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Strong technical skills help reinsurer exec scoop top APIW honor

Posted On: Jun. 17, 2007 12:00 AM CST

Strong technical skills help reinsurer exec scoop top APIW honor

NEW YORK—Making it to the executive suite as a woman in the male-dominated insurance industry is no easy task, but H. Elizabeth Mitchell hopes young women in the industry can benefit from her experience.

Ms. Mitchell, president of Platinum Underwriters Reinsurance Inc., ascended to a top position in the industry by leveraging her skills as an actuary and tackling diverse, complicated projects in various lines of business.

Having a strong technical background, and the educational credentials that go with it, is critical for young women to advance because when they achieve that level of expertise, "your experience speaks more than your gender," Ms. Mitchell said.

Being one of only a few women to attain an executive position at the C-suite level in the insurance industry and her commitment to passing on the benefit of her experiences to other women are key reasons Ms. Mitchell was selected as the Insurance Woman of the Year by the Assn. of Professional Insurance Women.

"She made it to the C-suite, which is very impressive," said Maryanne Sherman, president of the APIW and Sherman Think Tank, a strategic planning and communications firm in Lawrenceville, N.J. "That part is what really makes her special."

Ms. Mitchell is the 31st recipient of the annual award from the APIW, an organization devoted to the advancement of professional insurance women, and was honored at a June 14 reception at the Marriott Marquis in New York.

"I think women who have broken though the glass ceiling and reached the top of the companies deserve to have recognition of that," said Laurie A. Kamaiko, a past president of the APIW, chair of the selection committee and a partner with law firm Edwards & Angell L.L.P. in New York. "Liz shows that nice girls do get the corner office."

As a young woman, Ms. Mitchell did not start college with the intention of entering the insurance industry. In fact, she attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., on a full scholarship as a classics major, studying Greek and Latin. During her college years, though, she also accumulated several mathematics credits. After graduating as the valedictorian of her class, Ms. Mitchell decided she wanted to enter the financial services industry because Wall Street was "hot" at the time, she said. Leveraging her mathematics background, she took a test to get a job with the Insurance Services Office in 1985 and began training as an actuary.

After working for ISO for more than a year, she moved on to Tillinghast/Towers Perrin, where she gained valuable experience seeing the topics she was studying put into practice in her six years with the firm, she said.

She worked as a corporate actuary with English & American Insurance Co. Ltd. before joining St. Paul Reinsurance Inc. in 1993, where she held several senior positions before becoming the executive vp responsible for all North American casualty underwriting.

As part of a massive restructuring of the insurer's organization, the unit was spun off and renamed Platinum in 2002. Ms. Mitchell held the position of chief operating officer and executive vp of Platinum US before being named president in August 2005. The company writes more than $1 billion of property, casualty and health reinsurance premium.

"She has helped create and develop Platinum Re to the success that it is," Ms. Kamaiko said.

Although there were few women working in the financial services industries when she began her career, Ms. Mitchell said this did not have an impact on her progression in the insurance industry. She did not experience gender issues at the consulting firm, which she described as a meritocracy that was somewhat invisible to gender, with several women in senior positions.

"I was in some ways lucky because I was shielded from the all-boys network," Ms. Mitchell said.

Although she believes there is less systemic discrimination against women in the insurance industry today, women still have not ascended the corporate ladder in equal numbers as men. "I don't think we'll ever get to 50/50 representation, so to speak," she said. "Too many women opt out of the workforce."

The ability to maintain a good work/life balance is a critical issue for women in the insurance industry as well as other fields, she said. Ms. Mitchell personally experiences this issue as head of a reinsurance company, as a wife and as a mother to her 6-year-old daughter, Leandre. For example, her daughter recently had her first cavity filled and Ms. Mitchell wanted to be there, so she scheduled the dentist appointment for 10 a.m. and conducted a conference call before the appointment.

"I think the balancing is a struggle for many working women," Ms. Mitchell said.

Maintaining the proper balance requires a flexible approach and less of a separation between work and personal life, as well as an understanding of the need to share work tasks with colleagues and child care responsibilities with your partner, as Ms. Mitchell does with her husband, Marvin Pestcoe, president of Partner Re New Solutions.

"There are things you miss," she said. "You try to get rid of the things you don't need to do and focus on the things you need to."

Platinum offers employees flexible work arrangements whenever possible to try to help their employees maintain the right balance, as long as they are available and productive, Ms. Mitchell said. "It's not about being nice," Ms. Mitchell said. "It makes tremendous business sense" since it helps retain good employees.

Mr. Pestcoe--Ms. Mitchell's husband of about 10 years--said he is incredibly proud of his wife, both for her success in reaching such a high-level position and for winning the APIW award, particularly in such a competitive year. The association received more nominations this year than it has in the past four years.

"I think she's been a success at just about anything she's taken on," he said. "I think it's a natural culmination to the things she's been doing since the beginning of her career."