Insurance and Climate Change column

Zurich’s Sustainable U.S. Campus Is One Part of Its Green Ambitions

By | November 17, 2016

The voice of Zurich North America Chief Legal Officer Dennis Kerrigan swelled with pride as he described the carrier’s new headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill., and its importance to Zurich’s overall philosophy about environmental and social responsibility.

The 783,800-square-foot corporate campus sitting on 40 acres in the Chicago suburb has garnered high recognition for its environmental design and building sustainability.

Employees began moving in on Oct. 3, and have been filling up the headquarters in phases since.

When work on the nearly $400 million project was started three years ago, the company’s leaders set out to make it a place where current and future employees would want to be.

“We took an approach to really involve our employees from the beginning,” Kerrigan said.

Management put together employee focus groups to generate feedback, such as a fitness and wellness group – which recommended things like walking trails and a fitness center – and a corporate responsibility and environmental sustainability group.

“That was one of the most popular groups that we had,” Kerrigan said of the latter group.

Zurich North America's headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill., earned the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Platinum rating. James Steinkamp Photography
Zurich North America’s headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill., earned the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum rating.
James Steinkamp Photography

The resulting development earned the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum rating, the highest a building can receive.

But that is just one of several climate-friendly acknowledgements for a company that has apparently set out to establish itself as being green.

Recently, the company earned praise in an annual report by sustainability leadership advocate Ceres that assessed insurer disclosures on climate change risks.

The report, “Insurer Climate Risk Disclosure Survey Report and Scorecard,” evaluated the quality of responses from insurance companies in the annual National Association of Insurance Commissioners Climate Risk Disclosure Survey.

Only 22 of all insurers studied earned the “High Quality” rating, including Zurich.

Going back to the North American headquarters, one of its unique features – beside an eye-grabbingly stacked geometric design – are its “green roofs.”

“The building has over an acre of green roofs to minimize water runoff and increase the efficiency of our heating and cooling systems,” Kerrigan said.

Some 4,300 native shrubs and trees were planted to minimize the impact on the environment and minimize erosion, nearly all of the building materials used were recycled and its design is intended to maximize natural lighting.

A highly efficient HVAC system, a cogeneration facility, electric vehicle charging stations and numerous parking spaces designated for fuel efficient vehicles are other green aspects of the campus.

Zurich could have gone for a lower LEED certification with less hassle and lower cost, but the company’s management opted to go big.

“Experts have estimated that it was between 5 and 10 percent extra to achieve that,” Kerrigan said in comparing the costs of a development that would have likely earned a Silver LEED certification with that of the Platinum rating they got.

Not that it’s necessarily a green thing, but the 3,000 employees there have sit-stand desks that can be adjusted to suit a worker’s preference. So, you can add health-conscious to the HQ’s list.

Why all the hullabaloo?

“We’re a values-based company and we care about the community in which we live and work and we also want to attract and retain the best talent,” Kerrigan said.

While millennials are most often associated with the type of employee who wants to work for a company they feel is environmentally and socially responsible, Kerrigan and his fellow managers found out during the building process that the more mature, longer-tenured employees also expressed a strong interest in working for a conscientious organization.

“They all share the same values – that they want to be part of a company that shares their values,” Kerrigan said.

Because Donald Trump is not in the news enough, I asked Kerrigan if he felt the president-elect – who has been less than publicly supportive of the idea of battling climate change – would have the impact of reversing or dampening interest in going green.

“I don’t because the severity of weather events is continuing,” he said. “Whether you want to get into a political debate about climate change or not, the fact is that weather events are getting more severe.”

In other words, politics don’t matter, what matters is getting policyholders to understand the risks of severe weather and then mitigate those risks, he added.

“One of the things we’ve really focused on is flood resilience and educating the community about flood resilience,” he said.

The company recently released a year-after report conducted with the help of Aon and ISET-International that examined South Carolina’s devastating October 2015 flooding, which caused an estimated $12 billion in total losses with roughly $2 billion in insured losses.

Scientists from the organizations spent time in South Carolina interviewing people with knowledge of the event and used a methodology called Post-Event Review Capability, described as “a consistent, analytical approach to uncovering the root causes of a disaster.”

The report, part of a series of PERCs conducted worldwide by Zurich and its research collaborators, focuses on flooding in Columbia and Charleston, which are dramatically different in that one’s inland and the other is a coastal area.

The report shows how the same storm can unfold differently across diverse locations, but that many of the same steps can be taken to better protect and prepare these communities for flooding, Kerrigan said.

“Going into a community after a flood event, we find, is very impactful,” he said.

Recommendations from the PERC report include:

  • Build back better
  • Address misconceptions about flood risk
  • Increase personal awareness and responsibility
  • Let people take the initiative
  • Address problems related to dams
  • Review the damage assessment process
  • Make buyouts strategic
  • Review insurance penetration and accessibility

On the other side of the leger, Zurich has been bullish on green investing.

Manuel Lewin, head of responsible investing for Zurich, said the carrier continues to look for ways to make its $200 billion investment portfolio more green.

Impact investing is one part of that process.

“Impact investing is about identifying very specific investment opportunities that allow us to target a positive outcome on the environment without compromising risk and return,” Lewin said.

The company has made a public commitment to go into the green bond market and invest up $2 billion. They are about three-quarters of the way to that goal, according to Lewin.

Zurich has also publicly committed to direct up to 10 percent of its investments with private equity mangers toward delivering a “tangible impact,” he added.

Above and beyond those initiatives, the company is reaching out to others in the financial sector to make responsible investment practices more mainstream.

Zurich is part of the Investment Leaders Group, a global network of pension funds, insurers and asset managers committed to responsible investing.

“The ILG´s mission is to help shift the investment chain towards responsible, long-term value creation, such that economic, social and environmental sustainability are delivered as an outcome of the investment management process as investors go about generating robust, long-term returns,” an explainer on the group’s website states.

Lewin, who has been a driving force behind the concept of green bond investing principles, stressed that this green bent is far more than a side project within the company’s overall investment strategy.

“We’re trying to do this in a very integrated way,” he said. “Our ambition’s really to have a truly responsible investment culture.”

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of columns looking at carriers that are recognized as green and how they are benefiting from that. The first piece focused on The Hartford.

Past columns:

Topics USA Carriers Flood Pollution Climate Change

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