Coomber, John R. 1949–

views updated

John R. Coomber

Chief executive officer, Swiss Re

Nationality: British.

Born: February 7, 1949, in England.

Education: Nottingham University, BS, 1970.

Family: Married (wife's name unknown).

Career: Phoenix Insurance Company, 19701973, actuarial trainee; Swiss Re (UK), 19731974, actuarial trainee; 19741983, reinsurance; 19831987, appointed actuary; 19871990, head of life division and general manager; 19901993, deputy chief executive officer; 1991, director; 19931995, managing director and chief executive officer; Swiss Re, 19952003, member, executive board; 2003, chief executive officer.

Awards: Fellow, Chartered Insurance Institute, 2002; one of the one hundred most powerful people in the insurance industry, Insurance NewCast, 2003.

Publications: The Private Role in Social Insurance, 2001.

Address: Swiss Re, Mythenquai 50/60, Zurich, Switzerland;

John R. Coomber was named the first non-Swiss CEO of Swiss Re effective January 1, 2003. Coomber was regarded as a "hard man of business a safe pair of hands," a cost-cutter, and a risk-taker by Roland Gribben in the Daily Telegraph (November 11, 2002).


Coomber's education was in mathematics. He graduated from Nottingham University in 1970 with a degree in theoretical mathematics. He took a position immediately after graduation with the Phoenix Insurance Company in London as an actuarial trainee. Three years later, however, Phoenix began to transfer its staff to Bristol, United Kingdom. Coomber, who preferred to stay in London, resigned from Phoenix and began to work for a Swiss insurance company, Swiss Re, at its British

office on Cannon Street in London. He continued training and in 1974 passed the actuarial examinations and became Swiss Re UK's appointed actuary.


In 1987 Coomber was appointed general manager of Swiss Re UK and head of its life insurance division. His world expanded from pure insurance work to include administration and management. In 1991 Coomber was appointed a director of the UK operations and in 1993 he became its managing director. During Coomber's tenure, revenues and earnings increased more than 30 percent per year, and the overall percentage of the company's earnings from life and health insurance increased to 42 percent from 18 percent. Another hallmark of Coomber's years with the London office was his policy of expansion through acquisition, especially in North America. In January 1993 Coomber was named managing director and CEO of Swiss Re UK and was given responsibility for the firm's property casualty businesses. This marked addition to his responsibility prompted criticism that Coomber had little or no experience in property casualty, which was Swiss Re's core business.


While Coomber was advancing in the United Kingdom, there was turmoil at the Swiss Re headquarters in Zurich. The firm's CEO, Walter B. Kielholz, wanted to rescue Credit Suisse, a large Swiss bank, and he believed that he could handle the top positions of both companies together. In September 2002, however, both Swiss Re and Kielholz realized holding the two positions would be impossible, and Kielholz resigned from Swiss Re. In a move that surprised the business world, Swiss Re appointed Coomber the first non-Swiss CEO in the company's 129-year history. At the time Swiss Re was the second largest reinsurance group in the world. It consisted of three business groups: property and casualty insurance, life and health insurance, and financial services. As described in its annual reports, Swiss Re used a strategy of diversification, allocating resources that reflected a beneficial risk-return ratio.

Coomber faced a formidable task. The insurance industry was hit hard by heavy losses after September 11, 2001, by the ensuing decrease in investment earnings, and by a general decline in profits. Furthermore, a series of natural disasters in 2002, especially flooding, were extremely expensive to insurers. The company announced a net loss for the year 2001. Coomber and Swiss Re met these problems with resolve. Periodic press briefings were held, and Coomber was accessible to members of the news media. Reporters, however, complained that his speeches were "a fluidity of obfuscation," according to Ronald Gift Mullins.

Early in 2003 Swiss Re posted a net loss for 2002, and Coomber blamed the year's losses on depression in the capital markets. However, the renewal rate of insurance policies increased 10 percent for January 2003. Confronted with this continuing negative picture, Coomber and Swiss Re ceased to emphasize the traditional framework of long-term value creation and reassessed corporate strategy.


By 2004 Coomber saw that the future of the insurance industry was going to be based on three criteria: climatic change, increasing threats to health, and increasing threats to the economy because of terrorism. World leaders in the fields of business, government, and science met in late 2003 and in the spring of 2004 to discuss, define, and strategize. Among those present were representatives of Swiss Re, the Allianz Group, AON, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Johnson & Johnson, BP, and the Association of British Insurers. This roundtable was part of a partnership of Swiss Re, the Center for Health and the Global Environment of Harvard Medical School, and the United Nations Development Programme. As a result of the discussions the participants stated that they would work to increase their knowledge of these new risks to identify proactive responses. They agreed to work individually and in concert. The Rüschlikon Compactnamed for the location of the meeting, the Swiss Re Center for Global Dialogue in Rüschlikon, Switzerlandtargeted the areas in which the group believed it could be the most proactive: ecological degradation caused by climate change and increased health risks. Extreme weather events had caused damage projected to cost $150 billion per year in the coming decade, and at least 30 new diseases had emerged in the past 30 years. In addition, many existing diseases were believed to be on the increase because of climate change; for example, malaria in Africa was reducing gross national products approximately 6 percent.

The Financial Times reported on April 27, 2004, "For a self-confessed optimist, John Coomber, head of Swiss Re, has a sober vision of the future. Crops will fail; floods will intensify; life-threatening diseases will spread across the world." Coomber and Swiss Re earned the approval of the "green" community because of the company's stated intention of becoming "greenhouse neutral." That is, the company announced a 10-year program to combine emission reduction measures with investment in the World Bank Community Development Fund. GreenBiz reported that this plan made Swiss Re the world's largest financial services company to set itself this goal. All locations were to participate and to offer the program to Swiss Re clients.

Coomber pursued a straightforward path from actuarial trainee who did not want to move to Bristol, England, to global corporate leader. His personal and professional strategy was risk management. Coomber was a member of the supervisory board of Euler Hermes and a member of the boards of the Association of British Insurers and the IMD Business School.

sources for further information

"Businesses Pledge Action on Threats from Climate Change, Biodiversity Loss," United Nations Development Programme,

"Coomber's Challenge: People," Financial Times, November 12, 2002.

Gribben, Roland, "'Hard Man' Scales Swiss Re Summit," Daily Telegraph, November 12, 2002.

Mullins, Ronald Gift, "Swiss Re Nurtures Media with Barren Content," August 7, 2003,

"Swiss Re Appoints Briton," The Times, November 12, 2002.

"Swiss Re Changes the Climate," Financial Times, April 27, 2004.

"Swiss Re to Become Climate-Neutral Company,",

Barbara Gunvaldsen