Underwriting Agencies' William Legge looks back on his career

William Legge, the long serving general manager of the Underwriting Agencies Council (UAC) has announced his retirement. During his tenure, that began in 2011, UAC membership has doubled and members' gross written premiums have gone up by many billions of dollars. In this edition of IBTV, Legge reflects on industry trends, his early underwriting career in Southeast Asia and lessons he’s learned from more than five decades in the industry. 

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Danny: [00:00:21] Hello and welcome back to Insurance Business TV. I'm Danny Wood, news editor of Insurance Business Australia. Today we're joined by, I think it's fair to say, although he might disagree, an industry legend, William Legge, general manager of UAC, the Underwriting Agencies Council, has announced that he'll be retiring in December after many decades in the industry working across Australia and Asia. He joins us now to talk about his career. Welcome, William.

William: [00:00:47] Danny thank you. Thank you for having me. 

Danny: [00:00:50] Sure. It's a pleasure. So what precipitated your announcement. 

William: [00:00:54] So the time had arrived, I think was sort of my wife and I were talking about it early this year, and we both looked at what we wanted to do in the future. And so I had a chat with the board and we decided to put into effect the succession plan that UAC has for exactly this sort of situation. And that's what got the whole thing rolling along. 

Danny: [00:01:18] Yeah. So you're retiring from from UAC and completely from underwriting or just just UAC. 

William: [00:01:23] At this stage, the idea is to retire, sort of. So what I'll do is I've said to the board that, okay, I'll, I'll finish up as an employee at the end of December. So effectively at the AGM which is in December also, but you know, 31 December and then as needed if they have somebody, you know, sort of they're in place at that time, I'll be more than willing to sort of be available for the handover. So introductions and handovers, that sort of thing. So from the 31.12, if necessary, I'll be on a contract with UAC until all is well. And then we sort of then I move on. 

Danny: [00:02:04] When we've spoken in the past, you're always very upbeat about the situation for underwriters, the growth, the opportunities, and that's probably still the case, I imagine. But the wider economy is looking a little gloomy as you make this announcement, what challenges do you see ahead for your members? For underwriters generally? 

William: [00:02:23] I really think that the the the success of the underwriting agency network will will continue. I mean, as as the economy itself hardens or whatever and becomes more stringent, I think that's when the underwriting agency world, it really comes into its own. It has the capability now to to it's been expanding in its growth over the last five, seven years. And I don't see that discontinuing for the for the foreseeable future. The economy itself is strong. It's just that there are immediate problems which Treasury has to look at with the with the economy sort of being under control or being out of control. So but either way, people do need insurance. So and that's where exactly where the underwriting agency world is with the broking market. So we are number one area for them to turn to to secure covers for their for their client base. 

Danny: [00:03:25] You were UAC's first general manager back in 2011. What are some of the yeah. What are some of the big changes that you've seen in your more than a decade leading the agency? 

William: [00:03:36] I think really well, speaking about UAC itself, I think it's just the sheer growth. I think when I first came into this into this particular role, I was on the board before this, you know, running underwriting agencies. And then we let those go. And that's when I think Damian Coates, who was chair at the time of the UAC, suggested that we we the board had been looking for somebody to actually put into effect the plans and dreams which the board had. But naturally, everyone's going to around the board has got a day job. So it's becoming more and more difficult. The more adventurous we became, the more difficult it was to actually put those those dreams into effect. So he saw this as being an ideal time to get somebody who knew exactly what we're trying to achieve and was available. So he persuaded me to, you know, take on the job and he also persuaded the board at the same time. So so I think if good blame or no good, you can blame Daniel Coates. Yeah. 

Danny: [00:04:41] Well, that was he like what you've been doing? You've been there for more than a decade. They've probably had opportunities to boot you out if they really wanted to go. 

William: [00:04:48] Exactly, exactly. But so I think it's the numbers of underwriting agencies in the market that has increased and also the the acceptability by the broking market. Who are they? Actually, our main customers and actually coming to the underwriting agency world. And before that, I think like most people, if you have a choice of dealing with the principal or an agency, you do tend to lean towards the principal if you are getting better terms or better conditions or whatever, just it is a natural. It won't be for you. If there's two choices, you go to the most obvious one. And then as time went on, I think we became more and more familiar to the the broking market, and they became comfortable, very comfortable indeed when dealing with us. And that has continued to a degree where the the growth and the growth in the written premium being written by our members has increased substantially over that period. I think when I first came, I think we were we were not quite $2 billion being written by our members. I think nowadays it's between the ten and 12 billion. So it's a dramatic increase of our percentage of the national book being written by our members. 

Danny: [00:06:05] Yeah. So a dramatic increase and I suppose in a sense a culture shift in the attitude of brokers and where they can place their risks. 

William: [00:06:13] Absolutely. 

Danny: [00:06:14] Yeah. If you don't mind, I'd like to talk about culture in a slightly more general way for a second, because you turned up as a teenager in Australia back in the mid 1950s and it was such a different place back then. I'm just wondering what you remember from turning up and what surprised you the most as a kid arriving. 

William: [00:06:34] Coming to Australia. Yeah, well so my mother, who's Australian sort of said, oh, we're going home. And I thought that's unusual because I thought I was home, you know, in the UK. But now you're right, Australia in those days was a vastly different place. It was, you know, we hadn't really developed a international presence. I mean we had a tremendous reputation from both world wars as being very, very willing people in the in the international market. But I don't think yeah, I think we were very content in those days to just be what we were. Then the enormous immigration program came into place. In fact, when we when I came to Australia, I came by boat, which is the most in thing those days. And I think I think almost 90% of the passengers were indeed immigrants coming to Australia for the £10 POM program. So as my mother kept saying yes, but we paid full price, we're Australians. So it was a bit of a difference all round. But yeah I think it was, it was a good country, it was a very, very pleasant country. There was the usual routines about when you have new people coming in, there was there's always difficulties when you change countries for residents. And even as a kid, you sort of you got that situation. And I think my my first, my first year in Australia in the first year of school was interesting. It was probably a good way of putting it. 

Danny: [00:08:19] I won't push you for any gory details unless you want to give them. 

William: [00:08:26] More fights than roast dinners for the first year. 

Danny: [00:08:29] Oh really? Okay. 

William: [00:08:31] So at school, naturally, if you didn't like being called, that would guess what you were called. 

Danny: [00:08:41] Okay, well, let's move on. Let's move on a bit from there. Because when I've spoken to you before, you've talked about this really interesting early career you had around rubber plantations in South East Asia. I'm just wondering if you could just discuss that a little bit. 

William: [00:08:57] Yeah, it was an interesting time. I sort of I was working with the with the insurance company out of Melbourne and I'd been sent there to actually learn industrial underwriting because the branch I was sent to in Melbourne was, was the major industrial underwriter for our company in those days. So I spent seven years there, you know, involved myself in the industrial underwriting and that's when the, the general manager overseas approached and said that there was a contract to go to, to be based in South East Asia. Singapore was the base and then. But you traveled all around our market over there was was really rubber, rubber plantations, textiles, electronics and naturally marine. It was a huge marine portfolio there because Singapore being such an entrepreneur in those days, it was it was a big Marine portfolio, which was interesting from my point of view, because I hadn't been really involved in Marine  up to our time except for land cargoes on inland transit. So it was an interesting period. I think they wanted to make my sort of expertise there on the on the commercial industrial side to actually ascertain where do we go from? Do we develop? From textiles and rubber and electronics. Where else do we go? Where else can we grow? In a country or in countries that were themselves going for a growth phase. So it was an interesting time to actually identify what was needed from the staff there who were coming out of a tariff market into their own markets, setting their own rates, actually really underwriting rather than just looking at a book. And that was that was the biggest change. And that was really one of the reasons I was sent there to do the education programs and also to identify future growth areas. Very interesting time. It was when I was sent there. Part of the routine of being being sent there was that they advised me that everybody speaks English over there so there's no real problem and indeed they do, but it's English of a type really. And so it was amazing how much information you can get, technical information you can get with gestures, hands and pointing, you know. So. 

Danny: [00:11:26] Was that the biggest challenge? That was, the communication barrier was the challenge? 

William: [00:11:29] I think so. I really do think so. If you're trying to get technical advice about what they're doing and why they're doing it a certain way. But the easy part was actually, if you talk with the experts in their game, they might not understand precisely what you're trying to ask. But when you start pointing and and sort of gestures and all this sort of stuff, they pick it up very quickly. They understood where the risks were and where what I was concerned about. And they then explained or explained, they then showed what they were doing to mitigate that risk. So it was a great time for me because it was the learning to. Learning to actually talk, communicate other than through pure language. It was actually looking at different ways of communicating. So there was a very interesting time also having to communicate in a foreign country where you've been used to you'd be used to working in Australia where you were the dominant thing and English was the dominant language. So it was interesting to actually work outside of that environment. 

Danny: [00:12:40] Was one of the big differences. I'm just I'm assuming this was around 1970. We're talking sort of.

William: [00:12:45] In the early seventies. Mid seventies, yeah. 

Danny: [00:12:47] Yeah. I mean, I imagine as a sort of being based in Singapore, were you fairly independent and in a sense cut off from the main headquarters back in Australia in a way that you could never be now with all the Internet connections we have or videos. 

William: [00:13:01] Yeah. Oh, very much so. I think the main form of communication then was, was telex. So you had to compose. Compose your messages and all. Yeah. Telex was always by code. So you had to use. Write out what your message is going to be. Then you converted that into the code or whichever code you're using. And that was the transmission. So it's usually an overnight situation. You sort of composed usually after the first couple of months, usually sort of weekly reports off. So you had, you know, each Friday you would compose a report, send it off on Friday, Friday evening, and then the next morning we worked Saturdays over there. You know, you actually got the transmission back and they'd be asking questions and you'd actually clarify the points. They weren't quite sure what you're doing. So it was a it had its good points. You can actually have a blow up on a Wednesday then sort of think, well, it's going to settle down by Friday. So you can actually you can trim your report to suit the circumstances of the actual day rather than the time. 

Danny: [00:14:09] Yeah. Do you have a memory? This was presumably one of your first underwriting jobs. Do you have an early memory from this time? I mean, what struck you about it as a young man doing this? 

William: [00:14:21] It wasn't actually working in the company for quite some time before that. But it was I think that's the reason I was sent over there because of the expertise in dealing with insurance brokers, because that's what my main role was in Melbourne, developing the broker market into our company. But also but early memories of the insurance were was that it was very it was very hands on, it was very mechanical. You had rooms full of typist type of way furiously. And when I went to when I went to South East Asia to Singapore, that hadn't changed much. They were still the main floor was full of typists, furiously typing policies or certificates, just going out, especially for the Marine. You had reams of paper because all the shipping was the shipping done was done by paper. So the bills of lading were actually voluminous. So you had reams of sort of a cooperative typist producing all this documentation to go to the broker, to go to the shipping, shipping people. So it was really the difference when I came back to Australia when they were sort of mechanical, mechanization was going, taking a taking effect and not seeing acres of people sort of tapping away on the computers. It was an interesting exercise when I came back also. So learning to actually move into it. But, but I came back, I left Australia in Melbourne and came back to Australia and Sydney. So two different markets in Australia. 

Danny: [00:16:01] You haven't left Sydney. 

William: [00:16:03] Not since then. No, no. Yeah. Traveled around for a bit but I haven't left the left, the city. 

Danny: [00:16:09] So can you can you tell us. I'm sure there's lots of lessons you've learnt from your from your career, but is there anything in particular that stands out as an industry lesson that maybe surprised you or is something that you think is worth sharing to others who are coming up behind you? 

William: [00:16:25] I think yeah. I think the main thing is really. Being prepared to mix, you know, sort of, you know, if you're if you're you're more shy than anything else, know, being just actually girding up your loins and getting in there and sort of mixing with people, ask questions if you don't know, ask because they are routine about there's no such thing as a stupid question. It's true. It really is true. If you don't understand what they're talking about, ask because it's quite amazing, especially if you're in a group. It's quite interesting to sort of see that everyone else. As soon as you ask the question, everyone is just nodding. So they had the same question, but they weren't quite as going to ask the question as as as you do. Also, I think really don't specialize too early, but it was a I mean, when I first joined the insurance industry, if you want to finish up as a branch manager, which in those days was a big deal, mainly for the lack of communication capabilities, you were the person on the spot. You had powers of attorney from the company, all those sort of things. But to get there, you had to actually work in every single division there was in the company, so you had to work your way through. And one of the things that I learnt early was that I rather liked when I first went into claims, I thought that was a really excellent, excellent place to be. And I said to my manager at the time, I said, I wouldn't mind staying here. He said, Oh no, no, you're far too young if you stay. If we stay, if we leave people in claims too young and for too long they become very cynical quickly. But so the idea is to, you know, they have an appetite, move them on and let them come back to it. And I think so I think don't specialize too early. It's whether it's still applicable, I don't know. But it's always wiser to get a big picture and then come back to the picture you really fancy and then get involved that way. But I think it's really the idea is keep asking questions all the way through life, be prepared to mix in with people, don't make hasty judgments about individuals, sort of just let them develop with you. So that's that to me as a I haven't always obeyed those things by the way. But, but, but yeah, thinking back about it. 

Danny: [00:18:48] Right now it's too late. 

William: [00:18:48] It is indeed it is indeed always never too late. You always go forward. 

Danny: [00:18:53] Well, before I let you go, how do you plan to spend your free time? Do you have any big plans? That's it, I guess. 

William: [00:19:01] Yeah. It's really, I think spending more time. Yeah. Usual routine, spending time with the family because it's when you when you are busy, you spend you'd like to spend more time and possibly can't. Well, now is the time to do that before it is too late. Because when they get too old, they just don't want you around. You know, you're a bit of an embarrassment that but it's really looking at those. I've got a brother in law who's got a vineyard down in Victoria and we spent a fair bit of time down there now, but I wouldn't mind spending a bit more time down there. So it's an interesting time. It's an interesting industry. The wine growing and wine making industry. A lot of fun. 

Danny: [00:19:40] I can vouch for that. I'm doing that actually before I did this. 

William: [00:19:45] Oh, really? You understand what I'm saying? Of course.

Danny: [00:19:48] Yeah, exactly. Well, thanks so much for talking with us and congratulations and good luck with everything in the future. 

William: [00:19:55] Thanks, Danny. I appreciate it. I appreciate your time with me. 

Danny: [00:19:59] Thank you. And William Legge is general manager of UAC, the Underwriting Agencies Council, and he's announced he'll be retiring in December after many decades in the industry. Thanks for your time. Bye for now.