Chris Townsend: An insurance career spanning the globe

He grew up in the country-side, in a village in the south of England with barely 1,000 inhabitants. Yet he sees through the globalized world of insurance more sharply than many others.

As a student, camping trips took him outside of the UK, to continental Europe. That was merely a first introduction the vastness of the world: over the past three decades, Chris Townsend has worked in four continents and traveled to 70-80 countries. He now joins Allianz SE as a board member, responsible for Global Insurance Lines, Anglo Markets, the Middle East, and Africa.

christopher townsend allianz

Formative experiences

What makes a good leader? For Chris, it’s curiosity, humility and the ability to listen, supported by decisiveness and an abundance of energy.

You don’t learn these traits in business school. You learn them from life experiences, or if you are lucky, from role models.

His mother, a teacher, had incredible stoicism, a solid set of values and a strong work ethic which she passed on to him. Born in Jerusalem, she had lived in Kenya before she met Chris’s father. The exposure to contrasting cultures and social structures made her unusually grounded and instilled in her a zest for life which Chris has inherited. 

That realistic outlook hasn’t blunted his ability to envision a better future, however. His eyes sparkle when he talks about how insurance can improve lives. Chris recalls meeting a Korean cancer patient who had bought a ‘critical illness policy’ from his former employer. He witnessed first-hand how being able to afford treatment makes a world of difference to patients and loved ones who struggle to keep their hopes alive.

Another dramatic experience was seeing the comfort that insurance brought to the Thai communities devastated by the 2006 tsunami and the sense of relief that his company’s involvement in the reconstruction efforts gave to the victims. A financial inclusion project in the slums of Delhi in India demonstrated how insurers can reach beyond their contractual obligations and make a difference to disadvantaged communities. Chris firmly believes in the value that insurance contributes to society and how this is often overlooked and undervalued. 

Getting started

Life in rural Hampshire didn’t offer many opportunities, and he had always planned to work overseas. With a passion for skiing and a love of the Alps, he ventured across the Channel to France to work as a “plongeur” in a ski resort. He spent the season honing his skiing skills, working on a number of menial jobs and pondering his future.

Having trained as a Chartered Insurer his first job was as a junior crime underwriter. “We insured everything from armored vehicles in Colombia to Italian banks and blue and white collar business worldwide against fraud.”

First steps

Chris’s curiosity and diligence did not go unnoticed. After only 18 months, his supervisors supported his desire to explore with a rotation to New York. “I am grateful that at just 25 years of age, I was trusted with such opportunities and responsibilities.” After a decade of technical underwriting experience, he quickly moved to managing and leading business of increasing complexity and scale.

With vast experience in both General and Life insurance including executive leadership roles at both AIG and Metlife, his career has seen him span the globe working in the financial hubs of London, New York, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

In his most recent role, he was CEO-International at AIG, responsible for the entire non-U.S general insurance business with combined premiums of $19 billion and a team of 15,000 people.

Global experience

Chris is looking forward to returning to a European business culture, and to working with a company that has such a clear purpose as Allianz.

Having moved internationally 9 times with his family, he has a deep personal and professional appreciation of how work cultures differ across continents, for instance, “What I noticed in Asia is their innate focus on digitalization, their breadth and creativity of business models and the pace of change in the industry.”

Which setback in his long career has taught him the most valuable lessons? Chris recalls a time when he tried to change everything too quickly after the takeover of a slow-moving insurance company. “The backlash was swift. I learnt the hard way that managers cannot bring about changes alone. The whole team has to be taken along.”

Management principles

Elaborating on which traits he deems most important in a leader, he says, “I have learned the utmost importance of hiring the best people, of training and developing internal talent and particularly the power of diversity which I have seen first-hand in the many regions that I have been fortune enough to work in. Once you have agreed the core strategy for the business, it’s imperative to empower local teams to ensure that they can make decisions as close to the customer as possible.”

Chris’s impression of Allianz from the outside is that of an insurer that is “bold, caring and in touch with society”, and “a strong organization in every respect, that delivers on its promise”. Asked for his outlook for the industry as a whole, he is certain that insurance will see much more change in the next 20 years compared with the previous two decades. “Allianz is well-prepared for this strategically, financially and culturally. It is a great opportunity to be part of this transformation.”

Private Chris

Chris is a biking, skiing and ocean sailing enthusiast, an avid reader and a family man. On his bookshelf, you will find mostly historical novels, adventure biographies, sports and business books.

For him, teamwork is the key. “Few sports epitomize teamwork like offshore sailing. It demands that each crew member is well-trained, communicates well and performs to the best of their ability if you are to have any chance of success. It takes planning, resilience and execution to win and when it comes together it’s truly rewarding and an awful lot of fun.”

That’s a long and exciting journey from rural village to global citizen and a journey that is far from over.

Written by Andreas Schüler

The Allianz Group is one of the world's leading insurers and asset managers with more than 100 million retail and corporate customers in more than 70 countries. Allianz customers benefit from a broad range of personal and corporate insurance services, ranging from property, life and health insurance to assistance services to credit insurance and global business insurance. Allianz is one of the world’s largest investors, managing 766 billion euros on behalf of its insurance customers. Furthermore, our asset managers PIMCO and Allianz Global Investors manage 1.7 trillion euros of third-party assets. Thanks to our systematic integration of ecological and social criteria in our business processes and investment decisions, we hold the leading position for insurers in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. In 2019, over 147,000 employees achieved total revenues of 142 billion euros and an operating profit of 11.9 billion euros for the group.

These assessments are, as always, subject to the disclaimer provided below.

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Christian Kroos
Allianz SE
Holger Klotz
Allianz SE
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