40 Years in Reinsurance

Reinsurance: The Nuts and Bolts, the book I originally wrote 16 years ago, was published this year in its third edition. Many of the updates since the first edition have been in response to changing market conditions and working practices, driven by the increasingly sophisticated use of technology.

The fact that so many readers are interested in this industry isn’t a surprise to me. But it occurred to me that whilst the basics—the nuts and bolts if you will—of reinsurance haven’t changed over the years, the environment in which we practice reinsurance has changed enormously—and THAT is a constant surprise.

As I approach my 40th anniversary of starting work in the city, it seems to me that the world I knew then seems a million years away from office life today.

If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, you could be eligible to join the “Old Fogeys in Reinsurance” group:

  1. Do you remember having to use a “Facit” machine instead of an electronic calculator?
  2. Do you remember having to ask an old gentleman in a lab coat to “Photostat” some papers for you?
  3. Did the company ask you to work by candle light during the winter of discontent?
  4. Did you wait about 10 years before you were allowed to sign your own letters?
  5. Did you ever proudly announce that you were going to make an overseas telephone call and did the whole office sit up and pay attention?
  6. Did you spend the first few years of your working life communicating by telex?
  7. Were you amazed when you first saw a fax machine?
  8. Did your first experience of using a PC involve a machine with 1Mb of memory or less?
  9. Do you remember the smell of the Kardomah coffee houses all around the city?
  10. Were slips typed onto parchment, in typewriters with a special-purpose extra-wide carriage?
  11. Do you still think of a “sidecar” as something that belongs on a motorbike?
  12. Did you ever think that a renewal information pack with a single sheet of CRESTA zone aggregates was sophisticated?

So if, like me, you occasionally click the “Start” button and momentarily forget what programme you were going to open (and why), you might be able to remember a few more of these quaint old customs of yester-year.  I’d love to hear from you.

About Keith Riley

Keith Riley is Divisional Director in Willis Re's Asia Pacific, Middle East, Turkey and Africa team. Keith’s rein…
Categories: Reinsurance

9 Responses to 40 Years in Reinsurance

  1. Louise R says:

    The Telex machine – pads of paper with individual boxes for each word of type.

    Standing behined the Telex operator whilst he typed the message into the machine, eyes squint because he had a cigarette on the go!

    • Keith Riley says:

      Photocopying was done by a man in a white overall and woe betide anyone who tried to do it for themselves! Those were the days when everyone thought a spreadsheet was something you put on a bed. Nice to hear from you Louise.

  2. Bruce Wilson says:


    Even Hurricane lamps in the Winter of Discontent!

    And a “Fax” machine in the basement of EW Payne’s Sackville House! This resembled an Edison cylinder phonograph. It was operated by lab-coated senior gentlemen who affixed your document to an horizontally rotating cylinder. Once connection had been magically established (I think this required a phone call to the recipient’s lab-coated senior gentleman) the cylinder was set spinning at an impressive rate of knots and little thingamybob slowly tracked from top to bottom of the spinning document. In about 30 minutes, an A4 page of document (or was it Foolscap, velum of even papyrus?) had been transmitted … or so you thought! Then the recipient’s lab-coated senior gentleman ‘phoned through to say only the first five-minutes’ worth had been received. Then you politely declined your lab-coated senior gentleman’s invitation to watch a second transmission attempt, pleading a delicate constitution that you couldn’t risk over-loading with any further excitement that day!

  3. I V K Chary says:

    I do rememeber most of the items you have listed as exact replicas and some localised. Add to that some unique to markets like India, Japan, etc, like reciprocal trading, total dependance on postal deliver system (courier service) either not yet invented/activated, long hours of renewal negotiations with visiting reinsurers/brokers, to name a few.

  4. Peter Hughes says:

    My main memory was of having a desk with nothing on it other than paper, pens and a ‘phone. Seems so alien now…

  5. Tim Mathieson says:

    How about that indispensible department, the Typing Pool? What would we have done without them?!

    You remind me of the arrival of our first PC. Looking after our major Japanese reinsurance client (you know the one, Keith, as we were in the same company then, too!), we felt that we needed some up-to-date technology to help collate and analyse renewal statistics. It was great to be one of the first in the company to have a computer, but there was one drawback: it arrived with its own trolley, so that it could be moved from team to team. We only got it 50% of the time!

    • Keith Riley says:

      Ah Tim, the good old typing pool. For some reason my original quip about that one didn’t make the final edit! I remember those dear ladies well. Woe bedtide anyone who upset the head of the typing pool! I remember also the two flimsy copies of each letter, separated by sheets of carbon paper! Thoughts of those days make me weep onto my Zimmer frame! K

      • Susan N says:

        Do you ever think something smells like the liquid we put in the Mimiograph machine in the high school office? If you used a manual or an early IBM Selectric typewriter with the ball of letters, and know where the “stencil” setting is, you have typed the master that wrapped around the barrel of that Mimiograph copy machine. I’m new on LinkedIn and just went down memory lane on your list. I remember when…I was in a typing pool for a short time at Corroon & Black on Plus Park “before WF”, (as we called the Willis Faber-Corroon & Black merge). We had the Write word processor on floppy disc and it sounded like you were trying to change gears without engaging the clutch on an old ’47 Ford. Then when we progressed to email, word got out that all secretaries were to be eliminated except executives, and each department would have one “administrative assistant”. The sounds of grumbling were heard all through C&B, Penco and BFAW after those in management faced the cold reality that they were “mid” and not “upper”, and should begin preparing to send their own correspondence by email. That was a moment of truth for several men who had to take typing lessons. Oh Dylan, the times they are a changing so fast.

        • Keith Riley says:

          The typing pool was quite strong at the beginning of my career and probably lasted until the early nineties in the companies I worked in. The first PC I ever used was on a trolley and had basic spreadsheet software called Lotus 1-2-3. No word processor or e-mail until the early nineties and then, as you say, the traditional typists started to disappear. Some learned new skills, which is really the way to go in these ever-changing times. Thanks for your response and sorry to have reciprocated so late.

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