Interview: Chris Lay, Marsh

Chris Lay Marsh

Chris Lay enjoyed his time in Canada but Marsh’s new UK and Ireland CEO has no doubt that London is the place to be. “The UK is a priority for Marsh,” he told Cecile Brisson, just before the world’s biggest broker bought off London-based broker Jardine Lloyd Thompson

The $5.6bn (£4.2bn) acquisition will shore up the leading position of parent group Marsh & McLennan. Headquartered in New York, MMC has annual revenues of $14bn. Its closest competitor, Aon, has just under $10bn revenues.

But the JLT deal isn’t necessarily about size.

“Our interest is not just to be bigger,” Lay said, as he described Marsh’s acquisition strategy from offices overlooking the Tower of London.

“It is to be better equipped to seize opportunities in the market. So it’s really about the strategic opportunities. Whether you’re requiring talent, technology, a better geographic footprint, a different industry capability, those are the things that drive us, the strategic imperatives around acquisitions, not to solely grow our size.”

He added: “We’re really excited about the opportunities the acquisition of JLT gives us and our clients. The combination will be the broadest and deepest pool of talent in the industry, especially in the London market. The addition of JLT will make us even stronger in areas such as aerospace, energy and construction, as well as employee benefits expertise, a fast-growing area for Jelf. 

“The team at JLT has always had great similarities to Marsh in terms of their focus on client service and commitment to excellence in everything they do, so the two businesses will be an especially good fit. The transaction also shows our commitment to the UK and London Market.”

Talking about MMC, he continued, “we generate a lot of cash, we have options in how we create value for shareholders”. He listed those as dividends, organic and inorganic growth.

Marsh has been doing a lot of the latter in the UK. It acquired Jelf in late 2015 and Bluefin the following year. Lay’s predecessor Mark Weil combined the two businesses, retaining the Jelf brand as Marsh’s SME platform. And this year, Jelf bought out Scottish broker Clark Thomson.

“Yesterday I spent three and a half hours in a growth strategy session with some of our Jelf colleagues,” said Lay. “It’s so inspiring to see that team and the work they’ve done in actually bringing Bluefin together with Jelf under one brand this year. That integration work is complete. It’s been very successful. They’re continuing with the story that Jelf has as the leading SME partner for risk and insurance.”

He described Clark Thomson as a “terrific business”, adding: “It gave us a tremendous footprint in Scotland and the Lakes.”

Marsh’s UK and Ireland CEO insisted, however, the acquisition strategy was driven more by client segments than geographic targets. “We have a good geographic footprint,” he said. “We go to market through our client segments: our commercial and consumer segments for SMEs, which is Jelf; our corporate segment, which is our mid-market business; and our risk management segment.

“So we’re always looking and saying with those client segments, where can we be stronger? Where are those opportunities?”

CV

2018 to Present

CEO UK & Ireland
Marsh

2016 to 2018

President and CEO
Marsh Canada

2014 to 2016

President, global captive solutions
Marsh

2013 to 2014

Head of global sales
Marsh

2012 to 2014

Business development leader, international division
Marsh

2005 to 2012

CEO corporate client segment & head of business development for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region
Marsh

2001 to 2005

CEO of UK corporate division
Marsh

1984 to 2000

Various leadership, sales, client management and broking positions
Marsh

1983 to 1984

Graduate trainee
Guardian Royal Exchange Assurance

1980 to 1983

BSc Economics
University College London

Emerging risks

Lay believes those opportunities are to be found in connection with emerging risks like cyber and employment practices.

“Industries are changing in their shape, so it’s more about the capabilities that you have to deploy. A good example might be something like transactional risk. The products and services that are being deployed around mergers and acquisitions have grown in the last couple of years and we believe will continue to grow phenomenally. We’re looking for more resource and strength and capability in that area.

“Cyber would be another one. I can’t see that technological risk diminishing in any businesses as we go forwards,” Lay said, adding a broker’s role was also to predict upcoming challenges.

“You don’t necessarily know where risk is going to manifest itself tomorrow, we just know it’s going to be different. So we always have to be alive to: how do we build the capability of the future? Our clients are changing and we want our clients to be winners. We want to have the capability to enable them to address the risks that they’re facing in the future, not the ones that we looked at two, three, four, five years ago. That’s part of the fun. That’s trying to figure out what that landscape looks like and being well equipped to help clients.”

Lay started as a property broker in London and has held many different roles during his 34 years at Marsh, from retail to specialty to captive, with business development and functional jobs along the way. His most recent  posting was in Canada as CEO for two years. “It feels to me as if I’ve had 15 great careers within one amazing company,” he said.

In Canada, he enjoyed fly-fishing in the middle of nowhere and was impressed by Toronto’s tech capabilities. The corporate culture struck him as both competitive and respectful: “They compete very hard. They don’t leave any money on the table. It’s very professional, very thoughtful, very respectful.”

Four words to best describe him

  • Enthusiastic
  • Optimistic
  • Curious
  • Engaging

Places worked

  • London
  • Birmingham
  • Milton Keynes
  • Watford
  • Toronto

Hobbies

  • Bass guitar
  • Running
  • Skiing

Back in London

Originally from Greenwich – he supports Charlton – he said he was excited to be back in London at a moment when Lloyd’s is modernising.

“In London, we have the capability and the talent to change and to innovate. That’s where, if we want to be successful, we need to capitalise. What is it that we need to do in the future to continue to make London relevant and to attract international clients into London? Innovation is at the core of that.”

He felt technology could help the market reduce costs, adding Marsh had been a “great adopter” of Placing Platform Limited. PPL enables brokers and insurers to quote, negotiate and bind business digitally. As Lloyd’s is trying to get rid of paper transactions, the corporation now requires syndicates to write a certain share of their risks electronically, and it regularly raises their target.

The electronic placing platform is part of the Target Operating Model that Lloyd’s put in place to stop losing market shares. “I see a lot of opportunity for London. I’m an optimist around the London market,” said Lay.

“The London market has to step up to those challenges and it is and it will, certainly from our perspective. We’re very positive on the London market’s ability to be a place where we can really drive benefits for clients.

“We recognise that we’re in a global market and there’s better capital being deployed in other parts of the world, better capability being grown in other parts of the world, but can London continue to lead? It’s often said the more competition you have, the better you become; that’s the sort of challenge we actually have to embrace. We have to do things differently.”

Broker facilities

In recent years, London has seen an increasing number of facilities, whereby brokers bundle portions of their account and place them in the market as a block of business.

Lay defended these broker facilities, which are being reviewed by the Financial Conduct Authority.

The study launched last year by the FCA raises competition questions. It asked: “Larger brokers may be using their market power to oblige insurers to sign up to these facilities or pay for wider services. Also, there may be additional incentives for brokers to place business in facilities even where it may not be the best option for their clients.”

Lay said Marsh welcomed the review before stressing that facilities create value for customers and bring business to London.

“It’s something that we’ve been working on with the FCA and we have a common goal along with the London market, to ensure that the London market works in the best interest of their clients. It’s a shared goal,” he said.

“Facilities are actually a good thing. They can be a means by which you can help clients secure increased capacity, enhance policy terms, deliver better premiums and also drive competition among insurers. That’s not a bad thing. They can be a real driver of client benefit for those reasons,” he added.

“At Marsh, we take a very principled approach to facilities. That principled approach is that we create and place facilities only if they are in the client’s interest and that comes first. They are a means by which we innovate in the market, deliver benefits for our clients. And transparency and governance around that is key.

“They do bring business to the London market, which otherwise might go elsewhere.”

In Lay’s view, however, London is rising to the challenge posed by growing competition from around the world, while also readying itself for the UK’s severance from the European Union. As part of those Brexit preparations, Lloyd’s Brussels will write all non-life risks from European Economic Area countries from 1 January 2019.

Marsh has offices in most EU countries and didn’t need to set up a new entity. The broker is focusing instead on putting together contract continuity clauses for its clients and advising them on the post-Brexit risk landscape.

“Many insurance companies are looking at how we are going to deal with this. That’s become much more of a focus for the insurance companies,” Lay said.

“Our job in advising clients is to make sure we’re well prepared for whatever deal is eventually struck. At the moment, we don’t know. While there’s uncertainty, we’re trying to get ready for that.

“If there’s a hard Brexit, if there’s no deal we have to consider contract continuity. As we sit here today, you have to prepare for the hardest exit. That creates potential challenges for our clients – if there isn’t the ability for an insurance company they’re currently trading with to manage the continuity of the contract they have today. We’re doing a lot of work ourselves in putting contract continuity clauses together.”

Various approaches

The difficulty for brokers comes from the various approaches taken by insurers regarding Brexit and contract continuity clauses.

“Carriers – maybe understandably but it makes life a little bit more difficult – are actually tending to look at these individually,” Lay said. “So what works for one insurance company may not work for another because they’re at different stages of development.

“Some of the insurance companies are taking different strategies. Some are going through a Part VII transfer of their liabilities; some are just incorporating an entity; some are relying on an entity they already have. Obviously, if you’re starting to transfer to another entity, you’ve also got the issue of the security rating of that entity,” Lay continued.

“For us, our job is assessing that landscape,” he said, listing the questions that need to be raised with clients: “Where are your risks? Do they need to be protected? Which insurers are you using? What are these insurers’ approaches to contract continuity, their ability to licence, the rating of those carriers?”

For Lay, “it’s a little bit of a matrix that we’re putting together to advise clients”.

“Most insurance companies plan to be ready no later than January,” he said. “We’re keeping a very close eye on that landscape at the moment so that clients can respond accordingly. We have our own operations on the ground. It is the ability to make sure that the insurance landscape works for our clients which is most critical. At a time of much uncertainty, especially as the date for Brexit approaches, Marsh is absolutely confident the UK remains a great place to do business.”

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