The best kind of leaders often lead by example, and Barry Whitton (pictured) – managing director at Burns & Wilcox – is one such leader.
A firm believer in being active and involved, Whitton’s early career as a consultant with a mechanical engineering background instilled in him a practical approach to leadership. Insurance Business spoke with Whitton to learn more about his style of management, and how broker leaders should manage their teams in times of crisis such as the pandemic.
How did you come to join the insurance profession – and what has held your interest in insurance?
My first job after graduating as a mechanical engineer from Georgia Tech was as a loss prevention consultant in the engineering division of a global property insurance company. My main responsibility was to visit various facilities and evaluate their construction, occupancy and protection features to identify and quantify their risk exposures.
It was the perfect first job for an engineer, allowing me to see many different types of industries – from soft occupancies such as office buildings, hotels, and hospitals to more difficult occupancies such as complex manufacturing risks like steel, food processing, plastics, and woodworking facilities.
After a couple of years, I noticed some of my more successful and experienced colleagues were the ones selling the policies, not inspecting the locations. Thus, I was immediately interested in the sales aspect of insurance. I was able to take a sales training class directly out of the engineering division shortly thereafter. The class introduced me to the world of working with risk managers and retail brokers who placed larger and more difficult business.
Changing my career path was eye-opening. I essentially took my practical “boots on the ground” experience and used that to start developing proper policy coverages and terms to provide insurance products for an insured.
The next big change in my career was moving to retail brokerage with a top retail brokerage firm, where I was a property broker. In my role, I worked with several Fortune 500 companies to design their property programs, both domestically and globally. This gave me the ability to again expand my knowledge base and learn the benefits of developing long-term relationships – not only with clients but throughout global insurance markets in the United States, London and Bermuda.
After 35 years of concentrating solely on property insurance programs, one of the most interesting aspects of my career is I still find it exciting and fulfilling to design and build a program with multiple carriers in a layered approach – for the benefit of an insured and for their retail broker. I once described this aspect to my oldest daughter, who was very young at the time, as putting puzzles together – starting with a cornerstone of primary capacity and then finding the best possible layering (pieces of the puzzle) to maximize capacity usage for the most economical premium possible.
What have been some highlight moments in your career to date?
Many of my highlights have been around the completion of a very difficult program or obtaining coverage where it was not readily available during a hard market. The satisfaction of winning an account from a competitor, or the smaller victories of bringing a new program to an insured with improved terms, conditions or pricing for an account with difficulties, is very gratifying.
Additionally, I have been fortunate enough to gain exposure and experience by working with some of the largest Fortune 100 accounts so I was able to leverage my experience to assist a start-up retail broker with its property practice. It was rewarding to watch the business grow, even into a competitor of the company I previously worked for, over time.
Another career highlight was my transition to the wholesale brokerage space 12 years ago. After working with a large competitor for five years, I moved to Burns & Wilcox Brokerage in the fall of 2014 to launch the Atlanta office and build its dedicated brokerage property practice. I have thoroughly enjoyed helping build the office and establishing my client base while appreciating the friendly competition from respected friends and competitors I have gotten to know throughout the years.
Insurance may not sound like an exciting industry to the outside world, but it can include all the challenges and victories of other job professions that appear more interesting. We are fortunate to have an industry where an individual can succeed based solely upon perseverance and have the ability to develop deep and long-lasting relationships with underwriters and retail brokers alike.
Can you tell me about your present role – how it came about, and its key responsibilities?
Currently, I am the managing director of both the Burns & Wilcox and Burns & Wilcox Brokerage offices in Atlanta. Prior to the introduction of Burns & Wilcox Brokerage in 2014, Burns & Wilcox was primarily known as a Managing General Agent/contract binding shop. Thus, Burns & Wilcox Brokerage was the company’s entrance into the larger, open market brokerage world.
Today, I am still active and involved daily with my clients on the placement of property accounts, alongside my internal property team. Additionally, I oversee a group of brokers for Transportation, Professional Liability and Casualty. I also have the dual responsibility of managing the Burns & Wilcox Atlanta operations, overseeing more than 30 professional underwriters and support staff.
What do you see as some of the main leadership qualities required to lead a successful business?
One of the core qualities of any leader is being active and leading by example. No one wants to follow a leader who only talks about doing something but is not involved in the task. However, they will happily join a leader who actively rolls up their sleeves and performs the tasks with them. We should never get away from the core of what we do, and a good leader will always stay involved in the process with their team.
It is also important to remember we are a service industry. One of the key characteristics needed for success is the ability to succinctly communicate goals. Then you must work with your team and clients, and push for success so others can follow and jointly celebrate the wins together.
Are different or re-focused qualities required to lead during a time of crisis – be that global pandemic or geopolitical strife?
While I don’t think leadership qualities are different in a time of crisis, I do think there is a greater need to communicate, and even over-communicate when needed. As leaders, we are never going to have all the answers, but we have to understand everyone needs knowledge and reassurance, especially in a changing environment. We must provide confidence someone is addressing the changes occurring and should always be willing to share any knowledge of current, up-to-date facts with associates for the benefit of all.
Many people do not start out wanting to be a leader. However, some fall into leadership positions when they are recognized as the best candidate or have proven skill sets that make them the most qualified. It is important to realize that not all leaders are the very best at the functions performed by their employees – and they don’t have to be – but with that person as a leader, the team itself is a much stronger unit.
What are some of your key areas of focus as MD for 2022 and beyond?
My key areas of focus remain similar to what they were in 2021 and even before – training and mentoring new talent. The insurance industry needs to have a better focus on helping new talent grow into the future leaders we need. It is imperative for us to share our successes and our failures alike, providing our experience, insight and knowledge. If you lead an individual to the appropriate knowledge and resources, they can then develop their own individual experience and passion for the job or industry.
Hopefully, we have all had good mentor experiences in our life at some point and have adapted some of those good traits into who we are now. It is important to pay that back by having open communication and being accessible to our younger or less experienced colleagues to help keep them in the industry and watch them develop into the leaders we know they can become.