Maamoun Rajeh: on wings of Eagles
Arch’s global reinsurance head has been flying high throughout his career, but he’s mindful of the need to keep his feet on the ground
If there’s one movie that is suggestive of interviewing Maamoun Rajeh - chairman and CEO of Arch Worldwide Reinsurance Group – it’s quite possibly ‘90s feel-good comedy Dave.
In the film, Kevin Cline plays the manager of a temp agency who also bears a striking resemblance to the incumbent US president - and happens to have a sideline in impersonating him.
Dave is catapulted into the limelight as a look-alike for the president when the latter suffers a stroke (stay with me on this).
One of the standout scenes is where Dave, between public engagements, makes a snack for himself and his Secret Service agent, Duane, in the presidential kitchen.
He builds an enormous sandwich, cuts it in half, and gives one half to Duane, while persuading the taciturn bodyguard to talk a little about himself.
The point of the scene is that this is a guy who is interested in the people around him - their concerns and aspirations – and not simply in wielding power over them.
As a temp agency boss, he displays a heartwarming, go-getting positivity towards his candidates. As a presidential stand-in, he again feels compelled to help others, while playing his part in the collective endeavour of governing a country.
This scene is a perfect encapsulation of how Rajeh appears to interact with others in his professional life. The difference is that, unlike Dave, he is the real deal. He is someone who leads by example, and who remains focused on the concerns, as well as the abilities, of the people around him.
“Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always tried to create an environment, and a vision around that, that gets people to naturally want to excel,” he says. “And when you do that, what you end up with is your team doing as much of the leading as you do yourself.”
Beneath the amiable exterior is a quiet confidence, which Rajeh typically expresses through a series of mottoes. What this tells you about him as a person is that he doesn’t need to claim ownership of the knowledge he has acquired and wear it like a medal. As a leader, it is enough for him to acknowledge that he has learned things along the way which have benefited both him and others around him.
The wisdom of crowds
Starting out at United States Fidelity and Guarantee Company (USF&G), where he held a series of business analysis roles from 1992 onwards, Rajeh then moved into underwriting at the firm’s reinsurance subsidiary, F&G Re, for the second half of the decade.
After transferring to HartRe for a couple of years, he joined Arch Reinsurance in 2001 and worked his way up to CUO. After that, he became president and CEO of Arch Re Europe, chairman and CEO of Arch Re and, since October 2017, chairman and CEO of Arch Worldwide Reinsurance Group.
“Arch was founded by a lot of F&G-ers and so I feel like it’s not a new company - it’s the same group with a different brand. So I’ve been fortunate that in 28 years I’ve really been in one organisation,” he says.
That continuity of working relationships has surely had a bearing on how the culture at Arch Re has developed.
“Our culture - if I had to pick one word – is collaborative. It’s results-driven and we understand that we’re in the business of making the best possible decisions we can - and how we come together as a group to do that is like no other in our industry. The results have been phenomenal – I can’t be more proud of what this team has done.”
It's telling that one of Rajeh’s favourite books is James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom Of Crowds, which explores the theory that decisions made with the benefit of the collective knowledge within a group are often better than those made by individuals within the group.
“We make decisions for a living and we truly believe in trying to get as many inputs within the time constraints that we can. So collaborating becomes a natural part of what we do,” says Rajeh.
Higher than the Eagles
When Insider Engage spoke to Rajeh, his team had officially been back in the office for a couple of months, albeit on a voluntary basis.
“We’re fortunate that here in Bermuda they’ve done a really good job with Covid. And it’s made a difference to the international business community,” he says.
On one wall of his office is a Philadelphia Eagles towel from the Minneapolis Superbowl in 2018 which, he says, “was meant to be inconspicuous, because if you come into my office you don’t really see it”. With the ever-present gaze of work Zoom calls, however, his allegiance as a “die-hard Eagles fan” has become apparent to all.
It would be tempting to draw comparisons between his sporting interests and business activities, but in truth, Rajeh’s devotion to the Eagles doesn’t really reflect his ability as a leader. The merchandise commemorates the winning of the team’s “first Superbowl ever in the franchise history” and, as he admits, “it’s been hard rooting for the Eagles but they finally pulled one through”. He’s nonetheless failed to convert his kids to the cause – they have followed his wife instead, to become New England Patriots fans.
Unlike his beloved Eagles, Arch Re has been a more consistent top performer, having averaged a combined ratio of 89.6% over the five years to 2019, compared with a peer-group average of around 96.9%, according to Arch Capital Group’s 2019 annual report.
For a business to be consistently successful there has to be not only an effective management team and a talented workforce, but a good relationship between the two.
“Management is in the here and now. Good managers drive what they perceive as [being] right and most effective,” says Rajeh. “Leadership is more instinctual and forward-looking, and good leaders are constantly challenging what is right. Bad management is pretty bad for the organisation; bad leadership is catastrophic.”
However, good leadership is about more than making good decisions and getting the best possible results. One of the biggest lessons Rajeh has learned about being a leader has, he admits, taken “a while to get comfortable with”.
“It’s this notion that you can teach yourself to celebrate when others in the team achieve things that you had nothing to do with. Learning that that’s a bigger thing to celebrate than you being part of the process and driving it forward personally,” he says.
When it comes to his own management style, Rajeh opts for a familiar allegory – the player-coach.
“Whether you’re in the scheme of managing a project or a strategy, I’m happy to warm the bench or to get in the game, depending on the circumstances,” he says. “Everything that we do, we do together as a group.”
However, what he goes on to say about what makes an effective team is more surprising.
“Over time you learn that, the more responsibility you have, the more it’s a sense of service as well. A team needs to feel like you’re there to serve them and not the other way around. As a leader you’ve got to recognise it’s not about you - it is about the team, what they get out of it, how they progress and how they see their future with you at the helm.”
Solve for the whole
One significant element of Rajeh’s approach to leadership is his own history. It’s not a topic he wishes to dwell on, and it would be prurient to delve any further into the details, but it’s worth noting that, having been raised in the West African country of Liberia, he and his family then returned to America when Rajeh was in his late teens.
Their departure followed 10 years of unrest after a bloody coup d’état, and preceded 14 years of vicious civil war, until a period of relative stability returned with the election of the country’s (and Africa’s) first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2005.
When he ponders the question of the most difficult lessons he’s learned, therefore, it is with an eye on a past that is more turbulent than most.
“I kept going back to values - and where the values come from. It [forms] who you are - whether you’re the leader of a group or you’re on the beach with the kids at the weekend,” he says.
Having grown up in a highly unstable political environment, he says: “You don’t take a whole lot for granted. You do really appreciate what you have and, I think, with that wiring, I just go about life a little differently.”
In terms of his working life, that means: “You tend to get less sticky and focus on the things that really matter. Sometimes that is good; sometimes you gotta step back and recognise some of the details actually do matter to other people in the room. But my natural instinct is generally that the small points don’t matter – let’s solve for the whole and go get it while we can.”
It is perhaps also the experience of these formative years that means Rajeh is more phlegmatic than most about setbacks. “In our business these are not physical, life or death scenarios, but we make bad decisions all the time,” he says.
The big one in his career was Arch Re’s ill-fated Middle East venture, Gulf Re. The company sunk $100mn and almost 10 years into the operation, but ultimately had to retreat to lick its wounds.
“That’s really where I think the failure was – we tried for almost a decade to make this thing work,” he recalls. “We had the team, we had great partners in the region, but ultimately it was a place that, perennially, you couldn’t make money.”
The Dubai-based carrier ceased accepting new business in November 2016 and then went into run-off a year later, having failed to bounce back despite a restructure in May 2015, in which Arch Re acquired the other half share in the business owned by the Gulf Investment Corporation.
True to form, Rajeh prefers not to dwell on the negatives in favour of focusing on the lessons learned.
“It reinforced for me our culture and what we’re all about here,” he says. “We didn’t apply the same sort of rigour and the same notions that downside matters more than upside, that margins of safety matter, and of knowing more about a transaction than the actual client does. Over there we were not very [well] informed – and we paid for it.”
Just do it
This year Rajeh celebrates not only his 50th birthday, but his 20th wedding anniversary. “We were meant to celebrate somehow differently than this,” he says ruefully.
At the same time, both anniversaries highlight what he considers to be one of his biggest achievements, both in personal and professional terms.
“I love what I do. I’m fully committed to what I do at Arch. I give because I want to. But I’m committed to my family and I don’t have any regrets that I’ve missed out on anything with the kids. I’ve been able to commit to them in ways and at times that matter to them and I’ve [also] been all-in at work.”
To Rajeh, maintaining that work-life balance is all about communication. “We just signed the Watford transaction [Arch and Watford agreed the terms of a takeover deal in November, expected to close in Q1 2021] and even my 15-year-old daughter [knows the] names of partners. They enjoy it with you - they’re down with you and they’re up with you.”
Of course, any interview with a Bermuda-based executive wouldn’t be complete without an endorsement for the jurisdiction itself, but Rajeh stresses both the upside and downside of being island-based.
“I can be in any meeting, and if there is a thing I’ve committed to - a half hour or an hour engagement at school - I’m 10 minutes away. I can break away and do that – it is a game-changer,” he says.
However, he notes, the flipside of that is a lot of time spend on aeroplanes. “I have a motto, when it comes to family – ‘Get on another plane’,” he says.
“When you come home [from work travel] the last thing you want to do is be in another tin can. But I flew back from Zurich in early March and we [the family] were thinking about going skiing, so I’m here for 24 hours, and we fly to Utah for three days - and it was just amazing. That was the last trip we had [before lockdown] and it was probably the most memorable I’ve ever done with the family. So you gotta just do it.”
Celebrate the incremental
Part of the role of both a manager and leader is to motivate your team. But leaders need motivating themselves from time to time. I wonder if even the upbeat and optimistic Rajeh needs a lift now and then?
“You’ve got to be in a stimulating environment. If you’re always thinking about motivating yourself it’s going to be a constant challenge,” he says.
“[But] when I’m in a funk, or I need to gain some energy, the thing that I’ve done constantly is call people. Just a 15-20 minute phone call with someone that I haven’t talked to in a while, and then another handful of people at random. And I draw energy out of what these guys are doing. Everyone has something at their level that they are excited about, and when I hear that, I get fired up. I’ve been doing that a lot in this recent environment when we’re not face to face.”
While he admits that managing stress “is a constant”, Rajeh has another motto to bring to bear on the issue.
“You solve for the week, not the weekend. In other words, you’ve got to get your week right the majority of the time. If you solve for the week, the stress becomes much more muted – it’s something you know is temporary, as opposed to a constant churning of the wheel.”
Outside of work, he has other ways of winding down. Rajeh’s favourite place to be when he’s at home is in the kitchen: “With my sous chefs – my kids – next to me.”
“There’s something about the kitchen for me – being there, in the zone – that just does it. It’s a de-stress and having the kids just bantering and saying things to me – I’m still lucky enough that the kids actually still enjoy hanging out with me. That’s where I’m happy!”
The irony is that the same guy who says experience has taught him not to sweat the small stuff, has grown to appreciate the value of the finer details.
“In a fast-paced environment - as we’re trying to excel, to make changes, to move ahead - we’re always looking for the big increment – the big vault forward,” he says.
However, he recalls, one piece of advice he was given some years ago is: “You gotta celebrate the incremental change, just as much as the revolutionary change - because most change is incremental.”
“That did make a difference for me, because a lot of times you want to keep pushing – and reach for these big game-changers - but incremental change matters and it’s taught me to appreciate some of the small wins that we have.”
That said, given the steady drip-drip of small losses that have conspired to erode reinsurance margins in recent years, even when the big losses have been absent, getting some big wins is still important.
“Let’s not mince words – results matter,” says Rajeh.
He highlights the “top tier” performance of his team over the years since the company was founded as one of the things he is most proud of at Arch.
“We’ve outperformed the entire peer group in orders of magnitude - nearly two times the performance. It’s hard to outperform - but it’s very hard to outperform consistently and this team has done that.”
At the time of Insider Engage’s interview with Rajeh, the US election season was nearing its climax, which prompted a final piece of advice from the Arch Re boss, namely: “To think about [the fact that] heads of state are ultimately the highest form of civil service and they are there to serve, not to be served - and don’t take it for granted.”
“I’ll stop there, without editorialising,” he jokes. “But leaders should be thinking the same way. If you were up for election every year, would your team vote you in? Would the majority of your team want you to continue to lead them?”
As an unelected leader, who’s continually rooting for the success of others, you might think ‘Dave’ would be Rajeh’s favourite film, therefore?
Sorry to disappoint – it’s actually ‘My Cousin Vinny’.