Schweizerische Rückversicherungs-Gesellschaft, known as Swiss Reinsurance Company or Swiss Re in English-speaking countries, is the oldest professional reinsurance firm in Switzerland and the second-largest reinsurance company in the world. It is notable for the range of its international activities, the fine reputation of the services it offers, and its powerful financial base. The premium income of Swiss Re, as it is popularly known, is divided almost equally between reinsurance and direct insurance.
Professional reinsurance began in the 1840s in Cologne, where the first company specializing in this kind of insurance was set up in 1846. Switzerland was the first country outside Germany to take up the idea, which was put into effect when the Swiss Reinsurance Company was founded. The Swiss have contributed to the development of reinsurance by providing it with a theoretical foundation, as well as by taking the first steps towards internationalization and setting an early example of how to survive through times of crisis.
The insurance industry got well under way in Switzerland soon after the middle of the 19th century. The moving spirit was Alfred Escher, statesman and entrepreneur, who laid the foundation of Zürich's development as a financial center with the establishment of the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt. In 1857 it played a decisive part in the creation of the Schweizerische Lebensversicherungs- und Rentenanstalt, the first major life insurance company in Switzerland. The evolution of fire insurance in Switzerland was given impetus by a conflagration in the cantonal capital of Glarus on May 10 and 11, 1861. With victims receiving very little in the way of compensation payment, the disaster exposed the deficiencies of existing insurance arrangements. So on November 7, 1861, here was a general meeting of the Allgemeine Versicherungs-Gesellschaft Helvetia, founded in 1858 at St. Gall. It was the first Swiss company to sell marine insurance and also had provision in its statutes for the supplying of fire insurance. The meeting resulted in a decision to set up the Helvetia Schweizerische Feuerversicherungs-Gesellschaft St Gallen. The purpose of the new company was to provide fire insurance cover for buildings and movables in Switzerland and other countries. M.J. Grossman was appointed managing director of the new venture and remained at the head of both companies until 1910--nearly half a century. The insurance companies that started up in Basel in 1863-1864 also owe their existence directly to the Glarus fire.
This market situation and the possibility of extending into neighboring countries were seen as offering a good basis for the introduction of professional reinsurance into Switzerland. The initiative was taken by M.J. Grossmann, who reckoned that the reinsurance yield alone of the two Helvetia companies justified a separate company, especially as in previous years over 20% of insurance premium was earned by foreign reinsurers. At the beginning of July 1863, Grossmann put his ideas on the subject into a memorandum addressed to the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt in Zürich and proposing the establishment of a reinsurance company in conjunction with the Helvetia. This memorandum is a landmark in the history of insurance, offering the first clear formulation of the fundamental principles underlying professional reinsurance.
Grossman began by mentioning the first independent reinsurance company in Cologne. He suggested that the emergence of modern reinsurance was due to growing competition, which obliged insurers to make constantly increasing efforts to satisfy customers, with ever-larger amounts of money being involved, a considerable portion of it--the excess, in terms of the trade--going into the pockets of reinsurers. Reinsurance arrangements, he continued, could not be made with companies supplying insurance cover to the same clientele, so the best thing would be to have reinsurance supplied by firms that did nothing else, since they had greater experience and more specialized knowledge of that branch of the business, and there would be no danger of their using inside information to poach business. Here was an allusion to a vital element in insurance practice: the safeguarding of trust. The document also stressed the need for internationality. The company should provide cover for Swiss insurance firms, but it also should enter into reinsurance relations with foreign firms.
This memorandum led to the establishment of the Swiss Reinsurance Company. It was hoped from the start that the company would be set up in collaboration with the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt, which would supply the necessary capital and confer special prestige on the new company. It was assumed that as regards organization it was much easier to start a reinsurance company than a direct insurer. On July 10, 1863, the Helvetia board of directors agreed to the plan, and to the memorandum being sent on to the Kreditanstalt, with which negotiations could begin. Under the chairmanship of Alfred Escher, the board of directors of the bank looked at the proposal and on September 18, 1863, set up a committee to examine it more closely.
The Swiss Reinsurance Company was finally established with participation of the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt, the Helvetia, and the Handelsbank of Basel. Swiss Re's share capital was SFr6 million, with a payment of 15% from stockholders. Its purpose, according to its statutes, was to provide reinsurance cover to domestic and foreign insurance companies and private insurers in the fields of marine, fire, and life insurance. As a joint-stock company, the Schweizer Rück (Swiss Re) needed authorization from the Zürich cantonal government. Its charter, dated December 19, 1863, bears the signature of Gottfried Keller, the famous Swiss writer, who drew up the document in his capacity as official clerk to the canton from 1861 to 1876.
The board of directors of the Swiss Re, chaired by M.J. Grossmann and including among its members well-known figures from the Swiss insurance and banking worlds, met on December 26, 1863, to draw up its constitution. It was decided to send a circular letter, written in French and German, to insurance companies considered to be desirable potential customers. Georg Schmidt was asked to become managing director of the new enterprise, with effect from May 1, 1864. He had begun his career with the Aachener und Münchener Feuer-Versicherungs-Gesellschaft. In 1859, as a senior official of the Dresdner Feuer-Versicherungs-Gesellschaft, he had been responsible for setting up its subsidiary, the Oësterreichischer Phönix in Wien.
The early history of professional reinsurance in Switzerland showed some of the structural features peculiar to this security system between insurers. These first years showed the necessity of adequate capital backing and of commitment between partners to a shared purpose, in order to ensure long-term balance of risks. Like the basic principles outlined in Grossmann's memorandum, the importance of these requirements was demonstrated by the new company's practical experience.
Individual classes of insurance were tackled in the order in which they appeared in the statutes. On January 1, 1864, Swiss Re carried out is first contract, taking on part of Helvetia General's direct and indirect marine insurance business, as stipulated when the new company was founded. Next came fire and finally--in 1865--life reinsurance. It seems that the business prospered from the very beginning, with showers of proposals for reinsurance deals, but the first annual report notes that extreme care should be taken in selecting reinsurance customers, on the principle of "better no deal at all than a bad one."
In spite of this cautious policy, the company was soon making considerable losses, and the founders' optimistic expectations about the earning potential of reinsurance were at first unfulfilled. In December 1864, at the end of the first year of trading, realizing that a contract he had concluded on behalf of the firm was going to result in a loss, Georg Schmidt committed suicide.
Fire insurance had produced particularly unsatisfactory results on account of a markedly worsening trend in direct insurance damage claims. Reinsurers also had to cope with heavy commission payments. Remedial measures adopted by the company seemed to bring about a rapid improvement, and a plan to drop fire insurance business was abandoned. At the general meeting of May 14, 1869, a decision was made to cover the losses by reducing the share capital from SFr6 million to SFr4.5 million. The company's faith in the future of reinsurance in Switzerland, in spite of its early difficulties, paid off in the end. Not only were the losses made up, but the firm even managed to achieve profits and was able to pay a dividend.
The four decades from the beginning of the 20th century to the outbreak of World War II saw Swiss Re develop into the leading reinsurer of its time. The period is colored by the influence of Charles Simon, one of the leading entrepreneurial personalities in the history of reinsurance. A native of Alsace, he entered the company in 1895, became deputy director and--until 1919--managing director, and finally served until his death as chairman of the board of directors. He did not confine his activities to the world of insurance. He was an expert mountaineer and a respected art collector, and the University of Zürich gave him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his literary studies. He was succeeded by Erwin Hürlimann, who became a member of the board of management in 1904, took over as managing director in 1919, and was on the board of directors from 1930 to 1966, serving as its chairman from 1942 to 1958. The two men worked together in close collaboration for nearly 40 years, making decisions that shaped the future of Swiss Re.
Improved profits enabled the company to extend its activities into other classes of insurance. Having signed its first accident reinsurance contract in 1881, Swiss Re went on to take on motor-vehicle third-party insurance in 1901 and engineering reinsurance in 1904. It now had over 100 employees. In 1893, a relief fund started in 1885 was turned into an independent scheme to assist white-collar workers; it was further extended in 1913, when the company celebrated its 50th anniversary. In addition, profits were being reinvested to strengthen the firm's reserves. This far-sighted funding strategy proved its worth when Swiss Re's foreign business was severely affected by the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. The company suffered a gross loss of SFr8.4 million, SFr4.3 million of which it had to bear itself. Half the loss could be met by the additional reserves that had been built up and the rest came out of the profits of other sections of the business; the result was a temporary reduction of the dividend. The company's generous treatment of claims enhanced its world reputation and brought a compensatory increase of business. As well as fire reinsurance, life, accident, and liability reinsurance grew steadily in importance.
On October 25, 1913, after 15 years of operating from various sites, the company moved into prestigious and imposing new head offices on the Mythenquai beside the lake at Zürich. This is still the headquarters of Swiss Re, which over the years has acquired a number of other buildings, old and new.
The 1920s saw a considerable expansion of Swiss Re's foreign activities. Ever since it was founded, the firm had done business abroad. Its presence in the main insurance markets was strengthened by the steady creation of branches and subsidiaries all over the world. Its first overseas base was the U.S. branch of the Swiss Re, opened in New York City in 1910. In 1916 the parent company acquired a majority holding in the English Mercantile & General Insurance Company, founded in 1907.
At the outbreak of World War I, only about 20% of Swiss Reinsurance's premium income was coming from Switzerland. When the war ended, the company was able to press ahead with its policy of foreign expansion, assisted by its strong financial base and the stability of the Swiss currency. In New York in 1923 it founded the North American Reassurance Company, the first firm in the U.S. market to specialize in life reinsurance. Subsequent expansion was concentrated principally in Europe, where Swiss Re did business in 11 countries with 31 insurance companies, mainly direct insurers and most of them in Germany. Some were well-known long-established companies forced by the economic collapse brought on by inflation to seek a partner with strong capital resources. The explanation of direct insurance's large contribution to Swiss Re's premium income can be traced back to this point.
In 1924, in the course of the development of its foreign reinsurance business, Swiss Re acquired the Bayerische Rückversicherung AG of Munich, founded in 1911, which had gone up for sale after its parent company, the Bayerische Versicherungsbank, was acquired by Allianz. In the years following World War II, this company proved to be extremely valuable, since during the Allied occupation of Germany Swiss firms could not maintain direct links with their German partners. Erich R. Prölss, the long-serving head of Bayerische Rück, is one of the most important names in German insurance law. In 1940, restrictions placed on foreign insurers led to the founding under U.S. law of a company that was to become the North American Reinsurance Corporation and that took over the major part of the business of Swiss Re's U.S. branch.
Thanks to Switzerland's neutrality and the security offered by its currency and laws, Swiss Re's worldwide reinsurance connections survived World War II, and the company used the universal trust it inspired to extend those connections. Its overseas activities were boosted by new branches and subsidiaries set up mainly in the United States, Canada, South Africa, and Australia. In 1968, in the interest of clear market definition, Swiss Re parted company with its U.K. associate, renamed Mercantile & General Reinsurance, and in 1969 set up the Swiss Reinsurance Company (UK) Ltd. in London. Consultancies were opened in Central America, South America, and East Asia.
In Germany, Swiss Re reorganized the direct insurance companies within its sphere of influence. Whereas formerly they had been loosely linked in what was called the Swiss Club, the groups were fitted now into a tighter structure. Since 1938, subsidiaries and associated companies had been owned by the Neue Holding AG, which changed its name in 1970 to Schweizer Rück Holding AG. In 1974, Swiss Re used the Schweizer Rück Holding subsidiary to set up the SR Beteiligungen Aktiengesellschaft, with offices in Munich. On January 1, 1975, Swiss Re transferred to the Munich company its majority holding in the Magdeburger Versicherungsgruppe of Hannover, and its major stake in Vereinte Versicherungen, formerly the Vereinigte Versicherungsgruppe, formed in 1974 from a number of older, companies and renamed in 1987. It all amounted to a process of separation of functions and relocation from Switzerland to Germany. At the same time, these measures would extend Swiss Re's direct insurance business, which alongside reinsurance plays its own important part in the activities of the group.
On top of all these other German activities, a start had been made on setting up a financial-service group. In 1987, with this aim in view, a finance holding company, the Schweiz Allgemeine was established in Munich, to which the mh Bausparkasse AG, previously part of the Magdeburg Insurance Group, was incorporated, while in 1988 Swiss Re acquired the Harald Quant Group's 50% holding in the Augsburger Aktienbank. At the same time the Schweiz Allgemeine Direkt Versicherung AG was started in Augsburg for the sale of insurance direct to the client.
Swiss Re has strengthened its direct insurance by acquisitions in other European countries besides Germany. In 1977 it bought a majority interest in the Schweiz Allgemeine Versicherungs-Aktien-Gesellschaft of Zürich, founded in 1869, a major international insurer with foreign subsidiaries of its own, and in 1988 it became the owner of Lloyd Adriatico S.p.A., Trieste, a prominent Italian direct insurer, as well as acquiring the third-largest reinsurance firm in Switzerland, the Union Rückversicherungs-Gesellschaft of Zürich.
With its extensive international activities Swiss Re has made reinsurance an important Swiss export. Over 90% of the company's reinsurance premiums come from abroad, the largest markets being North America and Germany. Most of its direct insurance business comes from Germany, mainly from sickness, motor, and liability insurance. The volume of direct insurance business done by the group is likely to increase further.
Reinsurance being a complex international operation, the company has always been very much concerned with employee training. In 1960 the Swiss Insurance Training Centre was set up in the form of a trust to provide instruction for insurance workers from all over the world, especially from developing countries. Entrepreneurial initiative has led to clients being offered, in addition to actual reinsurance cover, a wide range of services relating to the assessment and avoidance of risks. In this connection, the Swiss Re Group includes consultancy firms that advise on damage assessment and claims adjustment. The company also carries out scientific investigations into general and specific problems of direct insurance and reinsurance; the results, published in its own documentation series, constitute important contributions to the theory and practice of the industry. One publication, sigma, which has been appearing regularly since 1968, analyzes trends and structural changes and sets out international comparisons; another, experiodica, started in 1973, prints useful excerpts from specialist literature. Thus Swiss Reinsurance Company uses the knowledge and experience gained through its international business to propagate reinsurance expertise and the requisite high degree of professionalism.
Principal Subsidiaries: Schweizer Rück Holding AG; SR Beteiligungen AG (Germany); Europäische Allgemeine Rückversicherungs-Gesellschaft in Zürich; North American Reinsurance Corporation (U.S.A.); Swiss Reinsurance Company (UK) Ltd.; Union Rückversicherungs-Gesellschaft; Lloyd Adriatico S.p.A. (Italy); Magdeburger Versicherung AG (Germany); Schweiz Allgemeine Versicherungs-Aktien-Gesellschaft; Vereinte Versicherung AG (Germany); mh Bausparkasse AG (Germany).