By Loretta L. Worters, Vice President, Media Relations, Triple-I
In celebration of International Day for Women in Maritime – observed every May 18 – Triple-I interviews women who have made a difference in the maritime field. Last year, the Triple-I focused on Isabelle Therrien, SVP-Canada, Falvey Cargo Underwriting.
For as long as Anne Marie Elder could remember, she loved the sea. Being the niece of a Merchant Marine officer, she heard her uncle’s stories about the Merchant Marine’s role in World War II. She imagined what it felt like to stand on deck and watch the sun reflect on the water’s surface, breathe in the salty air, and listen to the ocean waves. When she was in sixth grade, her Aunt Margaret told her about the first class with women graduating from the US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA or Kings Point) and encouraged her to consider USMMA as an option for college.
It was the only college Elder applied to. She entered in 1984, in a class of about 211 men and 28 women. When she graduated, there were only 16 women – a 43 percent dropout rate.
As part of her education, she was required to serve two six-month terms as a midshipman aboard commercial U.S. Merchant ships. A 20-year-old woman aboard a Merchant ship with 25 men was not always well received. Within the first few hours on board one ship, the ship’s captain bluntly informed her that women did not belong at sea and that he did not want her on his ship.
“I was given specific orders to leave the bridge any time the captain was there,” she recalls. “I also wasn’t allowed to eat in the mess hall at the same time he ate his meals. This went on the entire time I worked aboard that ship.”
“The captain’s reaction was so ludicrous and unprofessional,” she said, “I decided to take the high road and refused to let him rob me of a great learning and life experience.”
Elder noted that the first month aboard ship could be challenging. “Some men gave me a hard time, but once they realized I was there to work and learn, they became more like brothers, looking out for me, making sure I was safe and watched over on the ship and when at a port.” For the first six months, Elder was the only woman aboard the ship.
“I went there to get an education, and nothing would dissuade me,” she said. “I was very serious, on the straight and narrow.”
By the age of 21, she had seen more of the world than anyone she knew.
“They were some of the greatest times of my life,” she said.
And that ship’s captain? He gave her one of the best evaluations she got during her year at sea.
“He didn’t want me on his ship, but he clearly respected the job that I did.”
Swallowing the Anchor
Elder thought that she would spend a few years at sea, but there weren’t many sailing jobs at the time of her graduation. She thought about going to law school. But she had a wonderful mentor and teacher at Kings Point: Rich Roenbeck, who was also a former Kings Pointer who taught her about marine insurance.
“He was so good, such a great teacher, and it was pretty interesting, so I decided to swallow the anchor – give up the sea life – and try marine insurance,” she said.
Elder’s Aunt was again encouraging. “A teacher in NYC and also a nurse at the VA hospital, she was an inspiration to me,” Elder said. “She was the number one reason I went to Kings Point and got ahead. When I started work, she took me out and bought me an entire wardrobe, so I’d look and feel confident when going to my new job.”
Her first job was with Continental Insurance/MOAC, which hired six marine trainees in their New York office – five men and Elder — where she started writing hull and cargo insurance. She also became very involved with the American Institute of Marine Underwriters (AIMU).
“AIMU is a hugely important part of marine insurance,” she said. “They are a wonderful organization that has been around 125 years this year! They provide education in our industry and are involved with issues that are important to our industry.”
She’s also involved with the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) and has focused on how data digitization could change marine underwriting.
Elder lives by King Point’s motto she learned years ago – Acta Non Verba! – Deeds, Not Words! Today, as a result of her deeds, she is Global Chief Underwriting Officer, Marine at AXA XL, a division of AXA, where her job is to develop the strategy and manage the portfolio of the company’s $1.1 billion book of marine business, one of the largest marine insurers in the world.
One of her greatest concerns is the talent gap the industry faces. Not just in the United States, but the rest of the world as well.
“Companies need to be more creative about bringing people into this industry,” she said. “They need to think differently, to assess the skillset, not necessarily the knowledge of insurance, but the overall skillset. Companies should compensate them appropriately for those skills and develop them quickly as underwriters.”
What brings Elder the greatest joy is developing people.
“You must be the captain of your own ship,” she said. “You can take that ship anywhere you want, but you must have a plan and develop the skills you need to know where you’re going. If you’re not going in the direction of your dreams, you need to change the course of your ship.”
She noted that women can sometimes be less vocal about their aspirations.
“Women think that if they work hard, they will be given a fair salary and chances to advance, but that’s not necessarily the case. Women need to work hard and develop the skills for advancement, but they also need to make sure that their managers know their short- and long-term career aspirations,” she said.
“I spent three years in London in marine treaty reinsurance and would never have had that opportunity if I hadn’t spoken up. It put me on people’s radar,” she explained. “You must be positioned and ready for the opportunities. You have to network and vocalize what you want. It also takes a good sponsor which is different from a mentor. A mentor guides and helps you strategize, but a sponsor promotes you to other people to help you advance in your career. You need both. I had someone early on who was looking out for me. It was a man. There were few women leaders when I started,” she said. “There still aren’t a lot of women in senior positions in marine insurance, but men are doing a better job of recognizing women’s assets.”
Elder noted that women and men can have very different leadership styles.
“We don’t always think the same way or manage the same way,” she said. “Having that diversity of thought makes a stronger company. Studies have shown that more diverse companies have higher profits.”
“It’s a great time for women to be in this industry because of all the opportunities out there,” she said. “I tell women, ‘Take the helm and be that leader.’ I tell them, ‘Full speed ahead, ladies, full speed ahead!’ ”