CIOs are meant to challenge their companies to do things differently, and every now and then they challenge the editorial team at CIO to think differently too.
Unless you’ve been trapped in a server room for the first half of this year you cannot help but be aware of the latest gadget from Apple, the iPad. Here at CIO, even though we’re big fans of the iPhone, we initally considered the iPad a dubious offering. After all, wasn’t it just an oversized iPhone?
“Being a big iPhone is a good thing, it is on a scale that I can actually read without going blind,” says Jeff Smith, group CIO for specialists insurance specialists Torus in the City of London. Smith is one of a select number of CIOs around the world who has unearthed the business case for the iPhone and his infectious enthusiasm for reinventing the business using technology is engaging.
“Torus is a specialist global insurance company, underwriting a diverse range of insurance and reinsurance products,” Smith explains in the modern Cool Britainia-inspired office just down from Leadenhall’s famous markets. “Torus specialises in insuring things that are heterogeneous; with oil refineries one is not the same as the next.”
Founded by First Reserve, a private equity company that specialises in investments in the energy industry, Torus was originally an energy insurer that has since vastly diversified and can boast a heritage in obtaining deep levels of information. It saw that a similar information-led approach could work for other insurance lines. The company was put to the test during the recent US Gulf oil spill debacle. Smith explained that Torus was one of the first companies to pay out to BP, which owned the stricken rig at the heart of the spill: “We wrote the cheque the next day”.
Torus pays a site visit to every risk (a ‘risk’ being the subject of the insurance policy, such as an oil rig for example) and assesses each risk on its individual merits.
Torus has a capital base of £1bn behind it, which is backed up by what Smith calls “a very analytical approach”.
“Having a deep analytical approach means everything is information-efficient. I call it friction-free. We are running risk analyses of 10,000 buildings through a catastrophe model and using that model to ask: ‘if a hurricane hits, what will it do to our business?’ In this world you are putting real money onto these buildings and you have to pay out fast if something happens. So you have to be a lot more sure that you are putting your money on the right thing.
“In this business you need an awful lot more information than most. We are collecting terabytes of data all the time. We need to know the inner workings of a refinery, a field of rigs, or perhaps a set of directors and officers in minute detail if we are going to insure that company at the right price, or insure it at all,” Smith says of the varied insurance services Torus offers.
“A risk can be the entire package. For example at Goodyear we are covering the tyres, workers, manufacturing, chemicals, supply chain and the fleet of vehicles,” he says of the company’s contract with the famous tyre manufacturer.
Although not a publically listed company, Torus set out to act like a Financial Services Authority (FSA) regulated organisation, with a high degree of transparency.
“We took an early decision to act as if we are already a public company and we submit documents to the FSA as a result.”
Torus is backed by two large private equity companies (Corsair Capital as well as First Reserve). As a result the board meetings are critical to steer the company in a direction that all the investors are comfortable with and they take between two and three days. As with most boards the group sat around the table are a mix of executives who, in Smith’s words, “live and breathe the business and are here every day and then there are the non-executive members and the investors,” which means a lot of detail has to be shared, explained and decided upon.
“The board here is a decision-making strategic body, so everything has to be extraordinarily well documented.” All this documentation creates “massive packs that then go into the back of a delivery van”, and it is immediately clear that as a CIO, the risk for Smith is that the packs, which detail every facet of the Torus business could accidentally go missing. This risk was one of the factors behind Smith seeing the business case for the iPad, storing, sharing, distributing and editing critical business documents without having to place your critical business information into a courier system that could be open to accidental loss.
“There is a myth that paper is the best way to digest information. It [paper] is great for linear information – you start at the beginning on page one and read to the end at page 51. But with a lot of business documents people only want to read a section. So put that document into an electronic format and you can jump around the information pack and make it digestible. With tablet computers like the iPad it is the same as looking at paper, but you can move around the document, so it naturally suits board-level usage.
“Paper savings are immaterial, for me it is the ability to give information in a manner that helps them make decisions better. On top of the board documents, you can give them access to the internet, email, RSS and videos, all from the same device, which means you don’t have to stop the discussions.