My Strangest Business Lunch

by John Delach

In 1972, when I was the oldest rookie at Marsh & McLennan’s Hull Department and the only one of four who was not only married, but with two kids,  I was assigned to the so called, “Small Account Unit.” I considered it to be a dead-end assignment because it isolated me from my firm’s major marine accounts where careers are made. I felt that I had been relegated to the role of being a garbage stomper, the low man on the totem pole who stomped down garbage into the can so more could be added. I knew I had fallen into disfavor.

Then one February morning, I found myself in an un-heated subway car stuck in a tunnel between stations. I could feel the cold penetrating the leather soles of my shoes as I looked out at my own image in a dirty window. Right then, I made a choice: “God-damn-it, since they made me a garbage stomper, I’m going to become the best garbage stomper in the firm!

In time, I grew to realize that this was the best thing that could have happened to my budding career. It gave me the opportunity to take on problems at my own discretion and solve them as I saw fit, either with my manager’s assistance, or on my own.

One of the little accounts I inherited was a policy for a company called Wilson Lines. It was an odd form of insurance that didn’t make much sense to me. The policy was called Barratry Insurance and covered the two brothers who owned Wilson Lines. If either of these owners took command of the SS Guano Queen, this policy would cover their unique liabilities. We had  placed it in the London Market and the current edition had a deposit premium of $2,500. Real premium would only be charged if either of them took command of the Guano Queen.

Fascinated and frustrated by the lack of information in the five-years of files we kept in our office, I contacted our archive group and requested the old insurance policies and files for as far back as they could locate them.

What I received produced a curious portrait. My firm had inherited this little account in the late 1950’s when Marsh & McLennan had bought a little broker, Briggs & Brennan, who had control of what was then the largest tanker fleet in the world, D.K. Ludwig’s National Bulk Carriers.

Wilson Lines was probably the smallest part of Briggs and Brennan’s book of business. I discovered that Wilson Lines was owned by two Danish brothers, John Wilson and Robert Wilson. I also learned that only Robert had once been a mariner and carried a captain’s license.

Everything I uncovered led me to believe that Captain Robert hadn’t taken command of the Guano Queen in the last twelve years for which we had records. I believed these brothers had been buying un-necessary coverage for, at least twelve years.

I laid out my findings to John Buzbee, my boss. John looked at me in amazement. “Damn, this is crazy! Why didn’t anyone catch this?”

He had me draft a letter to our client explaining, that with their permission, we would cancel the current policy and we would endeavor to refund the previous deposits as far back as possible.

Their return letter confirmed that the last time Robert had commanded the Guano Queen was in 1955! Obviously, they would be most pleased if we could re-coup past deposits.

We were able to recoup six-years of past premiums. I received a warm reply and notice that they wished to meet me on their next visit to New York, I informed Mr. Buzbee who advised, “Take them to an upscale restaurant.”

I chose The Forum of the Twelve Caesars located in Rockefeller Center less than a block from out office. I knew it was famous, but what I didn’t know was this former gem that opened in 1957 was well along the backside of the mountain and would close in less than three years.

I hadn’t given much thought to the Wilson brothers ages, so I was a bit shocked to realize that they were both in their late eighties or early nineties! Fortunately, they both spoke English with a Scandinavian accent. After some small talk in one of our conference rooms I suggested we continue our conversation over lunch.

It did concern me that we practically had the restaurant to ourselves, but my first sense of shock came when a waiter asked what we would like to drink. John Wilson asked for hot water with lemon while Robert declined. I settled for a Coke.

When the menus arrived, I realized that neither brother opened his menu. When I asked them what they were thinking about, John said, “Only another warm water with lemon,” while Robert explained, “I only have one meal a day and I already had breakfast so I’m alright.”

I settled for something light and that was lunch.

Our most interesting exchange came when I asked them what it was like tax wise to live in a socialist country like Denmark and own a private company?

John replied: “Oh, it is not an issue for us. You see we are both Panamanian citizens. Not only that, but we are also both charge d’ fairs so we have diplomatic immunity, and we don’t pay taxes.”

We said our goodbyes on the sidewalk. As I watched them walk slowly along Forty-Eighth Street in the direction of Fifth Avenue, I could only shake my head as I contemplated on how thoroughly they had beaten the system.

For the record, my time in small accounts worked out well. I was the first of the four to be promoted to Assistant Vice President and finished as a Managing Director. Not too shabby for a  garbage stomper.