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A Q&A with Mary Primm, Senior Underwriter, Marine

In 1975, the Vietnam War officially ended. Margaret Thatcher became the first woman elected to lead Britain's Conservative Party. NASA launched the first joint United States and Soviet Union space flight. And, although it didn’t make headlines, AXA XL’s Mary Primm began what would be a 45-year career as an inland marine insurance underwriter that’s worthy of attention.

On September 30, 2020, Mary, a senior underwriter in AXA XL’s US Marine team, is putting down her underwriting pen to embark on a well-earned retirement. Undoubtedly, over more than four decades of inland marine underwriting, Mary has amassed considerable knowledge and underwriting skill that helped her build an impressive book of profitable business. Fortunately for us, and our industry, she’s also proven to be a trusted mentor to many inland marine underwriters following in her footsteps.

And we couldn’t let her retire without asking her to look back, share her memories and explain how she adapted to change. Here’s what she had to say.

How has the underwriting process changed over the last 45 years?
Early in my career, business was conducted on paper, by phone and via “snail” mail. Submissions arrived in your inbox … an actual box on your desk to hold paper mail. If we needed more information, we completed and mailed a multipage form to the agent. Once they returned it, we could move forward. Needless to say, it was a time-consuming process!

When not shuffling paper, we were on the phone, constantly. Fax machines eventually replaced mail for the most part, however, and information exchange speeded up. But we still had physical files and underwriting was a laborious process.

The era of emails and desk top computers came into being in the 1990’s. I didn’t even work on a computer until the late 1990’s, however, when I took a job at Fireman’s Fund. Everything started moving faster thereafter….

How has the marine underwriter’s job changed over the past 45 years?
Today it is more critical for companies to capture and manage their collective exposures to minimize loss severity. During my career, underwriting authorities varied by company and were developed to limit potential CAT exposures.

There weren’t any rating tools initially. We learned how to price risk from senior underwriters or from paper manuals. Your judgement - acquired through experience - heavily influenced class rates. You used what worked.

Over the years, however, the process become standardized. Companies expanded manuals to address a larger number of classes, developed concrete rules in addition to guidelines, and created rating tools based on company and industry experience.

Previously, sales calls were done by a marketing representative from another department. If an underwriter were to see a broker or agent, it was because they came to see us - we didn’t necessarily visit them.

Around the early 1990’s, however, the whole model shifted. Gradually, we became production underwriters. There was more pressure to leave the desk and work with brokers in person in order to write business. We were marketers – “selling” insurance, not just underwriting it. Underwriters now had underwriting production and agency visitation goals. Interacting with producers in person became a critical part of our job.

How did you adapt to your marketing responsibilities as an underwriter?I came to understand that partnering with my distributors - our bread and butter - was important. If you are a valuable, informative resource, they will reciprocate with business opportunities. 

Was it easy to adapt to all these changes?
If you’re going to be in the marine insurance business, you just do it.

Has technology become more integral to what you do?
The entire insurance world now depends on technology.

But it wasn’t always that way. Early on, everything was a manual process. Filed coverages were rated by a rating unit, using ISO manuals that were updated daily. Bound policies were typed up by a typing unit or typing pools, quality checked by another unit, and eventually sent to the agents from the mail room. Physical files were stored in a file room. Policy generation was not computerized until the early 1990’s.

Your book was consistently profitable and grew. How did you do it?
As simple as it seems, I followed my company’s underwriting guidelines, which are there for a reason. Common sense helps too – understand the who, what, where, and how about the insured’s business.

If you could give any advice to a new underwriter, or someone thinking about becoming a marine underwriter, what would it be?
In my opinion, marine underwriting is the best job in the insurance world! It might not be as flexible as it once was, but still allows for more creativity than most lines of insurance. You’ll never be bored – each day presents a new challenge.

Always keep in mind that it’s your reputation and integrity on the line. Learn all you can from senior underwriters, managers and others. Keep notes. Be organized. If you don’t know, ask. Keep up with all the changes (there are a lot).

If you’re going to do something, do it right and to the best of your ability. Be nice. Try to understand where others are coming from - the old “walk in someone else’s shoes” adage comes to mind.

The speed at which business is conducted will only grow faster. It’s easy to get frustrated, but treat everyone with kindness, even when someone makes a mistake. Fix problems – don’t create them. Take the high road. It’ll be worth it.


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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.