Jay Ralph likes to say he went from one great beer city to another. The Milwaukee native lives in Munich, where he is the only American and one of only three non-Germans on the 10-member board of management for Allianz Group, the world's largest property-casualty insurer and a global giant in financial services. The company employs about 1,700 people in the Twin Cities, mostly at the Golden Valley headquarters of Allianz Life. Ralph, who from his position on the board oversees the asset management arms of the multinational and Allianz Life, sat for an interview there on a recent visit.
Q: How does the board of management in a German company differ from a board of directors in a U.S. company?
A: The entire management is really jointly responsible for all aspects of the operation, rather than on the American side, where you see it a little bit segregated into divisions. One has to create consensus across the executive leadership. It takes a little bit more time, but I think the advantage is that when one makes a decision, you have broad buy-in. I came to Allianz and ran their alternative risk transfer business for 10 years. As a CEO you're responsible for your business, and motivating your people and engaging customers. On the management board we're a bit like a supervisory board would be. Reporting to me are the CEOs of Allianz Life, Allianz Global Investors and PIMCO. They have the operational responsibility and I act a little bit like a chairman of each of those subsidiary companies.
Q: What effect are low interest rates having on insurers?
A: Low interest rates represent a challenge for all savers, not just insurers. Precisely at a time when baby boomers are entering their retirement years and need income, that's particularly difficult. Part of it is probably the effect of a low growth world, which leads itself to lower inflation and interest rates, but part of it is obviously based on central bank policy. Rates are likely to rise as central bank intervention moves away from the market. Having said that, we're probably in a low interest rate environment, perhaps not at these levels, but for a long time. Individuals will have to save more.
Q: How did you end up at Allianz?
A: I was working for Northwestern Mutual in the investment area, and one of the investments I made was in a start-up Bermuda reinsurer. That company was subsequently bought out by Zurich Insurance, and that led to my move to Zurich, and while I was in Zurich, then I was approached by Allianz to head a similar type of company. When Allianz approached me, I said, 'What's the business plan?' They said, 'Well, it's to hire you.' I took a blank piece of paper and wrote down that evening how one could develop this business, and looked at it the next morning and proclaimed it good. The key criteria was to create for large companies specialized insurance or financial solutions where neither a bank nor a standardized insurance product met the need. I led that company for 10 years, Allianz Risk Transfer, and it is still going strong, under now two subsequent CEOs. One of the things that actually helped in that transition was also a terrific opportunity for me personally. I approached the board member that I was then working for and said I'd love to better get to know my kids, and to take the company from founder to the next generation. Both goals could be accomplished if I worked 60 percent. So for my last three years at Allianz Risk Transfer, I was the CEO of the company but worked 60 percent of the time. It gave me the chance to get to know my family, rejuvenate me a little bit in the mid-portion of my career, which then has allowed me to continue enthusiastically with the company and facilitate this transition from founder to the next generation.
Q: Do you speak German?
A: I do. My mother is Swiss, my father is American. English was the language of our household, but I did take German in school. You don't really learn to speak it, you learn to maybe write it and take tests in the language. It was when I came to Switzerland that I really used it in everyday life. Having said that, I would say 98 percent of what I do at work is in English. English is our global company language, the exceptions being the annual general meeting, which by German law is held in German, as well as supervisory board meetings. Outside of work I speak German, because it's the country in which I live today.
Q: How does German business culture differ from U.S. business culture and what are some good things they do that we could learn from?
A: Allianz is an international company with German roots. The headquarters staff is maybe 1,200 people. You go to the cafeteria and you see Chinese, you see Americans, French, Italians. Working in the headquarters of an international company, and one located in Europe, you really have to be comfortable with international teams, diversity, multiculturalism, and that makes it an interesting place to work. In terms of the Germans in particular, I think Germany has been known for outstanding engineering, when you think of the automobile industry with BMW, Mercedes and Audi. Within the Allianz group, technical excellence is something that perhaps the Germans pride themselves on, and maybe that's part of our German roots.
Q: Are you a Bayern Munich fan?
A: Allianz is a shareholder, and Bayern Munich plays in the Allianz arena, so it's hard living in Munich and working for Allianz to not be a Bayern Munich fan.