• KCA/Princeton

Book Review: Brian O'Hara's road is "no simple highway."

Brian O'Hara, former CEO and Chairman of XL Group, presents the "roadshow slides" of his life and career in his engaging life story "It's Not the Score, It's the Trip," Copyright 2020 by Brian O'Hara, Published by Advantage, Charleston, South Carolina.

It's a fine read-by-the-pool account that skims across connected anecdotes of life, from un-pressured Philadelphia roots to high-pressured venues of insurance and corporate finance. Mr. O'Hara's accessible prose moves from his idyllic upbringing in a large prosperous loving family, through a trail-blazing career in finance, to a tumultuous period of unplanned retirement and multi-million dollars margin calls. As his bankers self-protectively drop him, his friends and benefactors rally. He and his unconditionally-supportive wife, Nancy, land on their feet.

Our years as portfolio manager for institutional and mutual funds placed us contemporaneously in the public market supply chain of capital that chased the dreams and aspirations of Mr. O'Hara and his crowd. We were on the other side of the table listening to the well-rehearsed stories of pricing, volatility, hard markets and soft markets, reserve releases and strengthening. We were on the golf course in Pebble Beach with Mr. O'Hara and Ms. Fiona Luck, whom he rightly identifies as a valued senior leader of his company. We did a loop with leaders of Security Capital Assurance at Maidstone ahead of the great financial crisis. That game was long ago, but Mr. O'Hara now turns in his "card" and settles the score for the history books on his view of financial guaranty insurance then and now. We remember the abalone in Monterey and the brilliant sunshine in East Hampton just as the winds were building and the ground was beginning the shake beneath the global economy.

We do not push back on a glossy re-telling of this story from this angle, from his angle. Our lives as we live and remember them must be dominated by the good we feel and the relationships we cherish. Mr. O'Hara delivers for all of us in this way. He was in the right place at the right time with vision, skills, and energy to lead a push forward into high risk, high reward areas of insurance and risk transfer. His results were unsurprisingly volatile, at times the outcomes momentously negative. The frequency and severity of calamity is on the rise in most areas of our existence and the tolerance for those risks is on a precipitous decline. The collision of fear and greed meets every day around the globe through a compelling network of insurance brokers, underwriters, actuaries. That so much of this found its way to the pink sands of Bermuda is a silky weave of serendipity and calculus.

Reading between the lines of "It's Not the Score..." may be the best part of this story, but it takes a little knowledge of the game. There is intriguing conflict between the author's professed ability to persuade people and their capital to join great adventures, and those humorous youthful transgressions or later strategic off-ramps where he was inexplicably compelled by others or by circumstances.

As a toddler, Brian O'Hara escaped his crib and wandered unaccompanied down a Philadelphia street before his safe return home. There were later episodes where he took risk, flexed the rules a bit, with consequences similarly mild. He learned that risks were real, but very manageable. Had he experienced harsher outcomes earlier in his life, this confidence in risk management may never have developed.

For folks in these insurance and capital markets businesses, this story colorizes lightly some fairly dull topics. As a well-hyped insurance newcomer, Lemonade now leaps into the market amidst great excitement around speed and artificial intelligence. We suspect there is considerable nuance to that company and its mission that can only be known in the fullness of time. The stock market is trying to squeeze a lot of juice from this sour and acidic ingredient.

A timely quick read at a moment when the forecast is dark & stormy. Stay well. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Circulate lightly.


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