Re-Insurance

Reiss urges companies to be bold on diversity

  • Powerful speech: Jonathan Reiss, CFO of Hamilton Insurance, received a rousing ovation at the Bermuda Captive Conference (Photograph by Alexander Masters)

A leading Bermudian insurance executive yesterday called for the private sector to make bolder efforts to address the lack of diversity in workforces, management and boardrooms.

In a powerful speech at the Bermuda Captive Conference, Jonathan Reiss said he believed his skin colour and family connections had helped him progress in his career.

He said white-male dominance continued to prevail in the executive teams of companies whose workforces failed to mirror the diversity within their communities and “we all need to do much more”.

“We in the private sector need to lead,” Mr Reiss, the chief financial officer of Hamilton Insurance Group, said. “We control vast swathes of wealth creation, and, more crucially, we control who gets the best opportunities.”

He added: “If we don’t vastly improve and get it right, then governments here and in other countries will ultimately have to step in and do it for us. If that happens, I can assure you, we will deeply regret our failings.”

On the lack of racial diversity in Bermuda’s insurance industry, he argued that the reasons were complex, ranging from education to recruitment methods and deep-rooted, unconscious bias.

He added: “The point I’m making is that the reason there aren’t more black Bermudians in our industry, particularly at senior levels, is much more complicated than outright discrimination.

“It’s the legacy of white supremacy, slavery, and how this legacy continues to permeate our institutions despite the monumental shift in attitudes and intentions.”

He added: “I believe we’re at an inflection point. Attitudes have changed for the better, but, as I’ve explained, the current rate of progress is not good enough.

“More and more organisations are realising that they must work harder at diversity and inclusion and, frankly, be much more fearless in changing the status quo.”

Delegates in the Amphitheatre at the Fairmont Southampton resort gave him a loud ovation, after which Malcolm Butterfield, the chief executive officer of the Bermuda Insurance Institute, took the microphone and said: “I’ve lived in Bermuda all my life and listened to many speeches. From my perspective, you have delivered one of the most courageous speeches on diversity and inclusion that I have ever heard. You deserve a standing ovation for what you have said today.”

Mr Butterfield expressed the hope that others across the industry would follow Mr Reiss’s lead.

Mr Reiss drew from his own experience of living and working on the island to make his points on diversity.

He moved to the island from the US in the 1970s as a toddler. His mother was a flight attendant and his father Fred Reiss, who had set up the first captive insurance operations on the island in the 1960s, was from a working-class background in Cleveland, Ohio.

“My father was, to a large extent, not welcomed by the business community here,” he said. “The economy in Bermuda was dominated by the white minority, racism and segregation were prevalent — the environment was anything but inclusive.”

While there were some forward-thinking individuals, the business community was collectively an “inward and protectionist boys’ club”, Mr Reiss said.

“Bear in mind that my father was a white male whose ideas brought prosperity to the island. If he was shunned, can you imagine what it was like to be a woman or a person of colour in that environment?”

Mr Reiss said the expansion of the insurance industry and the arrival of world-class leaders like Brian Duperreault, Audette Exel and Don Kramer, began to change Bermuda much for the better.

However he added: “Unfortunately, the shameful legacy of the past, its patriarchy and the economic disparity it fostered remain unresolved today. There’s work to be done.”

As a child, Mr Reiss said he had been blissfully unaware of what his father had had to overcome, and his father’s business success meant he had grown up “in privilege and comfort”.

In 1993, he entered the workforce. “Doors were opened to me, just because of who my dad was and incredibly, just seven years after graduating from college, I was made a partner at a Big Four accounting firm. That was incredibly fast.

“I like to think that eventually I earned the right to that partnership. But I know that only a white male with inherited connections could have been recognised so quickly.”

In 2012, a Forbes columnist described the C-suites and boardroom of typical corporations as male, pale and stale — still largely an accurate description today, he said.

“A quick check of the boards of directors of major insurance and reinsurance companies in Bermuda show that women are still a distinct minority. Persons of colour are virtually non-existent.”

Lack of diversity was not just a Bermuda issue, however. In the US and in the Lloyd’s of London insurance market, the story was much the same, he said.

“If establishing diverse, inclusive companies is the right thing to do, and it makes business sense, why haven’t we done a better job of mirroring the diversity of our communities in our workforce?”

There were financial reasons to get it done, he added, referring to a McKinsey report or more than 1,000 companies. Companies with more diverse decision-makers, in terms of gender, ethnicity and culture, were strongly more likely to outperform on profitability and value creation, the report found.

He conceded that solving the problem was “devilishly complex” and used the example of race in Bermuda.

“Bermuda has struggled with race relations for decades,” Mr Reiss said. “Attitudes have changed for the better, but the economic disparity and the unfairness of how that disparity arose remains largely unresolved.”

He recalled how, as a teenager, he and his friends befriended a black commercial fisherman named Wyman.

“Wyman would listen to our banter about our lives and aspirations and he would say, ‘You white hopes have all the hope — black hope has no hope’. We knew what he was saying, but as a white teenager in the 1980s, in truth, I didn’t properly understand it. I understand it now.

“Since that era, I believe we’ve made tremendous progress in eliminating outright discrimination, but that’s not enough.

“Every Bermudian, regardless of colour, should have an equal chance at a good job with good pay, as well as an equal chance at promotion to the C-suite. Everyone should have the same hope.

“But the number of persons of colour in our C-suites is minuscule, compared to the demographics of our local population. And, as with the broader issue of D&I [diversity and inclusion], the reasons are complex.”

Education was a key factor, he said. “More white Bermudians attend private schools than black. This experience opens doors to colleges and universities in a way that isn’t offered to students in public schools.

“It’s that ‘old boys’ network’ at work. We need to figure out how to provide better visibility and access to those who have not been born into privilege.

“Please understand I’m not advocating for a private school education; I’m just explaining one of the traditional factors that has fed into a process that can’t be described as inclusive.

“Another reason for the lack of representation of black Bermudians in our industry is its relatively insular nature. How you hear about a job too often depends on who you know. Our recruiting policies have often been driven by using a word-of-mouth process rather than one that would invite a broader range of applicants.

“And the Bermuda industry, and the captive industry generally, has relatively few entry-level positions. We aren’t a labour-intensive market. Many of the positions we hire for are mid to senior-level management.”

Many companies and industry organisations were working hard to make the industry more welcoming and accessible for minority groups who wanted to pursue a career in insurance, he added.

Mr Reiss said Hamilton Group had set up its own D&I Forum, made up of a cross-section of employees. One of the forum’s first recommendations was to expand data sets beyond age, gender and position.

Hamilton intends to conduct companywide training led by Christie Hunter Arscott, a Bermudian who has set up her own global practice as a gender and generations strategist.

Mr Reiss said steps companies could take included setting D&I goals, ensuring it targeted diverse candidate pools, checking recruitment policies and practices and train the managers interviewing candidates to try to tackle unconscious bias.