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David A. Olsen

David A. Olsen briefly considered a career in architecture during his college days, but it was a fair bet that he …

David A. Olsen briefly considered a career in architecture during his college days, but it was a fair bet that he would choose the insurance business. His father was a marine insurance broker for 47 years with Johnson & Higgins, and besides, concluded Olsen, “People are more interesting than buildings, and insurance is a people business.”

Today, he is chairman, president, and CEO of Johnson & Higgins, the fifth largest property-casualty insurance broker in the world. After 25 years with J&H, Olsen has arrived at the top as rates have hit bottom and insurance company bankruptcies make daily headlines. As a broker, that leaves Johnson & Higgins between nervous clients who want reassurance about the solvency of their insurers, and underwriters pressing for their business.

Hard times or not, Olsen is building a bigger company. Revenues of the privately held broker were estimated at $833 million last year, up a respectable 6 percent from 1989. As a service organization, Olsen says, “We’ve got to hustle or someone will outhustle us.” J&H manages captive insurance companies for big corporate clients, sets up employee benefit plans for mid-sized companies, and advises those too small to have in-house risk managers.

Worldwide, Johnson & Higgins is beefing up its 200-plus office network to prepare for growth outside the U.S., which could easily double or triple over the next five years. It recently set up its own retail insurance broker in the U.K. after Willis Faber, its British correspondent for nearly 100 years, merged with a competitor. Elsewhere, it bought its Dutch correspondent and is considering larger equity stakes in its Spanish and Mexican correspondents; in the Pacific Rim, it is opening its own offices in cities such as Osaka and Seoul.

The global expansion is being financed out of retained earnings, an advantage-particularly right now-of being a privately held company. Do they ever think about going public? “We don’t lie awake nights thinking about it,” Olsen replies. Staying private “allows us to take the long-term view and concentrate on our employees and our clients.” 

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