In 2001, when state-owned New India Assurance Co. was scouting for a divisional manager to service its top-notch client, Reliance Industries, it did not find many takers. The reason - the country's largest private sector company was considered a demanding client. The offer landed at the table of Alice G. Vaidyan, a 1983-batch officer. "She accepted it without any fuss," says an insider. The experience proved invaluable later in her career. "It was a big opportunity that gave me confidence to handle big clients. That helped me a lot," she says. In every challenge, there is an opportunity, she says.
This 'can-do' attitude has helped Vaidyan get past several professional challenges in her more than three-decade career. Just after she joined New India Assurance as a direct recruit officer, she was posted to her home state, Kerala, where she was the only woman in the male-dominated unionised environment. Then, in 1986, when she shifted to Gujarat after her banker husband was transferred there, she was again in unfamiliar territory - she was the only woman officer in the Ahmedabad office, though she says this never became an issue. "When people know that you have no agenda except furthering the company's interests, they generally come around and accept your leadership," she says.
It was this single-minded focus on taking up newer challenges that took her to the top at General Insurance Corporation of India (GIC Re) in a decade that saw many women executives bag top jobs in the country's financial services companies. With this, Vaidyan became the first woman to get the top post at a public sector insurer in the country.
What helped Vaidyan in her journey immensely is her experience of working at all levels. She had started her career with the branch level and moved to the divisional level, before going to the regional office and, finally, the corporate office. The first two-and-a-half decades were spent in New India Assurance Co. She moved to GIC Re in 2008 as Deputy General Manager and was later promoted as General Manager and designated Chief Financial Officer.
When Vaidyan assumed charge as Chairperson and Managing Director this January, it coincided with GIC Re reporting outstanding performance despite the challenging operating environment. In 2015/16, gross revenues rose 21.4 per cent to Rs 18,436 crore. Profits rose from Rs 2,694 crore to Rs 2,848 crore. She has been a part of the company's top management for years.
Vaidyan wants GIC Re to break into the top 10 globally in gross revenues. At present, it is at 14. The top four are Munich Re, Swiss Re, Hannover Re, and French major SCOR SE. Sanjay Kedia, Country Head and CEO, Marsh India, one of the largest insurance brokers, says Vaidyan is a highly respected leader in the re-insurance world for her integrity, decision making and fair play. "GIC Re has been a very successful reinsurer in both domestic and international markets," he says.
Vaidyan, a Science graduate who has also studied literature, is a product of pre-liberalisation days when the government was the biggest employer. She, too, opted for the public sector. Later, when insurance was privatised, there were some who left to try their luck in the fledgling private sector. She does not regret the decision to stay back. "In the public sector, the camaraderie, apart from financial security, is high. In the private sector, every employee is considered a profit centre," she says.
But with global players entering the market, things might get more difficult for GIC Re. Vaidyan, however, says their strong base and relationships would help them stave off competition. "We are a strong insurer and have always supported the market," she says, hinting that global players pull out of markets/sectors they view as risky. "There is no threat to GIC Re as no reinsurer writes 100 per cent business," she says. Still, to prepare for the impending competition from global giants, she is sending employees for training in the world's best institutes.
GIC Re is also exploring new areas. The agricultural premium pie, for instance, has expanded substantially of late. Around Rs 18,000 crore agriculture premium is expected to be up for grabs. "Of this, we expect to get Rs 5,000-6,000 crore," says Vaidyan. Another area with a lot of potential is life reinsurance. "Cyber liability and terrorism will also be focus areas for us," she says.
Vaidyan also wants to reform the underwriting process in the industry. The companies, for instance, suffer losses in the insurance business and make money from the investment portfolio. This is not a healthy practice. Then there are segments such as motor insurance, where insurers are bleeding due to unlimited third-party liability. "There is an imbalance between premium and claims in the motor business," says Vaidyan. That is why she is working towards framing a comprehensive corporate underwriting philosophy. "Everyone, from the chairperson to the junior-most employee, should know what the company did last year, goals for this year and the underwriting philosophy," she says.
Vaidyan is also looking at international markets for growth. GIC Re has operations in Dubai, Malaysia, Moscow and the UK. It serves the entire West Asia from its Dubai office and European countries from the UK office. It earns 45 per cent of its revenue outside India. "We are going to open offices in China and the US. At present, 40 per cent of the world's premium comes from the US. China is also a big market," says Vaidyan, adding that she is also open to inorganic growth. "When everybody gets involved, growth is possible," she says. GIC Re is also planning public listing. GIC Re's net worth is close to Rs 40,000 crore; it has assets of Rs 80,000 crore.
Vaidyan, who reads management books by Peter Drucker and Jack Welch, is completely focused on risk. "The risk of the world stops at the doorstep of the reinsuer. You have to be the best to handle such a job," she says. She relaxes by playing violin and piano with her children.