Each year, the new recruits at Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance – from a 20-something fresh out of university in Sydney to a Paris-based senior executive with decades of experience – board planes in their home cities and fly to Connecticut. There, BHSI’s global leadership team details the company’s values, philosophy about the insurance industry and points of difference with competitors.
It’s an important step in ensuring that the business philosophies and values of Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett and BHSI CEO Peter Eastwood become part of the DNA of every team member. Mark Lingafelter, president of BHSI Australasia, describes the annual ritual as “incredibly unique”.
“Unfortunately, COVID has forced change in our usual structure,” he says, “but it is a good example of our level of commit-ment to really spending time and helping the team understand that there is a common set of values that sit at the heart of the company – not only to help understand what those values and practices mean, but to also help the team understand they really are non-negotiable. So much of that comes from the longstanding philosophies of Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway.”
It was this dedication to integrity that attracted Lingafelter to BHSI. His values and devoted work ethic have been constants in a 30-plus-year insurance career that has taken him around the US, to Asia and even-tually to Australia, which he and his family now call home.
Lingafelter grew up in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, where one of his first jobs was as a caddy at Shaker Heights Country Club at age 15.“On a busy day, I carried two bags 36 holes,” he says. “It was hard work for not a lot of money. On a good day, I pulled down $32.”
He began his insurance career with Chubb shortly after graduating from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, in 1983.“
My senior year was in the middle of a recession, and my thoughts around taking a short break after graduation and applying to law school seemed less realistic,” Lingafelter recalls. “So, for practical economic consid-erations, I interviewed with a number of companies while I was at college and was interested in a small property & casualty company called Chubb and was lucky enough to join their training program.
”Chubb initially sent Lingafelter to its Dallas, Texas, office, but it wasn’t long before he was on the move around the US.
“While I was always in the same area of the business, the book of business you would encounter as an underwriter from city to city was different,” he says. “In Dallas, I remember insuring helicopters for the military, but then when I moved to Philadelphia to lead a small business there, we were dealing with a lot more property risks. When I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was getting exposure to oil fields and trying to get a better understanding of the storage and contracting risks in that market. You end up going through a process that stretches you, and you start to get comfortable stepping into new roles where you wouldn’t be the subject-matter expert on day one. Probably the best example of that was to move overseas in the mid-1990s and take on a lead-ership role in Asia based in Singapore.
”In Singapore, Lingafelter moved from product leadership to country leadership. After overseeing Chubb’s Singapore business across all lines, he moved to Hong Kong to take charge of the insurer’s business in Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand. In 2005, Chubb offered him the opportunity to move to Sydney to run the Australian business.“
It’s the type of opportunity you accept after your first phone call,” Lingafelter says. “The opportunity to move with my family to Australia and take on the challenge of a business that, at the time, was close to 50% of Chubb’s portfolio across Asia-Pacific was a once-in-a lifetime chance. It was really my wife and kids who decided, after moving around a lot, that they felt like Australia became home. For the kids, over time they really felt a desire, understandably, to put down roots, and we were lucky to get citizen-ship in Australia.”
In 2015, Lingafelter left Chubb and joined QBE Insurance as managing director for Asia-Pacific. Then, in 2018, he was offered the opportunity to run Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance’s Australian business.“I spoke with Peter Eastwood, who was the global CEO, and Chris Colahan, who was leading their business in Europe,” Lingafelter says. “They spoke about their long-term focus and the fact that, in their view, winning isn’t normal in their industry and the importance of bringing a very disciplined approach to the underwriting process and the importance of operating with integ-rity. I was excited about joining a company that, although it was in many respects still a startup, had at its foundation these prin-ciples that I knew, from my 30 years in the industry, were the correct way to run a busi-ness in a very challenging environment.”
Commitment to excellence
Lingafelter, BHSI and the rest of the Australian insurance industry have faced an extraordinary 12 months, between the historic bushfire season, hailstorms, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic. Lingafelter believes BHSI’s culture, business philos-ophy and high priority on values – taught from day one at the Connecticut gatherings – have been essential in guiding the company through this difficult period.
“So many companies hang the value statement on the wall,” he says. “What is rare is there is an extraordinary commit-ment to challenging our team to keep things simple [and] make sure we are engaging and checking ourselves in terms of how we are actually showing up. Are we actually behaving in a way that is consistent with the value statement for our company? Are we demonstrating respect? Are we operating with integrity? How effectively are we collab-orating with our team? There is a commit-ment to excellence that runs through the company that does make me feel fortunate to have joined Berkshire Hathaway.”