Playing her game: senior executive Samira Barakat is credited with changing the transparency with which GE Insurance Solutions underwrites risk
Paula L. Green
Armed with fluency in three languages and decades of management experience honed on three continents, Samira Barakat, senior vice president of risk and underwriting for GE Insurance Solutions, has moved across the Atlantic to aggressively manage the multibillion-dollar risks of her employer.
For the past five years, the Egyptian native has brought a clarity and razor-sharp focus to a company that wrote more than $8 billion in premiums last year and handled risks around the globe that are as tricky as asbestos and terrorism, or as mundane as auto insurance.
As the chief risk officer for General Electric’s giant insurance unit, Barakat is successfully using a mix of flexibility, vision and inclusiveness–qualities she believes any senior executive needs to manage a multinational–from the home office in Kansas City, Mo., to direct a staff of 160 people spread around the globe.
“I enjoy a challenge. To look at the risk and challenges of a business, develop a plan and then execute that plan,” says Barakat, who is especially proud of her management skills in execution and delivery. “In risk management, you make the job. There are a huge number of issues in enterprise risk management … it’s very exciting.”
And as an Egyptian Muslim woman who grew up in Cairo with a diverse professional career that spans Northern Africa, Europe and the United States, Barakat is a perfect fit for a global insurer that does business in nearly 30 countries with exposures around the world. The 47-year-old executive carries a professional and personal perspective that acutely recognizes the need for a flexible management style that envelopes various cultures.
“I’ve worked across many divisions of GE around the globe and with many groups,” says Barakat, who reports directly to Ron Pressman, the chairman, president and chief executive officer at GE Insurance Solutions. “You have to be able to include different styles as you go through the process of creating and then distilling a policy across the company in different markets.”
David R. Nissen, the head of GE Consumer Finance who brought Barakat back into the GE fold nearly 10 years ago, says Barakat’s international experience played a part in his decision to hire her as chief credit officer at GE Consumer Finance.
“She’s very comfortable with different cultures and people and works hard … whether in the office or outside the office. She gets out and travels around the globe,” says Nissen, adding that at the time of her hiring, all of the company’s business was overseas. The president and chief executive officer of GE Consumer Finance also lauds Barakat’s analytical skills and her vision.
“Samira’s very comfortable with complex mathematical and statistical models. She can take a complex insurance problem and break it down and forecast what to expect in the future,” Nissan says. “She can spot problems before others can see them.”
Marc J. Saperstein, senior executive vice president of human resources and communications at NBC Universal in New York, has known Barakat since 2000, when he became her mentor as part of the formal mentoring program at GE Capital.
“Samira is great analytically and has a great feel for risks as well as a good business headset,” says Saperstein, who left General Electric in 2002 but still has an informal mentoring relationship with Barakat. “She also has a sensitivity to other people and their cultures. She understands the nuances of different environments.
“I have a lot of respect for Samira. That’s a big job she has, and I’m sure her boss, Ron Pressman, is happy with her.”
Pressman is indeed satisfied with Barakat’s performance. “Samira brings great analytical skills, dedication and tenacity to her position as chief risk officer,” says Pressman in an e-mail response to questions about Barakat’s work at the company. “She is willing to proactively drive change where needed and organize teams to effect the change required. Her focus on data capture, analytics and portfolio strategy has changed the game for GE Insurance Solutions by dramatically increasing the transparency of our underwriting.”
Barakat firmly believes that her aggressive stance–especially when handling emerging risks–is an essential technique for any risk executive who wants to run a successful enterprise risk management program in today’s rapidly changing world. New risks–from environmental risks like mold to infectious diseases such as SARS to unpredictable risks like terrorism–are constantly evolving. Instead of reacting to these risks after the claims come rolling in, risk mangers need to use risk modeling and other techniques to assess the probability of these risks and be sure contract terms and conditions are dealing with possible losses.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Have you been proactive enough?’ Last season there was the issue of global warming and all the changes in the weather. We’re looking ahead at technology and cell phones … everything is evolving, and we’re learning what we can do,” she says.
Another important facet of a strong enterprise risk management program is managing volatility.
“You have to manage your volatility by diversifying your portfolio … it’s very challenging,” says Barakat. “You have to look at what would be the worse-ease scenario for an event and how it would impact your capital, your ratings. You have to know your risk appetite.”
Paying attention to how they optimize their company’s portfolio of risks is another technique risk managers should use to run a successful risk management program, says Barakat.
“You want to optimize your portfolio and decide, ‘In which areas do I want to grow? What areas do I want to exit?'” she adds. “You need clarity around your risk appetite and emerging risks.”
Barakat manages the company’s multibillion-dollar portfolio of reinsurance and primary insurance risks with a 12-hour day that generally starts at about 6 a.m. with telephone calls and video conferences with staff in Asia and Europe. She generally travels twice a year to Europe as well as Asia to complete reviews of accounts and portfolios.
Barakat says one of the toughest parts of her job is when people disagree with her decisions.
“The nature of a risk management job is to manage change. You have to navigate your way, and you need the backbone to say no,” she says. A manager, for example, may want to go ahead and assume a certain risk while she–corporate policy mandates that Barakat sign off on deals that carry significant risk–says no. The clash, she says, can be uncomfortable.
But the chemical-engineering graduate says she hasn’t encountered any problems as a woman working in several male-dominated professions.
“Men may outnumber women, but I’m not sure they dominate. Both GE and American Express have a lot of inclusiveness. You’re able to learn from your colleagues, and the best dominate,” says Barakat, whose 10-year career with American Express spanned various positions in Cairo, Paris and Brighton, England. “Once you establish yourself as a professional, there isn’t a problem. You can disregard some of the small things.”
A 1981 graduate of the American University in Cairo with a Bachelor of Science in materials engineering, Barakat began her career with General Electric in Cairo that same year as a sales engineer in business development. Even in a profession and society dominated by men, Barakat says she didn’t encounter any discrimination. Egypt is a diverse culture, and while the university population is about equally split between men and women, men hold about 60 percent of all the positions in the business world.
“I was really accepted and helped by many older folks, and I can’t remember my sex being an issue, she adds.
Being an Arab and a Muslim was actually an advantage while working in France, where the cultural differences frequently served as a conversational ice breaker. Now, living halfway across the planet in Kansas City, she hasn’t faced any problems despite the tensions created by global terrorism and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
She admits that the move from Paris, where she was management director of consumer business at GE Capital, to Kansas City in early 2000 came as a shock about six months into the job, when she suddenly realized what she had done. “But I’ve learned to never compare cities. Kansas City is very friendly and very refreshing,” says Barakat, who relaxes in her spare time by jogging and hiking. “I love the job and enjoy the city.”
RELATED ARTICLE: GE’s essential checks and balances.
At a time when the insurance industry is taking a round of hits from every possible angle–whether it’s an emerging risk like an infectious disease, a zealous attorney general in New York City or a powerful hurricane sweeping over Florida–GE Insurance Solutions is using good old-fashioned customer service and strong underwriting standards to keep financially sound.
Even in the face of a softening market, this insurance arm of the General Electric conglomerate isn’t wavering from its commitment to put customers first as it maintains a solid book of business and stands firm on pricing,
“We’re striving for great performance without compromising our underwriting standards,” says Ron Pressman, chairman, president and chief executive officer at GE Insurance Solutions. “We think our customers value consistency over any change in pricing.”
And at the core of GE Insurance Solutions’ strategy to stay financially sound is a system of checks and balances devised by Pressman’s chief risk officer, Samira Barakat. Since she assumed her post five years ago, Barakat has created an intricate system of controls to make sure this giant insurer’s portfolio isn’t veering off track into dangerous territory.
One system of controls zeroes in on the delegation of authority throughout the company. In the claims arena, for example, the company has a clear-cut approval process for the payment of claims. A $10,000 claims payment would need one level of clearance; a $50,000 claims payment would require a higher level of clearance; and so on up the ladder.
Another vital control system focuses on the monitoring of the insurer’s various portfolios of business. As part of this system, a network of underwriting guidelines and parameters are used as a portfolio management tool by the firm’s underwriters. When specific limits are reached–say, for example, the company has written $100 million of business of professional liability for attorneys–an automatic trigger would go off and create a discussion among the appropriate GE insurance executives to decide if the limit should be expanded.
“We want to go into business with our eyes wide open,” says Pressman. “Our underwriting portfolios are in good shape. But we realize we can’t grow all our portfolios in a soft market.”
Pressman lauds Barakat as the brains behind this intricate network of checks and balances. “Samira has great risk management and great analytical skills.
“She’s done a stellar job of executing this plan,” he adds.
And of the fact that Barakat’s office is right down the hall from his at the company’s Kansas City, Mo., headquarters: “The proximity is there for a reason,” Pressman says. “It shows the importance of the risk management function to our company.
“We want to look forward and see the risks coming over the horizon. To be ahead of them … not only to see how it affects our profits. But to look at them for new products.”
PAULA L. GREEN is a freelance journalist based in New York City who writes about national and international business topics. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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