Early in her career as an accountant, Lisa Connolly – at the time a relatively junior member of an audit team that was looking after a major engagement – found herself alone in the Dublin office. Her colleagues were away or out at meetings. She was auditing claims connected to the Air France Flight 447 disaster, a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009, killing all 228 people on board.
There was less paperwork than usual and this was because, she realised, some insurance businesses were hesitant to document their considerations. “This is because it was very personal, it was to do with people, with individuals,” Connolly explains. “I ended up speaking with a lot of people who were assessing these claims and finding out how they calculate the insurable value of a Brazilian doctor with four children versus an Irish trainee doctor who was still at university.”
One the one hand, she says, it was an emotionally testing job. But on the other, it was fascinating to see an industry at work. The events unfolding in front of her were affecting the insurance industry and the reinsurance industry. They were also affecting individuals and families, communities and corporations.
“Most people I know have insurance, but insurance is not just about individuals,” she says. “It is about businesses large and small, it is about communities and it is about the economy itself. If something big happens that affects a large group and nobody has insurance, then often you see governments or communities step in to assist with the financial burden of these losses. I just find it fascinating to see how insurance companies operate and the vital role they play in society.”
Born in Ireland and raised in the seaport city of Waterford, famous not only for Waterford Crystal but also for being Ireland’s oldest city, Lisa studied accounting and finance at the University of Limerick. The youngest of four children, Lisa was employed by a professional services firm before she even completed her studies and, just a few years later, requested a transfer to Australia.
“I was working in Sydney within the insurance and superannuation team, so once again most of my clients were from the insurance world,” Lisa says. “After six months I began working on the Gen Re audit and during that time a job came up. When the opportunity presented itself I had to go for it. It was a big personal risk, as I had to communicate with the audit partner and Gen Re as the client, to make sure the appropriate steps were taken in the process, but fortunately I got the job and managed to keep my relationships intact.”
Lisa joined Gen Re in April 2013 and since then her fascination with the role of insurance and reinsurance has deepened. “I find the entire industry very interesting. Everything is interlinked and everybody is affected by it,” Lisa says. “I think it is a great industry and I think the people are fascinating.”
Lisa has already made her mark on the industry, spearheading a change within Gen Re that allowed the finance department to engage and partner much more closely with the business and its clients. The 29-year-old, who was honoured with the John Allison Award in 2014, has implemented new organisational controls that clearly delineate the tax and other implications of trans-Tasman business.
“This business is all about relationships and we pride ourselves on that,” she says. “Some parts of the insurance industry are characterised by call centres and databases that spit out figures, but that’s harder with reinsurance. People really need a deep understanding of what is happening in order to price risk.”
And what of the gender imbalance, the perception that reinsurance is heavily populated by males? “When you go to industry events it appears male-dominated,” Lisa says. “But here at Gen Re there is a lot of female talent. It’s probably almost 50/50. I have never felt that gender is an issue. More important is for young people to continue coming into the industry because reinsurance really needs people that deeply understand the business.”
In terms of future changes to the industry, Lisa simply smiles and verbalises the one thing that is on the mind of many in the reinsurance business. “I would like people to know what reinsurance is,” she says. “I would like to not have to explain my industry every time I speak with somebody new. I talk about it all the time because I love it so much, but the conversation usually begins with a blank look.”