x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

An insurer on Dubai's inside track

Ken Maw has been both front-row spectator and participant in the insurance brokerage space during the emirate's rise to the heights of global economic power.

Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National

About 10 years ago, Ken Maw was fighting for his professional life. He had been in Dubai since 1983 heading up HSBC's insurance brokerage business, which had grown into a force to be reckoned with on his watch.

Things had gone well, he says, until a rival within the company staged a coup in 1999.

"It was frustrating to deal with that," he says now, sitting in a corner office in The Galleries, a clutch of buildings across Sheikh Zayed Road from the Jebel Ali port. "The guy who wanted my job started lobbying for it. He was closer to London, so maybe that helped him. At one point I decided it was time to move on, and HSBC gave me a project to work on - the acquisition of an insurance business in Egypt."

After a brief stint in Cairo, Mr Maw decided to leave his job and return to Dubai in 1999. The shake-up was no fun at the time, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. With backing from friends he had made within Dubai's emerging business elite as the ports expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, he quickly got back in business. And Sheikh Saeed bin Mohammed bin Hasher Al Maktoum, a member of Dubai's ruling family, came to his rescue.

"I already had my contingency plans in place, and Sheikh Saeed said we don't want you to leave, and we're interested in the insurance space, so we'll set up a business," Mr Maw said. "The licence didn't get issued until September of 2000."

That was the beginning of Insure Direct, a brokerage that Mr Maw ran at first from his home before moving into headquarters at Dubai's Mazaya Centre. It was pretty much a one-man operation back then, but it kept growing and broke even within six months. His only regret now, he says, is that he did not get started sooner.

"It was a great business," he says. "Ideally, perhaps, I should have done it two to three years earlier. The boom was beginning."

The commercial insurance business Mr Maw is part of greases the bearings of global trade and economic development, allowing shippers, developers and business owners to do more with less risk. As Dubai grew from a medium-size trading outpost in the Gulf during the 1960s and 1970s into a hub for regional commerce, insurance expanded along with it, providing coverage for ports, ships and, more recently, all the emirate's big property developments.

Dubai's boom started after Sultan bin Sulayem, the chairman of the Jebel Ali Free Zone since the 1980s, began to build the ports into an international force in the 1990s with the blessing of the Royal Family, which had endorsed his proposal to start the shipping and logistics zone and put him in charge when he was in his 20s.

Mr Maw rubbed shoulders with Mr Sulayem back then, and when the expansion of the ports picked up in the early 2000s, he was tapped to provide insurance brokerage services.

"I'd been known to Sultan, and they didn't use a broker," Mr Maw says. "They had an adviser for insurance, and as they started to expand, looking at CSX Terminals [a company Dubai Ports International bought in 2004 for US$1.15 billion (Dh4.22bn)], the first Palm island and International City, they realised insurance was going to become a big issue. They came to me because they knew me, and wanted me to join the group and form a new venture."

Those discussions led eventually to the acquisition in 2006 of 90 per cent of Insure Direct by Istithmar World, now a division of Dubai World.

Dubai World was formed as an umbrella company for a collection of businesses that grew out of the expansion of the ports. Those businesses include Nakheel, the developer behind Dubai's Palm islands, and DP World, the global ports operator.

But while the relationship with Dubai World and Istithmar was strong, Mr Maw recognised from the beginning that he could not rely forever on one or two big clients. And he had bigger ambitions for the business, thinking it could take advantage of the growth of trade and economies across the region.

"We've always been conscious that you don't want to be reliant on one major client," he says. "You've got to open yourself up. That's what we wanted to do - become a Middle East-based broker."

Piggybacking on Dubai's development, Insure Direct grew quickly. But when the financial crisis hit in late 2008, Mr Maw witnessed from close proximity the downturn in the emirate's commercial environment.

Dubai World, which had relied heavily on debt to fund its expansion, was suddenly unable to refinance its borrowings, putting it in the awkward position of having to ask creditors to extend repayment and restructure loans.

Dubai World rocked global markets in November last year when it announced it would ask for a standstill on debt repayments as it worked towards a longer-term solution.

Mr Maw, meanwhile, soldiered on in the background. He kept business humming even as Istithmar began to sell assets to repay debts and dealt with crippling financial problems at some of the companies it owned, including Loehmann's, a New York-based department store chain that recently filed for bankruptcy.

The crisis gave new impetus to something Mr Maw had already begun to do: decrease reliance on Dubai and look for more business abroad. In May 2008, Insure Direct had bought an insurance company in Bahrain called PWS International as part of what Mr Maw said at the time were "major expansion plans in Europe, the US and Asia".

"We see huge growth potential for the insurance sector globally and in line with the Dubai World vision of global growth with local perspective, Insure Direct is keen to be part of the picture," he said.

The point, he says now, was that "we wanted to go out there and be a bit more aggressive in the marketplace".

"Premiums may not be as high, but there are not that many brokers out there who can do these transactions."

To cement Insure Direct's expansion into Europe, Mr Maw worked out a merger this year. In May, Insure Direct combined with the Rotterdam-based Independent Risk Solutions, a marine insurance specialist.

That created a brokerage company with a global scope, leveraging Mr Maw's experience in the Middle East with Independent Risk Solutions's presence in European markets. The new company, headquartered in Malta, was called Brokerage World Solutions.

The combined group has offices in the UK, and more mergers may be in the offing.

"You can't afford to slow down in difficult times," Mr Maw says. "I'm not afraid of another merger, and you have to find partners for further growth. We're looking at the long-term growth of our business."

The focus of future mergers, he says, will be similar to those in the past: acquisitions that expand the geography in which the company operates, possibly building on its presence in Europe or looking to new markets.

"I'm open-minded," he says. "It could be a group that has interests in another part of the world or a good business in Europe."

For Mr Maw, Dubai's troubles during the past couple of years - Dubai World recently reached a deal to restructure $24.9bn of debt, the largest financial reorganisation ever in the region - gave his business a healthy push.

At the same time, though, he has not given up on Dubai's growth story. Perhaps more than most people, he knows the fundamentals that have long made the emirate a trading hub are not disappearing any time soon.

"Dubai World might be suffering badly, but before Dubai World it was ports and trade, which has always been the key driver - exports, imports and re-exports," he says, calling himself "extremely lucky" to have witnessed first-hand the emirate's growth.

"Like many who came to Dubai, I was always told that if you passed the first three-year tour, you would be hooked and it would be inadvisable to try and return to the UK as you wouldn't settle down to the old way of life," he says. "At the time I took it with a pinch of salt. However, as the years passed, I recognised it was true."

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