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Uncle Les looks back

Source: Asia Insurance Review | May 2013

 

Mr Leslie Mouat, the recently-retired Chairman and Head of Distribution, AIG APAC Holdings Pte Ltd, looks back at his more than 40 years in the industry, and shares his pride in being part of the industry,  being an AIG man, his “Double K” management style and his future plans.
By Benjamin Ang
 
“I had no clue what to do after I left school, and I went into the industry by accident actually. The old UK broking firm I joined offered the highest salary of GBP11 a week,” Mr Mouat said with a laugh as he recounted how he got started more than 40 years ago.
 
The worst of times, the best of times
Asked about the greatest challenge in his career, he pointed to the liquidity crisis that AIG went through in 2008 without hesitation. 
 
It was dark days then, but looking back at it now, it is also the best of times, he said. “When you are faced with the challenge and you are in the media presented in a bad way pretty much on a daily basis, you become a very close band of brothers. We fought like Asian tigers,” he said. 
 
“We didn’t realise how many friends we had and probably didn’t realise how many enemies we had as well,” 
he added.
 
Fast forward to now - probably against all odds and against the time frame people expected - the obligations have been paid with interest. “During the crisis, we also probably communicated with the market, our distribution partners, customers and employees better than any time in our history,” he said. “And that’s why we call it the best of times now. A spectacular organisation that received tremendous support from a whole host of people - including the employees and regulators – and we will always be grateful for that.” 
 
Of guns and claims
On his most interesting career experiences, he recounted an episode earlier in his career. While he declined to say where it happened, Mr Mouat said he was sitting at his desk one day when a military gentleman in uniform, wanting to talk about a claim that was declined, walked in and placed his gun on the desk. 
 
After looking through the file, it was obvious that the decision was correct and so the decision stood. He told the man: “Look, you can take the gun and shoot me, but trust me, no AIG guy who is going to come and sit in my chair will be paying this claim.” 
 
The “Double K” management style
But life was not as dramatic as that all the time. For the most part, Mr Mouat was commonly referred to as “everyone’s friend” and a “classy gentleman” in the industry. He revealed that within AIG in Asia, his nickname is “Uncle Les”. “I wear that as a badge of honour, because I will go out of my way to motivate and embrace local staff,” he said.
 
“It may sound cliché, but I think part of leadership is to try and inspire people to be the best that they can be. If you want to be successful, you need to have the right people with the right motivation, in the right place with the right plan,” he said.
 
He added: “Part of the enjoyment of this job is when you see people move up the ladder and taking on bigger responsibilities as a result of some of the guidance and mentoring that you’ve given them. That’s a nice feeling, but at the same time the frustration sometimes is seeing people not achieve their aspirations and potential when they could too.”
 
And the management style he used to motivate and inspire staff? “Double K”. “I would kiss them or kick them whenever they deserved it. There is no mystery with me, I will say it as I see it,” he said. 
 
An industry to be proud of
As for the industry, he said it is one that we should all be proud of. “When a major earthquake happened in Baguio, Philippines, in 1990 and all the roads were impossible because of the destruction and landslides, we managed to get up there using a plane that belonged to a company of the group,” said Mr Mouat.
 
“We literally had a suitcase full of money and went around to our insureds and said, ‘Here is the money, go and fix your roof, your wall, and whatever you need to do.’,” he added. 
 
There was also a Singaporean family that went to Tibet for a vacation when the husband suffered from a heart attack. An air craft with doctors and nurses was mobilised to evacuate them and the family was brought back and rushed to the hospital in time. 
 
“Today he is still walking around, still being a husband and still being a dad, for a modest premium of $125,” said Mr Mouat. “And that is the power of this business, we saved a life and saved a family. We often talk about product, revenue, profitability, and what we are doing with capital, we sometimes forget that we are actually providing a service to people in times of need,” he said. 
 
Blowing the industry’s trumpet
“But if there is one thing I’m critical about the industry, it is that we don’t blow the trumpet enough about how good we are,” he said. 
 
The insurance industry is still regarded as second to the banking industry. “I think that is wrong, we should be looking to give our industry a much higher profile in the eyes of the governments and regulators,” he said.
 
A more concerted industry effort with a collective voice will be needed to help shape the industry and let it be viewed more positively, he added.
 
One way he suggested, is to have more new blood in General Insurance Associations. “With established professionals, there is a tendency to look for status quo, when what we should really be doing is to use the platform as a lobbying vehicle to get governments to understand what we do exactly, how we do it, the capital we deploy, and how we are useful to society in general,” he said.
 
Sending the right messages
And of course, in trying to improve the industry’s image, companies have a role to play as well. One of the things that needs improving is the discipline in underwriting. 
 
When a major CAT event occurs, reinsurance capacity dries up and in order to get the necessary cover, premium rates increase by say, 30% or 50%, he said. And then nothing happens for 12 months and suddenly prices get cut by 30% again in the fight for businesses. “What sort of message are we sending as an industry?” he asked. 
 
“In AIG, we charge our GMs to own the P&L for the country. They are measured on underwriting profit without any consideration of investment income,” he said. “It is a good discipline to have. Our job is to generate underwriting profits. We are not investment bankers.”
 
“Doing that has helped us, and will continue to help us stand the test of time. Pricing is obviously important, but it shouldn’t be just about price. It should also be about product, service, and the support you provide in terms of need,” he said.
 
Speaking his mind
Asked how he hopes the industry remembers him, he said after some thought: “A good guy who is not afraid to speak his mind, even if it is bad news.” 
 
“I think people will understand that I speak my mind even if it is things they don’t like to hear. I say it because I’m passionate about the industry,” he said.
 
Although Mr Mouat had to be prodded to talk about his Personality of the Year Award win in the 14th Asia Insurance Industry Awards for holding the team and the fort together in the wake of the global financial crisis and the AIG trauma, he said it was an honour and a “big thing” for him as it is a recognition by peers of the industry on his accomplishments. 
 
AIG man
Having spent 31 years in AIG and in Asia, Mr Mouat is an AIG man through and through. “It was a privilege to be part of its success story over the last decades,” he said. 
 
“The company matched my drive and expectations to be successful,” he said, adding: “Every opportunity was given to either succeed – or fail. And I’m grateful for that.” 
 
Continue to share knowledge
As for his future plans, he shared that he will remain in the company as a consultant till the end of the year. “I don’t know what I will be doing after this, but I sure as hell won’t be against AIG,” he said. 
 
“If my advice and my experience can be of value to people and companies by sitting on boards or as a consultant, I may consider that provided I feel I can add value and it is something worthwhile,” he said.
 
But for now, “I’m going to play more golf than I’ve had the chance to, and ‘enjoy’ my grandkids,” said Uncle Les.

 

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