Byrne steps down again at White Mountains

Hanover resident Ray Barrette has taken back the reins at White Mountains Insurance Group, replacing former board Chairman Jack Byrne and Chief Executive Officer Steve Fass, both of whom are retiring from their positions, the company announced Monday.

“I can’t wait to get started,” Barrette said. “Some of our tactics may change, but we remain focused on our mission of delivering superior returns to our owners.”

The company did not elaborate further on the change, which takes place immediately. Fass, who took over as CEO from Barrette in 2005, had moved the company’s national headquarters to New Jersey, but the administrative offices remained in New Hampshire, and the Granite state nexus was strengthened when Byrne, the company’s founder, returned as chair last May after a five-year hiatus. While the company’s official headquarters remains in Bermuda, Barrette, who is 56, will run the company from Hanover offices, the company said.

Barrette, who has been with the company since its founding in 1973, took over the CEO position in 2001, the last time Byrne retired from White Mountains. After that, the company was battered by ramifications of the September 11th terrorist attacks and hurricanes. It was particularly hurt when Hurricane Katrina helped wipe out a “sidecar,” a third-party company designed to cash in on the catastrophic insurance rush following the terrorist attacks on September 11th. In an interview with New Hampshire Business Review last year, Byrne said the sidecar scheme was Fass’s idea, though he had enthusiastically endorsed it.

The company’s stock price bounced back shortly after Byrne returned as chairman climbing from a low of $450 share, tipping past $600. The market reacted well to White Mountains’ sale of its biggest subsidiary, One Beacon, as a separate public company while still maintaining control.

Unlike his previous retirement, Byrne said he will not be just stepping down as chairman but quitting the board entirely.

“With great regret, I must retire completely at this time. What a wonderful adventure it has been,” he said without elaborating.

In his release, Byrne praised Barrette as the “right person to lead the company” and gave Barrette proxy voting for his shares.

Similarly, Barrette lauded Byrne. “All of us who have had the privilege of being associated with jack are humbled by his energy and talent.”

Neither had a word to say about Fass.

Fass, who is 61, will still remain a board member, according to the statement.

Barrette will be granted 200,000 seven-year options, some 35,000 restricted shares vested over five years and 15,000 restricted shares, should there be a change in control at the company.

He hasn’t worked out an employment contract and other severance arrangements yet, but he is still collecting on a 10-year severance package from his last stint as CEO. On Jan. 11, he cashed in some 2,613 shares from that package, worth almost $1.48 million. — BOB SANDERS

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