‘We Start Businesses Instead of Buying Them,’ Berkley Says in Last Earnings Conference Call as CEO

By | November 16, 2015

wr_berkley_logoWilliam R. Berkley’s last earnings conference call as chief executive officer of the company that bears his name lasted just over 20 minutes, with a lack of questions about a less-eventful quarter than competitors keeping it shorter than most.

“I thank Mike McGavick for that,” Berkley quipped, referring to the CEO of XL Catlin and the fact that XL Catlin’s third-quarter earnings calls was scheduled for the same day and time as the Berkley conference.

As McGavick described a confusing quarter impacted by integration expenses from XL’s combination with Catlin and investment market volatility during a call lasting more than an hour-and-a-half, Berkley took turns with his son Rob Berkley (W. Robert Berkley Jr.) talking about a quarter that was in line with expectations – with top-line premium growth of 3.0 percent and a 93.7 third-quarter combined ratio almost unchanged from third-quarter 2014.

“We think that the performance of the business is reasonably good at this stage,” said the younger Berkley, who became CEO on Oct. 31 when William R. Berkley assumed the role of executive chairman.

They write the same business that I write and they pay no tax because they write in the U.S. in their U.S. companies and then reinsure it offshore. It’s unfair.

A hallmark of Berkley calls has been the references to “irrational” competitor behavior. Rob Berkley, taking up that mantle in recent years, didn’t disappoint with his discussion of the commercial auto line – an area that is finally getting the “needed action” – although he said competition in the commercial insurance market generally is only “modestly on the rise.”

Meanwhile, the elder Berkley’s reference to McGavick was the latest in a library of Berkleyisms that analysts and reporters have come to know and love over the years. A personal favorite: “My actuaries can’t even predict the past,” he said some years back in the same gravelly baritone voice with which he delivered his observation about the timing of the XL Catlin call.

In fact, a deep respect for his actuaries and other analytical types has always been apparent in more contemplative commentary that reflects a great understanding of the benefits of conservative loss reserving and the need to pay attention to inflationary trends – topics that he has highlighted in annual reports and biannual press briefings with the media in the past. During the Oct. 26 third-quarter earnings call, the soon-to-be executive chairman didn’t disappoint on that score either, engaging in his last teachable moment as CEO.

“We’re maintaining the quality of our investment portfolio and keeping a short duration because the risks of an insurance company are doubling down if inflation comes. You get hurt with your loss reserves. And if you extend the maturity and duration of your investment portfolio, you’re effectively doubling down. So we’ve chosen to reduce that risk – the one that we can control,” he said.

Berkley also talked about the strengths of his company as it moves forward in the competitive landscape. “We really do focus on risk-adjusted return. It means we do some things that some of our competitors don’t do. We don’t focus purely on accounting results because we’re focused on creating shareholder value more than reported earnings per se. That means we start businesses instead of buying them because that’s a better economic return; it’s not a better accounting statement return.”

He continued, explaining that “Rob spends a substantial amount of his time out talking to new teams, constantly trying to find the best teams to do particular things, [which] can be small niches or big chunks of opportunity…What we really are is a large group of small niches, and we do it in a way that we can compete administratively and cost wise. We don’t look like the people we compete with, even though the numbers claim to be the same.”

In fact, the earnings press release noted that third-quarter highlights include startups of five new businesses. Among them are a treaty reinsurance unit dedicated to business in South Africa; a professional and pollution liability unit for construction contractors; and Berkley International Seguros Colombia, providing construction all risk, surety, general liability, directors and officers liability, and other commercial insurance products to the Colombian market.

“Clearly, it’s a cyclical business, but we think we’re well positioned and we’re constantly investing in that future,” Berkley said on the conference call. “It probably costs us $20 million a quarter each year for the new things we’ve been investing in. Things we invested in three years ago give us a positive return; the new things that we’re spending money on cost us money.

“We think that’s how you build business for the future. We think we’re going to have a better business in the future than we have today. And today’s business is better than yesterday.”

Looking Back

Competitors that build by consolidating large businesses were on Berkley’s mind during an earlier conference call in the second quarter this year. “Consolidation that is happening now is frequently about management ego or management rewards and less than it is about what you need to run your business,” he said during the company’s July 27, 2015 call.

A more biting remark came during a fourth-quarter conference call in February. “It’s just fewer people for the government to look at who don’t pay taxes. It just makes it easier,” said Berkley, who is well known as a champion of the cause of the Coalition for a Domestic Insurance Industry, which seeks to eliminate a tax deduction for premiums paid to offshore reinsurance affiliates.

The August announcement about succession plans at W.R. Berkley Corp. notes that William R. Berkley “will continue to be fully engaged in the company’s activities, primarily focused on investments and strategy.”

While there’s no reason to assume that he won’t be participating with commentary on future calls, or sharing his views on taxation fairness with Washington lawmakers, his final days as CEO prompted us to look back on some of the advice and commentary he has delivered over the years.

Berkley on Reinsurance

Summing up his thoughts on the reinsurance market just a year ago, he said that “many of the people who are now playing in that…game don’t have a substantial moral commitment to our industry,” according to a report from Carrier Management Editor Mark Hollmer. “This is an ever-so-alluring business, appearing so predictable but proving to be particularly unpredictable when the unforeseen event arises,” he said. “Many companies after [Hurricane Katrina] and several other events would have proven to be insolvent if in fact anyone said they had to pay their claims now. They went out and raised capital very quickly on financial statements that were, at best, questionable.”

Berkley on Offshore Taxes

Discussing the offshore tax situation earlier this year, he said: “We hope that Congress recognizes [that] they never intended the tax laws to give a benefit to companies based outside the United States, and that’s what the tax law does.”

“They write the same business that I write and they pay no tax because they write in the U.S. in their U.S. companies and then reinsure it offshore. It’s unfair,” he said during a televised interview on CNBC last September. “At some point every insurance company will be based offshore, and those jobs will migrate, and ultimately this very critical industry, and a huge industry – millions of employees and hundreds of billions of revenue – will be based outside the U.S. “And it’s critical for our economy. But companies don’t do business where they have the highest costs.”

Berkley on Google

As for Google getting into the business of auto insurance distribution: “I’m here to tell you that you’re screwed,” he told a group of agents, according to a report from Insurance Journal’s Stephanie K. Jones from the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas’ Joe Vincent Management Seminar in late January.

Among the reasons: “Google has the capacity to change auto insurance because it will be able to charge a different amount for every driver and every car.

“They can give you a plug-in device, not unlike Progressive’s, and they know exactly when you’re breaking the law and when you’re not. They can rate you exactly on how good a driver you are – every day,” he said, referring to the tech giant’s knowledge of the rules for driving on every road in the United States.

Berkley on Risk and Reward

There’s always a serious side even to Berkley’s most off-the-cuff remarks, which have included many references to the “stupidity” of companies and underwriters in prolonging soft markets over the years.

On the serious side, he has said, “This is a marathon business, not a sprint,” describing the rationale for starting up niche businesses instead of engaging in mergers. Berkley offered the reasoning during an interview five years ago as he explained the startups of more than 20 niche businesses the company had started up in the prior five years. “We believe that in the enterprise known as insurance you succeed because of expertise. So we look for people with particular expertise,” he said.

One of Berkley’s most entertaining stories relates to his first failed attempt to merge two companies – Houston General and Traders & General – in the early 1970s. “Houston General was a fabulously well-managed, highly automated company. They knew exactly what they were doing. Unfortunately, they were losing money,” he told a group of reporters at a media briefing back in 1998. “At Traders & General, they literally wore green eyeshades [and] kept track of claims on Popsicle sticks, [but] that damn backward company made unbelievable amounts of money.”

The young entrepreneur decided to combine the two insurers that he had acquired for a money management firm he started as a Harvard Business School student. “I ended up with a bigger company that didn’t make any money,” he said.

Even before Harvard Business School, Berkley was an investor, buying his first stock at age 12. “It was Continental Vending,” he recalled, noting that he spent the next few years learning about investing. “I was probably 14 when I subscribed to Fortune, and I read about Lee Iacocca taking over Chrysler. I called him, and he actually talked to me,” Berkley remembered during a 2010 interview.

In 1963, Berkley, then an NYU student, said he started a hedge fund after reading about A.W. Jones, who had the first one. “That evolved into managing other people’s money.” At Harvard Business School three years later, the hedge fund evolved into another, which was effectively the predecessor to W.R. Berkley Corp.

“For almost 50 years, I’ve been an investor involved in insurance. The only constant during the entire period of time is the existence of risk in some form or another,” Berkley said during a presentation at a Professional Liability Underwriting Society conference in 2008 – one of many on the topic of risk that he has given over the years. “What do we really know given the rapidly changing world? Can we still rely on the past as a way to predict the future?” he asked, seriously reflecting on questions about the risks that contributed to the financial crisis and the accuracy of the tools and models built to measure and monitor risk.

During the third-quarter earnings call last month, the leader painted an optimistic picture for the future. “We continue to look out and see lots of volatility and uncertainly in the future. But we have a lot of confidence in the things that we see. For every problem, for every change, it creates new opportunities. And we think having the smartest people, the best underwriters and the best teams of people continues to give us a competitive advantage,” he said.

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