Lifestyle Personal Lines the March 2021 issue

Toby Esser, Chairman, AFL Insurance Brokers

I think you have to have desire. It has to be that something that makes you run to the subway station as opposed to walk.
By Chris Hann Posted on February 28, 2021
Q
How are you dealing with the pandemic?
A
We’re in a new tier, Tier 4, which is effectively a lockdown. Apparently there’s a new strain of the virus that is spreading very quickly.

Favorite London restaurant: Zafferano (“It’s old-school Italian.”)

Favorite dish at Zafferano: Truffle pasta

Favorite vacation spot: Italy’s Amalfi coast (“It’s probably the place where overall I have the most fun. It has everything.”)

Favorite movie: Pretty Woman(“It’s just a charming movie. I could quote so many different lines.”)

Favorite actors: Al Pacino and Julia Roberts

Favorite musician: “I am the least musical person you can imagine.”

Q
What sort of adjustments have you made?
A
When we first went into lockdown, we simply had to pull everybody from the office. We’re a new business—AFL London was effectively a startup a couple years ago. As the year has gone on, people have started getting a little fatigued. The London market is used to dealing with people face to face. It seems increasingly difficult to generate new business when you’re only doing it by Zoom and by phone.
Q
You spent more than 30 years with Cooper Gay Swett and Crawford. Why did you agree to sign on with AFL?
A
I had started out at a small company. I moved to New York in 1988, when I was 24 years old. That was great fun. The truth is, when I left Swett and Crawford, there was very little on the market with bigger brokers that I thought was attractive. So I decided the market needed more independence, and I decided to start with something small and see how we’d get on.
Q
Who were your childhood heroes?
A
Probably only sporting figures. It wasn’t until late in my teens that I might have had other ones. Maggie Thatcher was one.
Q
Why Margaret Thatcher?
A
Maggie Thatcher, to me, changed everything in England. She took over at a time of a terrible economy. She took on unions, encouraged entrepreneurial behavior, encouraged people to own their own homes, which was fantastic. She was probably the first world leader we’d had in many, many years that got the U.K. back into a situation where people had respect for its leadership. To do that at the time and from her background and as a lady was pretty phenomenal.
Q
What was your favorite subject in school?
A
Sports. I wasn’t a big fan of schoolwork, to be honest. I found the work was boring, and I was just a little bit too hyperactive. I didn’t go to university for those exact reasons. I went traveling at 18 for about a year. Had I gone to college, there’s no way I would have gone to New York at 24.
Q
Where did you travel?
A
I traveled through Europe and Africa on the cheap—hitchhiking, as you could do back then, finding different places to sleep or stay, with different people at different times. Essentially I was on my own.
Q
Is there a leader in the business world whom you most admire?
A
With what he’s done with the world of insurance, Warren Buffett is head and shoulders above everyone else. What Hank Greenberg did with AIG—it’s a shame the way it ended—but what he built was off the scale, just unbelievable.
Q
If you could change one thing about the insurance industry, what would it be?
A
Its reputation. The public doesn’t always appreciate that it’s a very professional business, where people generally have very high ethical standards. The function it serves is a very important function for the economy and for individuals. We don’t have the image we should have, and I think that’s a shame.
Q
What’s next for you?
A
I often think about politics. I wonder if I would have the ability to get involved in it in some fashion. As I go on, I think about what my knowledge can do in terms of helping, maybe helping from an industry perspective or from a political perspective. I do have a desire to be involved at some level if I can.
Q
Last question: What gives you your leader’s edge?
A
I think you have to have desire. It has to be that something that makes you run to the subway station as opposed to walk. If you’re going to lead, you have to lead by example. If you don’t have that basic hunger, you can’t really be a leader.
Chris Hann Associate Editor Read More

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