Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Interview: HSB Engineering Insurance FD Anya O’Reilly

THE LIFE of an FD is one filled with more regulation and compliance than they would like, and nowhere is this more keenly felt than by those engaged in the insurance business. With a cornucopia of niche rules and directives, companies’ finance functions must deal with regular recalibration to meet new demands. As insurance firms go, they don’t come much more niche than HSB Engineering Insurance (HSB), the UK’s only organisation solely focused on engineering insurance and inspection services.

Anya O’Reilly has been in post for 18 months and has just overseen the company being certified Solvency II compliant – an EU directive primarily concerning the amount of capital that insurance companies must hold to reduce the risk of insolvency. “That went live in January. It has been a major transition in the way that we monitor internally and report to the regulator. We’ve worked over the last few years to be ready for that,” she says.

While some regulatory milestones can be passed off as simply exercises in hoop-jumping, O’Reilly sees compliance as a valuable process for her and the finance team. A lot of the focus of Solvency II is about understanding the risks of the business and managing the capital to ensure you properly address those risks, doing so in a forward-looking way, she explains enthusiastically.

“It’s not just about how you performed last year, it’s about looking forward-based on your strategy and business plans, thinking what that means for the risks of the business and applying the financial number to that. That’s something we already did but it’s about formalising it,” she says. “It’s given us more robust info to help manage the business.”

Insurance cog

While HSB’s metier may seem minute, the company is a major cog in the machine of insurance behemoth Munich Re. HSB, borne 160 years ago, provides inspection services for equipment: have good, reliable and well-maintained equipment, and your insurance premiums will be kept down.

This relationship with Munich Re is hugely beneficial in the performance of O’Reilly’s soothsaying duties, something that takes up a significant portion of her time. “We’ve got a lot of data available to us and it’s not just our data; we’ve got access to the wider HSB group in the US and right up to Munich Re,” she explains. “If we’re forward-looking on a new line of business such as cyber insurance [for engineering equipment] in the UK market, for example, we’ve got a breadth of knowledge because we’ve been writing it in the US successfully for so many years. Part of my job is working alongside my counterparts in the US to understand what they do and see what information they’ve got that I can share.”

Another big project O’Reilly has been involved with is improving communications between the finance function and the wider business by building upon the team’s existing tendency to have different members liaise with different departments. This has been formalised by assigning a business partner across the company’s divisions, O’Reilly works with each team member on their individual area of the business.

“It’s given everyone in my team an objective of getting to know the business more, getting out there and building up that relationship,” she says. “So it’s customer service from the finance team, our customers being the internal business as well as the end users.”

O’Reilly’s appointment in September 2014 was part of a number of changes at board level, designed to put an emphasis on stronger local governance in an ever-growing, international organisation. Stephanie Watkins, HSB’s then chair and CEO, stepped up and moved back to the US while Stephen Worrall, who was financial director, moved up to managing director.

“When I heard that [was the plan] it was a real point of interest for me because I think finance should be at the heart of the business and it’s nice to see an FD promoted up the chain,” O’Reilly says. This refocusing on governance was a decision that pleased the regulators, a very wise move for any insurance company.

While her enthusiasm and aptitude for the role is clear to see, O’Reilly’s path into business wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice after spending 14 years in practice with PwC. However, while working part-time following the birth of her second child, an opportunity arose with her main audit client Royal London Mutual Insurance Society. She felt the time was right for a change.

It’s a move that necessitated a significant adjustment in her personal life, bringing with it a return to a five-day week, as she recalls: “At that time my husband quit his job – he keeps saying he’s retired but I tell him he hasn’t. We had an opportunity because we wanted to extend our house so he decided to run that and it worked out financially for us to do that.

“That’s finished now but it still works really well, so it’s just a matter of being flexible. Every now and then we ask ourselves if it’s still working and so far it still is. It’s great because my husband does the day-to-day stuff with the kids and I go to work.”

It’s not just her husband to whom she attributes her ability to climb the ladder alongside motherhood: “I think I was very lucky with who I worked for. PwC were very supportive when I was off and not just because they’ve been told to do it, it’s because I was valued as an employee. I kept in touch with my boss and he kept in touch with me because we got on well and I actually wanted to stay in touch and see what was going on.”

This is a way of working O’Reilly has been keen to continue in her current role. “If someone goes on maternity leave we’ll stay in touch,” she says. “We don’t just say ‘right, we’ll see you in a year’s time’. We keep in touch and make it work for everybody, and then you get happy workers.”

Thai time

It’s that willingness to adapt and embrace new challenges that saw O’Reilly spend two years in Thailand during her time with PwC, an experience she found invaluable. She says: “It was great going completely out of my comfort zone and I think it made me a bit braver about trying new things and taking risks.”

Involved in rolling out the firm’s global audit methodology to its Bangkok office, O’Reilly says training the Thai staff taught her coaching and communication skills she has tried to use in subsequent roles, adding: “When you’ve got such a big cultural difference, if you’re writing something in an email and it’s not completely clear, you can get into all sorts of trouble… although that can just as easily happen here too.”

So with a wealth of experience and a great knowledge of the way the business operates, surely she would be keen to follow in the footsteps of her promoted predecessor.

“I’m still new in the role I really like the job; actually I think I could see myself staying as an FD,” she says. “I’m not ambitious in the sense that I’m always looking at the next job; I just want to do a really good job now and that’s genuinely what I’m here to do. I can see things staying for the medium term and who knows, long term… it’s not something that I’m aspiring to.”

Anya O’Reilly CV
2014-present Finance director, HSB Engineering Insurance
2010-2014 Head of financial reporting, Royal London Mutual Insurance Society
2000-2014 PwC

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