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Michael Butt (1942-2023): champion of Bermuda insurance sector

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Michael Butt, a key figure in shaping Bermuda’s global name in insurance and reinsurance, has been recalled as a perfectly timed forecaster of climate change and the role of catastrophe insurance in the industry.

Mr Butt, who died on Wednesday aged 80, led a string of companies in the UK and Bermuda, and also wielded significant influence in climate insurance along with researching climate change.

Mr Butt, born in England, arrived on the island in 1992 at the cusp of a sea change.

As the president and chief executive of a new entity, the reinsurer Mid Ocean Ltd, Mr Butt was part of the “Class of 1993” that altered the course of international business in Bermuda.

His friend and veteran reinsurance colleague Brian O’Hara said Mr Butt came forward at a time when catastrophe reinsurance was in short supply, just as Hurricane Andrew barrelled into Florida in 1992 as a Category 5 storm that inflicted tens of billions in damage.

Holding court: XL chief Brian O’Hara, second right, with Caroline Foulger (PricewaterhouseCoopers), Michael Butt (Axis Capital) and Peter Grant (Standard & Poor's).

Mr O’Hara said of the new firm: “It was very exciting timing – he could see right away it was going to be a big hit.”

Mr Butt was already a highly successful London businessman when he turned his attention to the island.

With his wife, Zoe, Mr Butt was also an avid world traveller.

“He was intrigued with Bermuda,” Mr O’Hara said. “He enjoyed living here – and being part of building what Bermuda became.”

Mr Butt, who described himself as being shaped by his postwar upbringing in England, set out in London at the brokerage Sedgwick.

By 1982 he was chairman there, and vice-chair of the Sedgwick Group plc, and he became chairman and CEO of Eagle Star Holdings between 1987 and 1992.

But with the rise of Mid Ocean in Bermuda, Mr Butt became a director of XL after it acquired the firm – and later moved on to Axis Capital as chairman.

Mr O’Hara said his friend had a colourful early life, growing up in North Africa and the Middle East courtesy of his father’s petrochemical career, and was fluent in several languages.

Mr Butt read history at Oxford University in the 1960s, happening to be in charge of the committee that booked a new band, the Rolling Stones, for its summer ball just before the group shot to global stardom.

When the band tried to back out of the Oxford commitment and then arrived late, Mr Butt ended up in a fist fight with frontman Mick Jagger.

The band ultimately honoured its engagement.

“A wonderful human being, quite the orator, highly intellectual but fun and funny – he had an amazing life,” Mr O’Hara added.

XL were initial investors in Mid Ocean, and with the industry reeling from Hurricane Andrew, “the timing of putting this company together could not have been more perfect”, Mr O’Hara said.

“We worked very closely and we ended up buying Mid Ocean in 1999, and Michael came on our board.

“Along the way we set up the Risk Prediction Initiative with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, studying hurricanes and climate change.”

Mr Butt ultimately succeeded him as chairman of the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers.

Mr O’Hara recalled that when his friend transitioned to Axis in the wake of the September 11 attacks – which sent a shock wave through insurance and reinsurance – Mr Butt was still on the board at XL.

“He asked to leave our board to join a competitor, which normally you would not do,” Mr O’Hara said. “I couldn’t say no, and I’m glad I didn’t – and I’m glad Michael went on to bigger success.”

Michael Butt is shown with four fellow chairmen of Abir at Abir's 25th anniversary event: Stephen Catlin, left, Kevin O'Donnell, Mr Butt, Albert Benchimol and Dinos Iordanou (Photograph supplied)

Albert Benchimol, president and chief executive of Axis, said Mr Butt was “incredibly generous, able to make you feel like the only person in the room”.

“I was CFO at PartnerRe when he was chair at Axis. He was both a competitor and a growing friend. Then in 2010 he called me about coming over, which was the beginning of an incredible business partnership that in many ways completed our relationship.”

Mr Benchimol called him “a beacon in what he stood for – his passion for Bermuda’s environment, and our industry”.

“Because Michael studied history at Oxford, I think he saw things in terms of the long arc of history, which prepared him for this vision of what works and what doesn’t work. He was erudite beyond belief.”

Sir John Swan, the former premier, said he enjoyed a friendship with Mr Butt, who was “very much involved in the forward planning of Bermuda” through his work in international business and association with the Bermuda Monetary Authority.

“He was recognised by colleagues as a stalwart in our development. He was a person who brought other people into the industry and brought in ideas. It was a hallmark of his character.”

John Huff, chief executive of Abir, said last night: “Over the course of his career, Michael Butt was a builder of business and a passionate voice for the Bermuda market.

“He served as Abir chair in 2008 and 2009, but contributed greatly to the industry for years before and after his term as chair.

“Abir, Bermuda and consumers around the world will continue to benefit from Michael’s leadership.”

Abir chairwoman Pina Albo called him “an industry legend”.

“His leadership over decades was significantly instrumental in growing of Abir as the collective international voice of the Bermuda insurance and reinsurance market,” she said.

“We offer our most sincere condolences to his family. May they take comfort in his memory. Bermuda certainly mourns his loss.”

In an interview with Bermuda Business, Mr Butt attributed the industry’s success to attracting quality staff and building talent – and he gave credit across the industry for Bermuda’s achievement.

In 2011, when he was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Mr Butt told The Royal Gazette it was “an award for Bermuda, and for all those who have, in the last 20 years, helped take Bermuda from an interesting but peripheral part of the world’s reinsurance market, to its very centre.”

Mr Butt was an avoid supporter of the arts and charities in Bermuda as well.

Fundraiser: Axis chairman Michael Butt as his head is completely shorn to help raise funds for two cancer charities (File photograph)

Tom Butterfield, founder of the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art, said Mr Butt grasped the concept of the museum soon after he came to Bermuda and when it was still in its early stages.

He said: “From the outset he was engaging, curious and worldly in business and other interests of which there were many.

“Our little organisation was a mere six years old, but he instinctively got the notion and became involved.”

He said Mr Butt spearheaded a corporate art rental programme which put Masterworks on the map with other international companies, adding: “It was he who gave us our dignity and respectability in the community — he never left us out.”

He said Mr Butt was an ambassador for Masterworks as it searched for a home and the funds to support it.

But he added: “The biggest story of which there are many is for his love of friends and friendship and his great love of Bermuda.

“Bless you, Michael, for your spiritual generosity. You will be missed.”

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Published February 10, 2023 at 7:54 am (Updated February 14, 2023 at 12:58 pm)

Michael Butt (1942-2023): champion of Bermuda insurance sector

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