(In photo: Catherine Duffy, AIG’s Country Leader for Bermuda)
by Sam Strangeways
When Catherine Duffy returned to Bermuda to work for XL in 1988, one of the first things she did was put a pearl necklace on “layaway” at Crisson.
It was her first big purchase after starting her career and she still wears it when she has a challenging situation ahead.
But the necklace is more than a lucky charm.
Ms Duffy, now AIG’s Country Leader for Bermuda, said it connected her to her mother, who died aged 44 when she herself was just 13.
“She was a huge Jackie Kennedy fan and she loved her necklace, the three-strand of pearls. It was my first real big thing for me and it was for her too.”
Ms Duffy, one of six siblings, recalled that as a young girl, even before her mother died: “I used to stand on the beach and look out to that horizon. I always knew I was going to be beyond that horizon.”
She added: “My mother…never got to live her life. She wasn’t educated. She was from the era when women did not work. I almost feel like I was trying to live the life she never got to live.”
That ambition has propelled Ms Duffy through decades as one of the most high-profile Bermudians in the island’s insurance sector.
As a child, she could not have imagined she’d become the first female CPCU in the country and an industry leader whose “drive and determination” was lauded last year when she won the Fred Reiss Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bermuda Captive Conference.
Those who attended the Berkeley Institute with her in the 1970s didn’t know that after her mother’s sudden death from a stroke she bore a huge domestic burden, rushing home after class to cook and clean.
But when she spoke to a trusted school counsellor, Christine Phillips, who spotted her potential, everything changed. A meeting was arranged with local businessman Murray Brown, who introduced her to Cathy Lord, then the most senior woman in Bermuda’s burgeoning reinsurance industry.
With Ms Lord’s help, Ms Duffy went from having “no idea that business was done in those buildings in Hamilton” to a summer internship at Willcox, Baringer & Co reinsurance brokerage, where she impressed the CEO.
Her new mentors helped her win a place at Howard University in Washington DC, studying insurance. Aged 17, it was a world away from Bermuda – and a struggle, financially and emotionally.
“I felt like a fish out of water,” she said. But in her second year she moved in with a university friend and their family and began to thrive.
After graduating, she did her underwriting training with the Hartford Group in Connecticut and worked in personal lines for USF&G in Baltimore, before coming home for a holiday.
That 1988 trip was fateful. XL was just setting up here and she took her resume to its office, not expecting to hear back. But Bob Cooney, the company’s chief underwriting officer, was there and interviewed her on the spot.
“I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt,” she laughed. “I was so relaxed, it actually went really well. I later found out they were looking to hire someone else and decided to hire two people instead. They ended up bringing me back to Bermuda.”
Starting from scratch in commercial lines was the launch pad for a career that took her to Starr Excess almost eight years later. She then went to Zurich Global Energy where she was senior vice-president, back to XL as underwriting manager, then to AIG in 2018, to oversee its insurance operations and strategy in Bermuda.
Along the way there was eight years as a stay-at-home mum, stints as a columnist on local newspapers, three years writing a history of international insurance in Bermuda – the 500-page reference book Held Captive – and a brief relocation to France.
Ms Duffy credits her success, in part, to starting out knowing next to nothing about insurance but having an insatiable curiosity about how the industry works and a real knack for forging relationships.
“Qualifications alone mean nothing,” she said. “They help you to understand jargon but if you don’t know how to apply the book knowledge to the environment you are in, it doesn’t matter.”
Her dynamism and self-assurance are evident when she speaks; it’s clear she has never been fazed by being a woman – a black woman in a leadership role, moreover – in an industry still dominated by white men.
“I’m headstrong but not in a way that’s dismissive,” said Ms Duffy. “When I know what I’m doing is right for me then I know I will project the right energy to the world. I’m very authentically me.”