Asta CEO: Culture has “come a long way” but “still more to do”

Amid several ongoing investigations into allegations of non-financial misconduct within the London market and Lloyd’s, Asta CEO Lorraine Harfitt reflects on how the market’s culture has changed over her three-decade career in our latest Leading Voices programme.

“Thirty years ago, there were places you weren't allowed in, because you were a woman," Harfitt told The Insurer TV.

You had to go and sit off in a little side room and things like that, it was just incredible. And you tell people about that now, and they don't believe that that was a thing in such recent times.”

Asta, the dominant Lloyd’s turnkey provider, currently manages twelve Lloyd's syndicates, six syndicates-in-a-box (SIABs), one special purpose arrangement, four MGAs and over £2.4bn ($3.0bn) of capacity – a figure which, according to Harfitt, is only going to grow in 2024.

Harfitt wholeheartedly backs Lloyd’s efforts and apparent laser focus on culture and conduct, but is mindful that conduct reviews must be fair.

“It's really important for everybody to feel valued and be treated with respect,” she said.

While firms are making strides in course-correcting industry culture, Harfitt acknowledges that there is plenty of room for rebalancing.

“You only need to go into the room, at any kind of Lloyd's briefing or whatever, to see the balance of male to female in those senior leadership roles in the market… [we’ve] still got a long way to go – and on ethnicity even further,” said Harfitt.

The CEO said Asta is working hard to develop a pipeline of diverse talent.

“I always think of the phrase 'you can't be what you can't see’,” said Harfitt.

“If you don't see people like you in leadership roles, then it's not going to attract you, so I think that is slowly beginning to change, but it takes a while, doesn't it? You've got to develop the pipeline, so it doesn't happen overnight. We're certainly seeing, I think over the last year, about 50 percent of our recruits have been of an ethnic minority background, which is great,” she said.

Those efforts fit in well with Harfitt’s overall “people first” leadership style, which she says has helped Asta position itself for its current three-year growth spurt under new ownership. Davies, the specialist professional services and technology business, completed its acquisition of Asta in July 2022.

For Asta, this also entails ensuring cultural alignment with the businesses it incubates.

“If we're bringing new entrants into the market, it's important to make sure that they fit [our] principles and [fit] how the market would want those businesses to behave,” she added.

Thriving Lloyd’s start-up pipeline for 2024

Regarding new entries to Lloyd’s, Harfitt expects 2024 to be punctuated with innovation, tech and AI-type opportunities, along with a steady focus on ESG.

“ESG is quite a big focus and, I think, breaking into some of those new geographies and global expansion as well,” said the CEO.

Earlier this year, Asta partnered with carbon credit insurance start-up Oka, which was granted in-principle approval to launch a Lloyd’s SIAB to start underwriting in 2024.

This deal is symbolic of what Lloyd’s is looking for, according to Harfitt.

“I think their fundamental focus is on a logical, realistic, achievable business plan… that is the kind of terminology they use, and making sure that it's a business that works for the market and [is] bringing some innovation as well,” she said.

Harfitt is very enthusiastic about opportunities in 2024. In addition to the Lloyd’s platform, Asta also has an MGA platform, along with Asta Europe and Asta Singapore. Harfitt emphasised that these collectively will bolster the group’s already healthy pipeline. Asta starts the year at roughly £2.5bn in GWP, which Harfitt expects to continue to grow.

Harfit elaborated: “So Ki, the digital syndicate is using our independent MGA platform to expand their growth for next year, so that's quite an exciting development in that breadth of offering.

“We've got a couple of SIABs going through the pipeline as well,” she added. “So, I think we'll start the year at about £2.5bn GWP and with a fairly healthy pipeline.

“Our working assumption, through the year is that, in addition to a couple more SIABs, we’ll also be able to work on a full syndicate project such that it's ready for 1.1.2025.”

Also on the cards for 2024 is the possible launch of a captive syndicate at Lloyd’s, with Harfitt implying that Asta will likely play a major role in this.

A captive would enjoy the same financial strength rating as the overall Lloyd’s market, which could mean lower collateral demands if fronting arrangements were required. Harfitt is hoping a “big name” will move on the captive syndicate idea and jumpstart the framework.

“I think for a captive syndicate, I would hope that there is a captive syndicate launched at Lloyd's in the first half of next year,” said Harfitt.

In November, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt announced that the UK will “consult on the design of a new framework” to encourage creation and growth of captive insurance companies in the UK, starting in spring 2024. The goal is to ease the regulatory and administrative burdens that currently exist for setting up captives.

Harfitt is cautiously optimistic about the government action, and eager to get Asta involved.

“In some ways, it's quite similar to the syndicate-in-a-box framework. So, we've got quite a lot of experience of that, having done so many of them.”

Additionally, Asta is part of the wider Davies Group, which encompasses a number of captive platforms.

During the interview, Harfitt reflected on her career successes, putting her role as CEO of Asta at the top of the list. As for any career lows, she recalled her time spent in a toxic business culture.

“Definitely the lesson learned there was about valuing yourself more, and not putting up with it for as long as I did.”

She encourages others to leave any unhealthy career situation that saps their self-confidence.

“With hindsight, you think, ‘Why didn't I do something sooner, or say something?’, or whatever – and, I guess, that would be my encouragement to other people now: to value yourself, and not stay in a situation that clearly isn't healthy for either your career or self-confidence,” she concluded.

Watch this 22-minute video to learn more about:

  • How much (re)insurance industry culture has changed over the years
  • What it used to be like for women, and why diversity is key to success in 2024
  • Harfitt’s leadership style and what motivates people
  • Asta’s goals for 2024
  • Why captive syndicates could emerge in the UK next year