practice Leader Mark Rusas; and Russell Brown, Aspen's senior vice president/head of U.S. distribution.
While Vitale was still with Reliance in 1998, several P&C insurers with a common goal joined forces in a way that might never happen again. At that time, Willis was struggling, its share price consistently underperforming. It made the brokerage a prime acquisition target for dominant players Aon and Marsh.
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“It was quickly looking like a world that was going to be dominated by two brokers,” Vitale recalls. “The entire insurance world at that time was determined not to have the fate of their distribution controlled by two 800-pound gorillas.”
U.S. leveraged-buyout specialist Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. purchased Willis on behalf of a consortium called Trinity Acquisition PLC, which was formed by British insurers Guardian Royal Exchange PLC and Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Group PLC, along with U.S.-based insurers Chubb Corp., Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. and Travelers Property Casualty Corp.
Once KKR had successfully kept Willis independent, at least for the time being, new leadership was needed. Hard-charging former Citibank North America CEO Joe Plumeri was appointed chairman and CEO, charged with the task of turning the ship around.
In November 2000 Vitale joined Willis as executive vice president of group sales and marketing of Willis Group Holdings Ltd. “Plumeri said, ‘I’ll teach you how to run a publicly traded company, and you teach me insurance,’” says Vitale. Plumeri would go on to serve as Willis’ CEO until the end of 2012.
Under Plumeri’s leadership, by the following June (2001), Willis was brought public in an IPO and its stock price—as well as its net income—soared over subsequent years. Vitale served as chairman of Willis Risk Solutions from September 2002 to January 2003, after which he became CEO of Willis North America Inc. until October 2006.
“It was hard-working years,” Vitale says. “It was when I learned how to be an insurance broker, about how you never rest until your client is satisfied. I found a new definition of working hard and working long hours to keep your client happy.”
By 2006, Vitale realized that he was ready to get back to the business of creating something. “The reality of the situation is, sometimes you only have one blood running through your veins, and for me it was building something; I wasn't a broker at heart. So I went back to building insurance companies."
When talking with Vitale about his career, a pattern emerges: A challenge is made, and accepted; years of hard work follow; and the goal is met, every time. That requires deep love for the work — or at the very least, a serious commitment to seeing one's plan through.
Personal relationships suffer, a point about which Vitale has no illusions. “I really feel bad for any man or woman that has that challenge,” he says. “Along the way it does destroy some personal relationships and it's no question that somebody has to suffer, but the truth is that is the way I lived my life. Somewhere along the line you just do what you have to do,” he adds. “If you have a good head on your shoulders and you weigh all the options, usually you can do pretty good things. But work/life balance is not easy. It wasn't easy in the ’90s, and it certainly isn't easy today, either.”
Photos of his family, which includes a son and two daughters, adorn his desk at Aspen's 57th Street and Madison Avenue office. On the opposite wall are shelves stocked with sports memorabilia, among his prized trophies a baseball signed by National League MVP and 10-time All-Star Steve Garvey; Tony Dorsett, Eli Manning and Archie Manning-autographed footballs; and a pair of boxing gloves signed by George Foreman.
“These are not sports that I participate in anymore, I’m a spectator,” Vitale says as he regards the display. He’d rather kayak, bike or take his Vespa out on a Sunday drive. He works with two trainers (with very different focuses, one much harder-nosed than the other) to stay in shape. He appreciates art, which he collects; a new movie or a good book is usually within his sights.
Mention balance between work and play, however, to Vitale and he offers a glimpse into what makes him tick.
“Some people approach their job as being really hard work, it's tough and difficult and depressing, and it's a drag,” he says. “I know people who hate to get up in the morning and go to work, and then they really need to find a lot of [other] things to balance out their life. I don't have that problem. The truth of the matter is, I don't look at myself as needing a lot of balance. I enjoy what I do. I’m quite passionate about it.”
Vitale offers as an example his next professional stop, Zurich Financial Services, where he was CEO of Global Corporate, with responsibility for all of Zurich's corporate business in North America in addition to Latin America, Europe, Asia Pacific and the Middle East.
“When I was with Zurich, I pretty much had the dream job that I wanted,” he explains. “I had a dream team that I had hand-picked. I was running a fully integrated business of all products and services for large-account customers around the world, with 6,500 employees working for me. It was the most profitable business that Zurich had in 2009 and 2010, of all the Zurich businesses. People thought I had lost my mind when I decided to [leave].
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The problem was, for someone who finds his greatest enjoyment pushing the stone up the hill, sitting atop the peak didn't keep Vitale fulfilled.
“There were several things that helped me make that decision, but one of the most important ones was that I wanted to build,” he says. “I found myself with this big wonderful job where my main task was to come in and maintain that position. There wasn't enough chaos; there wasn't enough challenge.”
In 2011, Vitale discovered what he was looking for when he began speaking with Aspen Insurance, which he calls “an underwriting company built by an underwriter” — former Lloyd's of London broker Chris O’Kane, who has served as group CEO and a director since he founded Aspen in 2002.
If it was action he wanted, Vitale had found it. On his first day on the job in February 2011, he was greeted with the same intense pace and tone that characterized many of his early years in the business.
“I didn't want to get in too early that first day, so I got in at 9 o’clock and there were already two people waiting at my door,” he says. “They said, ‘We need to see you. We have a problem.’ I hadn't even put my briefcase down. It didn't slow down, and it went until like 8 o’clock that night, problem after problem was revealed.”
Vitale went back to his corporate apartment that night wondering if perhaps this role wasn't for him, but the next morning, he rallied. “I viewed it as a challenge,” he says. “It was a challenge to build the business and a challenge to fix it. I said to myself, ‘If there wasn't so much to do, they wouldn't need you. I can do this,’ and I never looked back.”
As CEO of Aspen's Global Insurance business, Vitale oversees its worldwide property and casualty, marine, energy, construction, aviation, railroad and financial and professional business, and has executive oversight for the U.S. platform as chairman of the insurer's Insurance U.S. Executive Board.
Five years in, Vitale is encouraged by Aspen's progress, but knows its full potential has yet to be realized. Its recent year-end results saw growth in its property and casualty and financial and professional lines sub-segments offset by a decline in the marine, aviation and energy sub-segments. He cites the devastating floods in the U.K. as one particularly heavy loss that had to be absorbed.
Yet Vitale keeps his eye focused several moves down the line: He has a five-year plan he's intent on executing. “We need to stay within our specialty business and specialty products, to do what we do well in the U.K. and the U.S. and do it more globally,” he says. “The only way to do that is to have global product leaders in many of our product lines.”
To that end, in January Vitale brought aboard William McElroy, who is now Aspen's global head of environmental; London-based Oliver Brew, who has been named executive vice president and global head of cyber risk and head of international professional indemnity; Bruce Eisler, global head of professional liability; Don Harrell, global head of marine and chief operating officer of international operations; and Tim Kania, Aspen's new global head of energy and construction. All except Eisler most recently worked for Liberty International Underwriters (LIU).
Any migration of talent of that number — which has happened before with LIU, in Aspen's case — tends to spur legal action, something Vitale can't discuss.
“I think people just want to work for people they can follow,” he says. “Going back to my North Haven, Conn., example, if you don't have a defined goal and a good communicator in front of you, then people get confused and they start worrying about their jobs and can become easily distracted.
“We want people who know what their job is, who are happy here and want to stay here and develop themselves and finish out their careers here. Not everybody can do that, but the reality of the situation is, if you start with that kind of mentality you will attract better talent.
“We like what we see,” he adds. “I still believe the best is yet to come.”
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