Insurance industry giant dies aged 88
An insurance company chief executive who built his firm into a major player discovered his calling after he landed a job at the island’s weather service.
John Sainsbury became chief executive officer and managing director of the Argus Group in 1981 and joined a golden era of executives that helped make financial services a mainstay of the island’s economy.
But his career in insurance came about by chance.
Mr Sainsbury, originally from the UK, was seconded by the British Meteorological Office to the Bermuda Meteorological Office in 1954.
His introduction to insurance came when Met Office staff set up their group health insurance plan.
Mr Sainsbury met and befriended the insurance head John Eric Patterson “Jep” Stewart through delivering the office premiums to the Somers Isles company on Reid Street.
Mr Sainsbury, who used his middle name rather than his given first name, Eric, had to return to Britain when the Met Office was closed.
But Somers Isles was setting up the Bermuda Life Insurance Company and Mr Stewart promised him a job with the firm if he trained in insurance in Britain.
Mr Sainsbury came back to Bermuda in 1959 and was hired by Mr Stewart, who preceded him as managing director of Argus.
The move launched a career that spanned almost 40 years.
Mr Sainsbury’s roles included serving as president of the Bermuda Insurance Institute – and he was the inaugural chairman of the Bermuda Insurance Association.
He sold off its Caribbean offices and established the company as a Bermudian-based group insurer when he took over the helm at Argus.
The company’s stock price soared tenfold in the 1980s – its greatest time of growth.
Mr Sainsbury, who retired in 1998, was also president of the Bermuda Employers’ Council.
Gerald Simons, who succeeded Mr Sainsbury as CEO and managing director at Argus, said he was respected and loved across Bermuda’s business world and by his staff.
He added: “John was committed to treating the employees of Argus fairly and providing the best possible customer service to all our clients, regardless of their status.
“He took a very personal interest in the company’s investment portfolio.
“John also encouraged staff development and was proud of the progress that employees made.”
David Pugh, who retired as the Argus Group’s chief financial officer in 2015, added: “John Sainsbury built the capital base of the Argus Group around sound operating results and he also brought along the investment portfolio, which was a special interest of his.
“When he took over as CEO, Argus’ equity was $8 million and our earnings were $1.7 million.
“When he retired, our equity was $75.1 million and our earnings were $11.5 million.”
Alfreda Butler, who retired from Argus in 2016 as a manager, said she started with the firm in 1963 as “a shy 18-year-old coffee girl”.
But she added: “Mr Sainsbury saw my potential. His encouragement helped me to advance within the company, eventually becoming manager of the health claims department.”
Ms Butler said: “He was happy to know that both of my daughters went into the medical field.”
Joy Pimental said she was the only woman manager at Argus reporting to Mr Sainsbury for several years and found him “a very fair boss”.
She added: “He always treated me fairly and was available for advice.”
Ms Pimental said Mr Sainsbury was a progressive leader and was responsible for hiring its first head of human resources, then known as the personnel manager.
She added: “John took some time to approve the hiring – what I appreciated was the fact that he was prepared to listen to the advantages.”
Ms Pimental said she was grateful for Mr Sainsbury’s recommendation that she join the organising committee of what eventually became the Employee Assistance Programme of Bermuda.
She added: “He felt strongly that Argus be at the forefront of this initiative.”
Mr Sainsbury held board positions at Bermuda Aviation Services, the Bermuda Commercial Bank, the Grotto Bay Hotel and the Bermuda Telephone Company.
He was president of BCB from 2006 to 2010.
Keith Jensen, the present head of the Bermuda Employers’ Council, said Mr Sainsbury was “a builder of persons and organisations”.
He added: “He was part of the generation that put Bermuda on the international business map and had a keen interest in Bermuda's overall development”.
Mr Jensen added: “As I knew John, he had perspicacity and perspicuity in business and labour relations settings, making his points without ever raising his voice, seeking ways to work together in a calm, respectful manner – sometimes with a dash of humour.”
⋅ Eric John Sainsbury, a former chief executive at Argus Insurance, was born on September 15, 1932. Mr Sainsbury died in August 2021, aged 88.