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Like many insurance professionals, Allison Jolls came into the industry by accident. She has been able to leverage her rich background as a sailor and maritime academy student into a thriving career as a marine underwriter. In this Q&A, she shares how she found her way to insurance, what keeps her motivated, and what advice she has for budding new underwriters.

Q: How did you get into marine underwriting?
Jolls: I grew up in Los Angeles and started racing sailboats when I was 13. I majored in Global Studies and Maritime Affairs and minored in Marine Science at the California Maritime Academy, where I was also the captain of the sailing team. I competed all up and down the West Coast, in Boston, New York and New Jersey, and even a couple of times in Hawaii.

I wanted to do environmental work for a cruise line or work for NOAA Fisheries, but I graduated in 2009. There were just no jobs to be had. Someone I knew from sailing was working in risk control at Travelers at the time and said I should send him my resume. I had never thought about insurance, but I really didn’t have anything to lose, and I was ready to launch my life. Two weeks later, their yacht manager called me.

I told him I didn’t know anything about insurance. He said, “That’s the easy part. I can teach you insurance. I can’t teach you to understand boats.” So that’s how I got my start.

Q: How did you learn the ropes of underwriting and move up the ranks?
After Travelers I came to XL to start the Recreational Marine book of business. It ended up not being sustainable. Trying to grow something from nothing and having it not work out is painful. But that said, I enjoyed learning how to launch a new department.

I did the bulk of the drafting of our Recreational Marine forms, so that gave me an entry to product development. At the time I was starting to feel like I was outgrowing Recreational Marine. I wanted to learn more, do more and step into a bigger space where there was more opportunity for growth. These product development skills ultimately helped me transition into a commercial role. I was transferred to Pennsylvania where I learned the ins and outs of Ocean and Inland Marine underwriting. I am the only underwriter who has had premium booked in every category that the Marine department does business: Recreational Marine, Auto, Property, Inland Marine, Hull, and Liabilities.

Now I manage a full Hull and Liabilities book of business, including the Rowing Equipment program we write with Leonard Insurance Group. I still work on product development and have added product marketing and systems development into my professional skillset. I was just promoted to Senior Underwriter this past March.

Q: You’re also Co-Lead of AXA’s PRIDE Business Resource Group (BRG). How did you get involved, and what does that work mean to you?
When the opportunity to become Co-Lead came up, I was going through a really vulnerable period in my life. My mom was being treated for breast cancer, and I was trying to help her while balancing work and other life commitments. I really needed something positive to set my mind to. When Anne Marie Elder sent out the email looking for volunteers, it felt like a calling.

Growing up in California, I’d always been around the LGBT community. When I first moved to the East Coast to start my career, I didn’t know anyone. My first Thanksgiving, one of my good friends from high school was living in New York and she invited me to dinner with her and her two uncles who were gay. I ended spending several Thanksgivings with them.

They badly wanted a family of their own but struggled with adoption because they’re a nontraditional couple. That broke my heart. So, I really feel strongly about PRIDE, and doing my part to combat misconceptions and outright discrimination. There are so many issues in the world and no one person can fix them all, so I chose this one to dedicate myself to.

Underwriting is all about creative problem-solving, so being exposed to different things and being able to work in different capacities definitely helps me stay fresh mentally.

Q: How has your involvement in the BRG helped your underwriting?
I like to be involved in a lot of different things or else it can be tough to stay engaged. I’m most productive when I’m under just a little bit of pressure, so wearing a few different hats helps me stay busy, and it just keeps things interesting.

I like to flex different muscles, utilize different skillsets, and adopt different mindsets. Underwriting is all about creative problem-solving, so being exposed to different things and being able to work in different capacities definitely helps me stay fresh mentally.

Q: What advice do you have for college students or new grads who might be considering a career in insurance?
First, I would say look for a company that provides opportunities to learn and grow; one that recognizes and rewards talent. I was invited to be a part of most of the projects I’m involved in, which makes me feel like my skills and input are valued. I think AXA XL does a good job of seeing and supporting talent.

Second, read the forms. Learn the forms. Love the forms. If you know your product inside and out and can explain every single detail or answer any question, you’re an expert. And if you have questions, look through internal resource libraries, do internet research, and ask someone for help. Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge available at your fingertips through technology and among your coworkers. People love to talk about things they know!

Third, learn how to listen critically. Underwriting is about problem solving, but first you have to understand what the problem is. You have to listen critically to what your agents are telling you and get to the heart of what the insured needs. Building a policy around that makes everyone happy.

Finally, build your sales skills. You have to sell yourself as a competent, credible underwriter to your clients, and sometimes you have to sell yourself up to a supervisor. When you come up with a creative solution to a complex problem, you might need someone to sign off on it, so you have to pitch it well.

Q: What are your plans for the next 5 years of your career?
I will definitely stay in marine. It is the least regulated of all insurance lines, so it gives me more freedom to be creative which I find appealing. If I can come up with an unconventional solution and make it work, I feel a lot of pride and ownership over that. I am hungry to learn and grow as much as I can, and I have my sights set on a Practice Leader role when the time is right.

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US- and Canada-Issued Insurance Policies

In the US, the AXA XL insurance companies are: AXA Insurance Company, Catlin Insurance Company, Inc., Greenwich Insurance Company, Indian Harbor Insurance Company, XL Insurance America, Inc., XL Specialty Insurance Company and T.H.E. Insurance Company. In Canada, coverages are underwritten by XL Specialty Insurance Company - Canadian Branch and AXA Insurance Company - Canadian branch. Coverages may also be underwritten by Lloyd’s Syndicate #2003. Coverages underwritten by Lloyd’s Syndicate #2003 are placed on behalf of the member of Syndicate #2003 by Catlin Canada Inc. Lloyd’s ratings are independent of AXA XL.
US domiciled insurance policies can be written by the following AXA XL surplus lines insurers: XL Catlin Insurance Company UK Limited, Syndicates managed by Catlin Underwriting Agencies Limited and Indian Harbor Insurance Company. Enquires from US residents should be directed to a local insurance agent or broker permitted to write business in the relevant state.