Byrne returns to White Mountains helm

“Jack is back,” was all that was written on the second page of the brochure for the June 9 White Mountains Insurance’s annual meeting.

And no one needed to be told the smiling executive in the photo was Jack Byrne, the insurance legend who led the company either as chairman or CEO for some 18 years before stepping down in 2003. After a brief sojourn with his son’s troubled company – – he returned as chairman of the White Mountains board at the end of May.

So when Byrne was asked to identify himself when he stepped in front of the microphone to ask a question, you could hear some laughter and a little bit of applause.

The subject at hand was whether White Mountains could take advantage of the high cost of catastrophic insurance and start becoming more involved in the reinsurance market.
White Mountains had the money, said Byrne — some $500 million to a $1 billion “by my count” — and selling such insurance now, when the country is worried about everything from hurricanes to the next massive terrorist action would be like “shooting fish in a barrel.”

Still said Byrnes, White Mountains has not been a large catastrophic insurance writer since 2001, “and I do not want to put chips on that particular casino table.”

Rather, he said, he would like to develop new ideas, like reciprocal insurance, which enables insurance agents to better combine auto and home insurance.

It might take 20 years to develop the market, he said, “and you might have my walker” by that time, but it could be worth it.

But sometimes it makes sense to listen to elder statesman. A few years back White Mountains “only” invested $200 million in life insurance acquisitions and it could have made more money if it had been a little less cautious.” The old man was right,” joked one executive to more laughter.

Byrne oversaw a company whose stock has grown from $22 a share to $522 at the close of trading on Friday. Therefore, it was no surprise that investors were glad that the “old man” was back. – BOB SANDERS

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