2020 Women to Watch Inspiration Award: Inga BealePosted On: Dec. 2, 2020 12:00 AM CST
Accepting her first promotion proved to be one of the most defining moments of Inga Beale’s career in the insurance industry, which spanned nearly four decades, culminating in her being the first woman to lead Lloyd’s of London.
Ms. Beale, the recipient of the 2020 Business Insurance Inspiration Award, had initially turned down the opportunity for advancement because she felt she wasn’t up to the task. That was in the early 1990s at GE Insurance.
“That was my first foray into leadership. Up until that point I’d been this sporty, rather tomboy sort of person, traveling on my own, maybe a bit spiky, a bit angry with the world, so I didn’t think about having a career,” Ms. Beale said. A former elite rower, she also played rugby for 12 years with the London Wasps rugby union team.
With the support of GE she took the promotion, a move that made her believe in her own ability.
“That was pivotal, because when I started leading people I realized how much I enjoyed it and how much satisfaction I got about seeing others grow and develop,” she said.
Growing up in the market town of Newbury in Berkshire, England, Ms. Beale hadn’t sought out a career in insurance, but always wanted to move to London. Her father was a schoolteacher and her mother a legal assistant. There was no family connection with the finance or insurance sector and no history of anyone working in the city.
Ms. Beale was good at mathematics in school and thought perhaps she’d become an actuary. She moved to London to study for a degree in accounting but soon decided that student life was not for her. Realizing she needed to make money to fund the city lifestyle she so wanted, she applied for and was offered two jobs, a trainee accountant with the civil aviation authority and a trainee underwriter with Prudential Assurance.
The Prudential job paid £300 more a year, so she took it. That was 1982.
“It was so exciting,” she said. “I was looking at business — one day it was Australia, then it was Chile, then it was Japan. … It was reinsurance, so any time there was a disaster we were involved somehow. I got completely hooked and decided I was not going back to uni,” she said.
Another pivotal moment came in 2001 when GE asked her to move to its home office in Kansas City, Missouri, to take on the role of global underwriting leader. At that point she had worked in the London market for 19 years.
She spent two years in the U.S. honing her business management skills and gaining valuable exposure to the executive leadership at GE’s global headquarters. “That was where fundamentally the big decisions were made so career-wise it was the best thing I could have done,” she said.
From there, progressively more senior leadership roles in Europe followed, first in Paris and then Munich before she left GE to become group CEO of Switzerland-based reinsurer Converium Ltd. in 2006. She was named a Business Insurance Woman to Watch winner that same year.
Throughout her career Ms. Beale has embraced new cultures and countries and striven to bring diverse voices to the table. During her early days at Prudential, she took a year’s sabbatical to travel around the world after needing a break from the city of London’s then male-dominated workplace culture.
“That’s when I first got to appreciate people who were different. I traveled on my own, meeting new people and striking up conversations. That’s helped me later in life realize how enriching it is to have different people all around you,” she said.
At Converium, in her first CEO role at a listed company, Ms. Beale was thrust into the limelight. The reinsurer was in financial difficulties and had been downgraded by the ratings agencies. “A real turnaround was needed. … I decided to take this challenge on, and little did I know what I was letting myself in for. It was a massive learning curve,” she said.
Ms. Beale thrived on the challenge, nurturing Converium back to health, and was “devastated” when French reinsurer Scor SE made a hostile takeover bid for the company in 2007. However, the experience ultimately made her more resilient.
“I never cried again over something like that,” she said. “I learned a lot. …You think you’re important, but actually you’re just a pawn in the whole game of finance. That’s how it made me feel,” she said.
After Converium, Ms. Beale spent four years with Zurich Insurance Group in Switzerland before moving back to London to become group CEO of Canopius, a Lloyd’s managing agent, in 2012.
When she heard the CEO of Lloyd’s of London was leaving, Ms. Beale thought to herself, “I wouldn’t mind that job.” Six months later she was offered the role and “a chance to change history” as the first woman to head Lloyd’s.
During her time at the helm of the market from 2014 to 2018, Ms. Beale led a major digital and cultural transformation. She admits that finding the line between what you could modernize and what you couldn’t was “tough.”
“I thought there would be more momentum from the younger generation. I thought I would automatically get their support when, in fact, I had to work on that group,” she said.
Shirine Khoury-Haq, chief financial officer of the Co-op in Manchester and Lloyd’s chief operating officer from 2014 to 2019, said it is Ms. Beale’s “ability to see the end game” and resilience as a leader that set her apart.
“We had this agenda to digitize the market, but previous to that we had to get engagement across the Lloyd’s market, across the brokers and the company market. For me, working with Inga was just inspirational.”
Ms. Beale considers leading the technology change at Lloyd’s among her proudest achievements. “I don’t know what they would have done in COVID if they hadn’t had an electronic platform,” she said.
She’s also proud of her role in launching the Dive In festival, a worldwide event that celebrates diversity and inclusion in the insurance sector as well as other D&I initiatives. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2017 New Year honors for her services to the economy.
Recognizing and celebrating difference has been a hallmark of her career as has her advocacy for gender, LGBTQ, ethnic and cultural diversity in business. As with her own bisexuality, Ms. Beale thinks it’s important to be overt on these matters.
When she was still at Lloyd’s she remembers getting an email from a Black woman working in insurance, who wrote, “It’s all very well what you’re doing, but fundamentally you’re doing this really for white women, and I don’t feel you’re ever speaking for me or doing anything specific for me.”
Ms. Beale said that when she first read the note, she felt a little hurt, but after thinking about it she realized she probably wasn’t doing anything proactive. “What I’ve learned over the years is if you want to make change you’ve got to be proactive about it. It’s not just going to happen. You can’t just talk nice words,” she said.
During her time at Lloyd’s she also changed the composition of the executive team to 50/50 gender representation and said more company CEOs could make this happen.
“If you’re the boss and want to make it happen it can be achieved. The chair can make it happen, the CEO can make it happen,” she said. What’s tougher for organizations is to develop a pipeline of diverse talent that runs through into the C-suite, she said.
Now no longer immersed in the insurance CEO life 24/7, Ms. Beale holds several non-executive roles on the boards of various companies including Crawford & Co. and Mediclinic International Inc. She also continues to speak regularly on diversity and inclusion as well as transformation.
While several high-profile senior insurance executives have stepped down only to return to the sector a few years later to launch new ventures or to help existing companies, Ms. Beale isn’t tempted to do the same. “The world is full of so many new things that I want to learn about. That would feel a bit like going backwards to me. I want to keep going into new areas,” she said.