The Arabia Times delves into the extraordinary story of Ms. Racha Moukayed, the driving force behind Howden, the world’s largest privately-owned insurance brokerage firm. From her roots in Aleppo to leading the company’s global endeavors, she shares insights on the transformative journey, challenges faced, and the core values shaping Howden’s success. Explore the dynamic landscape of the insurance industry, Racha’s leadership philosophy, and the company’s commitment to client trust and community impact. Don’t miss the exclusive glimpse into the future, as she envisions the evolution of Howden and invites readers to experience the exceptional services offered by the industry leader in Abu Dhabi.
From Aleppo to Abu Dhabi
We started the interview by asking, “Explain your background and your Company in detail.”
Racha replied, “Although I was born in the Syrian city of Aleppo (arguably the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world), I was raised in Abu Dhabi for the last four decades, arriving a few years after the Trucial States became independent and the United Arab Emirates was created in 1971. Like many longtime residents, I’ve witnessed the amazing transformation of the country and her citizens, and grew up with friends and classmates who are now leaders in various businesses and enterprises that contribute to the uniqueness of the country.
Howden is the largest privately-owned insurance brokerage firm in the world, with various lines of insurance and reinsurance for our clients globally. The company has grown from just three friends in a tiny office to one of the biggest insurance brokers on the world stage. How did we do it? With a bold independent spirit, and a culture where everyone believes in four key principles: people first, giving all our people the platform to thrive; an owners’ mindset, with people empowered to deliver the best client service; socially responsible, so everyone feels proud of where they work; and no limits, in order to be ambitious and innovative, each and every day.
The 2020s have brought profound change for businesses and risk carriers, with higher interest rates, heightened geopolitical tensions, elevated catastrophe losses, supply chain vulnerability, cyber risks, civil unrest and potential loss aggregation. Global crises are following each other in rapid succession, and the value and importance of (re)insurance comes to the fore during such volatile times. As an intermediary, we are conscious of our position in the market and our responsibility to inform the discussion in the interests of clients.”
Charting a Purpose-Driven Course
The Arabia Times: What are your goals?
Racha replied, “My goals are the natural result of my mantra for success, namely, to be purpose-driven in my professional and personal lives, communicate effectively, and maintain a positive mental attitude. It follows then that I take on roles and responsibilities with seriousness to ensure they’re done properly; if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Done is often better than perfection, but I try my best to improve constantly, avoiding the same mistakes, making course corrections if I see a better outcome, and keep moving toward shared goals and objectives.
If food unites humans, communication is a definite divider. Although the words might be the same, understanding is often different among cultures,—sometimes amazingly so—even with the same native language. George Bernard Shaw famously quipped, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” so it shouldn’t come as a surprise in the cosmopolitan ecosystem of the UAE that people of different mother tongues can’t communicate well, and often completely misunderstand each other—parallel monologues would be an apt description. I know without hesitation it’s my responsibility to ensure I’m understood, and not rely on the person I’m speaking with to “read the air” for my meaning and intent.
Although it would easy to be absorbed by the “bad news of the day,” I choose instead to maintain a positive mental attitude—PMA—and be truly thankful for the health and wellbeing of me and my family and friends. Health is the ultimate luxury, without which most everything else is relegated to insignificance. As the mother of two-and-a-half year old twins, they come home from nursery with colds and coughs, but regardless of how I feel, my first response is to take care of them and make them feel better, at least until the next episode. And I try to energize them with my positivity and cheerfulness. It’s a lot easier with the continuous and unfailing support of my husband Mac, my mother Aroub, and of course my father Fawaz.”
The Evolution of Leadership & the Power within
The Arabia Times: What do you feel is the biggest strength of “HOWDEN” right now?
Racha replied, “We’re an employee-owned company, which means each of us strives to give our clients the very best services, all the time, and constantly improve ourselves to stay at the top of the game.”
Then we asked, “What was the path you took to get to where you are today?”
Racha answered, “I returned to Aleppo to complete my undergraduate degree and then joined my dad in the business. Now with 20 years’ experience in the industry; a Diploma in Insurance from the Bahrain Institute of Banking & Finance; and an M.B.A. in Healthcare Management from the University of Phoenix; I have additional training in organizational leadership, business law, human capital management, applied business research and statistics, operations management, strategic planning and implementation, and ethical, legal, and regulatory issues in insurance. With two decades of watching my father and learning from his knowledge and experience, I felt confident stepping into the managing director role when presented the opportunity.”
Origins and Vision
The Arabia Times: Why did you start “HOWDEN”?
Racha replied, “My father Fawaz started Guardian Insurance Brokers twenty-five years ago, handing the reigns to me with divestiture of a majority of the company shares to Howden in 2019. We understood and acknowledged that growth in the local market would peak; the merger of Guardian and Howden provided our Abu Dhabi-based company global reach to satisfy local and international clients with businesses outside the UAE.”
Navigating Leadership Challenges
The Arabia Times: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome during the journey of your leadership?
Racha replied, “Regardless of how competent and experienced women are, there are times when culture trumps such expertise and capability. Some of the employees who worked for dad refused to accept me as managing director, to the point they would seek his permission after I assigned them a task or responsibility; in their minds, he was still the boss, even though I had the title. I worked with several of them to ensure they understood the changes in leadership; some came around, some didn’t. I terminated almost half the employees who made no effort to change their outlook.
Unrelated but equally disturbing, I terminated the chief financial officer for sexual harassment. Because of the close working relationship we had as we integrated the finances into the new organization, he began sending me suggestive texts proposing an amorous relationship, even going so far as to say he would leave his wife, all despite knowing the unbreakable relationship I have with my husband. Even when confronted with the fact that this undeniably constituted harassment, he failed to understand what he did wrong. I see my biggest role at Howden is to create an environment of excellence.”
Fostering Client Trust
The Arabia Times: How can you build a bond of trust with your clients?
Racha replied, “It’s actually simple: our yes is yes, and our no is no. We do what we say we’re going to do, and that means we sometimes don’t benefit financially as much as we could. Satisfying the client who calls at 8:00 a.m. on a weekend is just as important as those who reach out to us during the workweek.
We received an award from ImInclusive, an initiative by Ma’an, for employing people of determination, demonstrating our commitment to the local community. We were also recognized as the Best Workplace in the Middle East, Best Workplace for Women in the GCC, and Best Workplace in UAE from Great Place to Work®. I was fortunate to be selected as one of the Top 10 Women Leaders in the Middle East from Women Entrepreneur™, and I was recognized by Howden as a Net Zero Champion in the Middle East and Africa, instrumental in the company’s sustainability initiatives.”
Envisioning Howden’s Evolution
The Arabia Times: How do you see the company is changing in two years, and how do you see yourself creating that change?
Racha replied, “The Company will grow based on strong governing values projected in the actions of its people. Almost 35% of the company’s shares are owned by our employees. Driven by that ownership mindset, our people are committed to offering relevant and original products and services to de-risk businesses and support sustainable growth of economies. I will continue acting as a custodian of Howden putting the interest of all stakeholders first to enable and accelerate positive change for a better future of our people and planet.”
The Competitive Edge
The Arabia Times: What benefits are your clients getting from “HOWDEN” in this competitive world?
Racha replied, “Changing the Insurance Narrative – Using insurance as a solution to the major challenges the world is facing.
Insurance has always been an enabler and accelerator for change and now, as the world faces the biggest existential threat of its lifetime, our aim is to build an insurance market that is relevant to the scale of risk and investment that is required as we navigate climate change and the energy transition. As our Founder and CEO, David Howden, said we don’t want insurance to renew itself one year at a time into irrelevance!”
Following the launch of the voluntary carbon market insurance product last year we are continuing to develop a suite of products across emerging environmental commodities markets. (E.g. Carbon Capture Storage policies) We are also using the insurance market to de-risk the transition to a low carbon economy by offering strategic risk transfer solutions that enable financing and lowering the cost of capital. We’re doing this by deploying non-traditional insurance structures during the investment process, removing a key barrier for pilot-scale clean energy projects to achieve commercial development.
We are working with humanitarian, investment and philanthropic communities to develop solutions that use insurance to unlock private investment capital, stretch donations further, and prioritize financial preparation. We are doing this both by providing insurance expertise and advice and by subsidizing premiums to support vulnerable communities in the face of increasing weather volatility as a result of climate change.”
Lastly we asked, “Would you like to say anything else to our viewers?”
“Come visit us in Abu Dhabi; we’re in Emi Tower next door to Marks & Spencer, so we’re easy to find and there’s plenty of parking. With an olive tree in the center of the social area signifying life; to the soothing ambiance and collaborative spirit that defines our workspace; Howden welcomes you to experience a vibrant environment where ideas flourish, connections thrive, and excellence takes root, and three dozen professionals eager to answer your questions and anxious to provide you the best service in the industry, you’ll only know by checking us out. And our colleague Razel makes a great cappuccino!” Racha concluded
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