It’s hard for John Mina to describe his experience moving with his family to Beirut, Lebanon as a nine-year-old without first explaining what a tracer bullet is.
“Nine-year-olds shouldn’t know what a tracer bullet is,” he says. “But two weeks after we arrived in Beirut, in early- to mid-1974, hostilities were nearing the breaking point that would lead to the Lebanese Civil War. There was already sporadic fighting, and with sometimes as many as six factions all firing at each other, tracer bullets were how each side distinguished friend from foe.”
A tracer is a bullet that is built with a small pyrotechnic charge that ignites when the bullet is fired, which makes the projectile visible to the naked eye. Tracers were originally developed around the time of World War I, allowing fighter pilots to better aim their guns.
Sixty years later, when evening would fall over Lebanon, curfews prohibited indoor lighting to deter sniper fire. John and his younger sisters, starved for entertainment without lights or television, would venture out to their stone veranda overlooking Beirut to watch the tracers ricocheting off buildings into the smoky sky.
“You can imagine being a parent and listening to your child oohing and ahhing at automatic weapons fire,” John says. “To a nine-year-old it was like fireworks, because at that age you don’t have a sense of mortality; you’re still invincible at that point.”
John’s father worked for AIU Holdings, then a subsidiary of AIG. His work had brought them to Lebanon, and they spent the next six months trying to get out again. After Lebanon, they went to Cypress, which was wrapping up its war with Turkey over the contested eastern-most portion of the Mediterranean island nation. John’s family lived in Cypress for over a year, and after another year in the south of London, his father’s tour of Europe came to an end, allowing the family to return to the United States. “Another year, another school, another change,” John reminisces now. “You get used to it. You acclimate.”
Looking at it from the outside, one might be tempted to wonder if the three-year whirlwind tour of the Near East during some very critical years of John’s young life might have been traumatic. But recalling the experience, John, now a managing partner of Willis of Maryland, describes it as an adventure that informed his skills and interests, figuring prominently in his success to date. “The whole overseas experience was definitely a positive one,” he says. “It gave me the travel bug, and it’s what led me in later years to decide that I wanted to be on the international side of our business.”
That business, like that of his father’s, is insurance. John is a Managing Partner of Willis of Maryland, a division of Willis Holdings Group, the venerable insurance giant with 400 offices in 120 countries, seventeen thousand employees globally, and as of June 2010, the third highest insurance brokerage revenues in the world. Willis was founded in London in 1828 and expanded into the United States in 1990 through acquisitions.
However, while his father worked for AIG, the beleaguered insurance provider, Willis is an insurance broker, delivering a wide range of risk management solutions to clients of all shapes and sizes by connecting them to the appropriate insurance providers. “We can arrange the insurance for any entity or situation—for corporations, individuals, buildings, autos, machinery, business interruptions, art collections, satellite launches, you name it,” John explains. “Anything that moves, breaks or burns, we can insure it.”
Willis can also deliver solutions for human capital risks, including employee benefits, kidnap and ransom, business travel accidents, and international travel. Willis differentiates itself from other insurance brokerage firms through its client-centric approach and global platform. John and his team leverage this expansive platform in near real-time to bring world-class resources and solutions to bear at a local level. When facing a unique or challenging risk, it takes only a couple emails to activate the Willis network, and with a network that large, it’s certain that there will be an immediate answer to any question. “You go to that network,” John says, “and ask all the right questions: Has anyone ever dealt with this type of issue? How did you deal with it? What market did you go to to transfer the risk? What can I expect? What is a competitive price?”
On a global basis, John and his team at Willis of Maryland are able to leverage all the expertise Willis has to offer and deliver it locally through a Client Advocate™—someone intimate with the particular client’s needs—someone who understands that client’s business model and has a firm grasp of the economics, geography, and climate within which that client operates.
“It’s a powerful, unmatched system for delivering what can be a very complex product from a global platform to address a local challenge,” he affirms.
John has been in insurance for 25 years and with Willis for two decades of that time, but he’s only been a managing partner with Willis of Maryland for one year. Until 2010,, he was COO at Willis of New York, the largest Willis office in the United States at approximately $125 million operation with about 340 associates.
“I was the number two guy there,” John says, “and it was a great job. I loved it. New York being what it is, I had many diverse issues to deal with on a regular basis.” One day he recalls without this fondness, however, is that of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. John’s office window opened directly onto the twin towers, and he bore witness with the naked eye to an event that would unfold dramatically both in the immediate catastrophe and in the political, social, and business realities that developed over the days, weeks and months following. “It was truly surreal,” he remembers gravely.
Willis was the insurance broker for the World Trade Center, the aftermath of the tragedy quickly became a highly publicized event that sustained a lengthy legal process. The fact that Silverstein Properties, who managed the World Trade Center, continues to work with Willis is a testament to how Willis of New York handled this incomparable event. Ten years later, it still serves as the broker on the Towers’ rebuilding, and John says there are important lessons to be learned from 9/11 in the context of the managing risk.
“When we look at the potential for a loss,” John says, “most people—and I think this is a human characteristic—try to be optimistic, and to make the assumption that things won’t go too poorly.” Just as when he was nine years old, sitting on the stone veranda in Beirut, watching a different sort of catastrophe unfold before him, John thinks that most people—especially the young—have neither a firm grasp of their own mortality nor an accurate understanding of risk. “As you mature, you move from, ‘It’s never going to happen,’ to, ‘It’s going to happen if you play the numbers long enough,’” he points out. “The one thing I’ve eradicated from my vocabulary is the word ‘never.’”
John probably would have made a career of executive operations in New York, but ultimately decided his success would not be defined by being in the right place at the right time. Instead, he would make it about discovering what new heights he could reach and about what he was capable of achieving when everything depended on him. For the better part of seven years, he worked his way toward running his own operation. He began by opening dialogues with the CEO, declaring that if an opportunity arose for him to run his own office, that he would be interested. But when the first opportunity came around, he had to pass. “I won’t kid you,” John says, “The first one or two opportunities that we discussed, I said, ‘I don’t think this is how I would play the John Mina card, if I were you. I don’t think you’re recognizing what I can bring to the equation.’”
But when the Washington, DC opportunity presented itself, John seized it. “Clearly this was the opportunity I was looking for,” John says. “Socially and culturally diverse, with an international flavor and a vibrant city atmosphere, DC was the perfect city to transition into after living in Manhattan.” His international bent did not come solely from his childhood years spent overseas. His father was from Palestine, and his mother was from Germany, making John a first generation American. While English was the only language spoken at home, his parents’ background gifted John with the perspective of a world citizen. This is not to say, however, that they didn’t also engender in him a great love for and loyalty to the United States and what it is has to offer. “It’s easy to run down this country,” John says, “whether it’s taxes, road infrastructure, healthcare or whatever it is you want to complain about. But we have it light-years better than just about any place on the planet, and I’ve been to most of it.”
It was through his father that John experienced his early exposure to the insurance industry and developed his strong business drive. Conversely, he credits his mother with providing him with a strong grounding and great sense of humor. “She was always a stabilizing influence,” he says. “Nothing was more important than a smile or a five minute conversation, or a cup of coffee together as I grew older. She would always make you feel that it’s okay to be you, and that you could be whatever you wanted to be. She always reminded me that you don’t have to be something because of perception. She was always the balance, the human side of living.”
Preserving that human side and maintaining that balance has allowed him to remain focused on family life even in the highly demanding atmosphere that is corporate America. He credits his wife with what he believes will be his greatest legacy: his children. “Having a balanced work and family life is one of the most challenging things to do today in corporate America,” he observes. “I could not have achieved the level of success I have today were it not for Susan.” Indeed, John has cultivated success in both his home and business lives, and he feels that Willis of Maryland’s potential for prosperity is far from spent. The main office is in Potomac, and John hopes that next year they’ll be running up a flag inside the district. “We’re relatively untapped here,” he says, hinting at the tides to come.