Ståle Hansen: Marching to a different beat
As leader of marine specialist Skuld, Ståle Hansen has taken an unconventional route to the top, via the Norwegian military and a flirtation with rock drumming
As introductions to leadership roles go, this has to be up there with some of the most challenging:
“I was promoted to CFO at 33 years old, my first role on the executive management level, and just one month later, the  financial crisis broke out in full force.”
The young Ståle Hansen – a Norwegian national with officer training, a love of drums and a self-confessed “free spirit” – found himself coming under significant pressure from his peers to take a more radical course of action than he was comfortable with.
He talks about a culture of fear hitting the boardroom as the financial markets spiralled in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, with board members urging him to dump the insurer’s investments in equities. Hansen stood firm and executed a measured de-risking of the portfolio instead.
“Those [investors] that did [exit out of equities altogether], didn't get any benefits of the strong recovery that came later on. But by trimming our risk level down to a level we could manage through such a storm, we experienced the benefit of getting something back when the markets went [up] again.
“Making sure you make decisions on a factual basis and not an emotional one, that was really the lesson…[along with] the importance of keeping to your agreed long-term strategy. I think that is something I’ve brought with me throughout my leadership career.”
That fear factor is something he can see rising again in the market today, with the situation around Covid-19.
“It's quite easy to jump on all the fear factors that you see in the market, and then you can quite easily become a bit detached from your original long-term strategy,” he says.
“It's been important to see the success we have had in the past from sticking to that strategy. When markets are extremely volatile, as they are again today, it's been helpful for me to keep calm and to keep the board calm – and to ensure the organisation is comfortable that we will weather this storm and come out well on the other side.”
That strategy of ensuring decisions are based on fact rather than fiction is one Hansen says he learned during his army days.
After completing his regular schooling, a young Hansen was “sick of sitting and studying” and so, when asked to complete his national service, he opted to travel as far away from home as he could to spend his mandatory year in the army “running out in the woods” as an infantryman in the far north of Norway.
After that first year however, he had had his fair share of “cold and snow and ice and Norwegian nature,” so he opted for officer training instead, moving into the King’s Guard in Oslo for his second 12 months.
It’s those two years that he credits for him developing an interest in leadership roles, although he readily admits that he knew pretty quickly that an officer’s life wasn’t for him ultimately.
“Firstly, I'm probably a bit more of a free spirit, I don't like such a strict structure. When it comes to how you need to operate, with a very straight line of command and giving orders… I really like to work through people and not just giving orders to people. That was one thing.
“The other was more from a practical point of view. They travel around and it’s difficult to settle down. And I always had an interest for business and for economics.”
Following his early career in the armed forces, Hansen very nearly became a professional musician.
He developed a love of the drums at an early age – starting off with blues and rock before switching to Norwegian’s famed hard rock scene. It wasn’t just the music he loved but also the ability to work with bandmates.
“Working together to create something, that’s much more rewarding than doing something alone, for me. That’s really shaped the way I think.
“I really was uncertain if I was going to study music and become a professional musician. But at some point I decided I would rather keep it as a hobby, something fun and not something you had to work at to put bread on the table. But how I work when I'm playing in a band, that has shaped the way I like to work within an organisation.”
Hansen admits here that his personal setbacks include being “constantly kicked out of bands” as his work’s travel schedule makes him rather unreliable when it comes to fitting in rehearsal time and gigs.
But on the flip side, his biggest personal achievement was convincing his wife to let him keep his drum kit in the house rather than in a shed or a summer house, as “that was too far away, I needed them to be closer to me”.
On a professional level, his notable achievements and setbacks have both been with his career at Skuld.
His greatest achievement was the successful integration of Gerling Norway/SMA (Scandinavian Marine Agency) into Skuld in 2017, shortly after he became Skuld’s CEO.
“It was a very famous agency in the global marine markets, a high quality operation, and to bring those two cultures together and come out with a strong value proposition for the market has been quite rewarding. Today, it's become the cornerstone of our diversification strategy,” Hansen says.
It was critical for him that those joining his firm felt empowered by the acquisition, that they could enjoy the benefits of being part of a much larger organisation without losing the entrepreneurial spirit that had made it so successful.
“I like to keep the hierarchy level flat. And I have quite a lot of focus on empowerment in the organisation, to make sure people can make independent decisions – that they have sufficient authority to serve the market,” he says.
“On the management side, I'm focused very much on teamwork. Now we really see how we can harvest all the skills they brought from before and when we put them together it becomes a much stronger business proposition.
“It, of course, requires a lot of open dialogue and welcoming of thoughts and ideas from outside the organisation.”
It is characteristic of this candid approach that Hansen picks Skuld’s entrance into – and subsequent exit from – Lloyd’s as his biggest professional setback.
Skuld received approval for its £60mn Syndicate 1897 in 2010, and launched it in January 2011.
Named after the year in which Skuld was established, the syndicate was launched through turnkey R&Q as a way of opening Skuld up to a wider global audience through Lloyd’s global licensing, as well as providing a way of writing more marine energy liability business, a sector that was expected to boom in the wake of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.
However, by 1 February 2011 when the syndicate opened its doors, the market was significantly softer, with widespread fears of overcapacity in its core focus area of marine and offshore energy in particular.
By 2014, a number of the founding underwriting team members had departed for other ventures and the business turned a £6.6mn loss, having generated a combined ratio of 109.8% after a reduction in claims was offset by a hike in operating costs.
Hansen took the decision to close the syndicate in 2019, with it ultimately being sold to legacy carrier Riverstone in June this year.
“The market just got flooded with capacity, and rates went down,” says Hansen, recalling the syndicate’s early days.
“We saw that with our size and the cost of operating a separate syndicate alongside our corporate paper and our own operation, we probably were not scaled to do that, in that market at that time.
“But there were a lot of valuable lessons learned during that period. It put Skuld on the map of global marine services and we became a much larger and more relevant player in the market.”
After 17 years at the same company, finding the motivation to get out of bed and continue leading from the front might be challenging for some, but not for Hansen.
“What keeps me motivated is making sure that there's a constant drive in the organisation, and that we set measurable goals and targets that we can follow up on,” he says.
He has also found the recent push towards sustainability a strong driver. New business sectors are opening up fresh opportunities for carriers such as Skuld – such as the ocean industry in Norway, which is focused on being more sophisticated about offshore sea farming and other harvesting methods.
“[It’s about trying] to find a perspective where Skuld will play a relevant role to society in a broader sense. That really makes us motivated but also quite creative in how can we utilise the competence that we have for new ventures in the industry, going forward. And there’s a lot, actually, that we can re-use from past experiences in new ventures.”
Being focused on sustainability also helps Skuld to attract the talent of tomorrow. “We have been around for 123 years and we want to keep going for at least another couple of hundred years,” Hansen says.
“It's about becoming an attractive company that wants to reach out to those 20-year-olds today and say that we have a focus on this. Because they ask about it when they come to interviews.”