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Bidding adieu to a doyen: Mr. A.C. Mukherji…

Apr 20, 2021

Just as I was to sit down for a Sunday lunch, the phone rang. Next 40 minutes or so followed an impromptu session on unknown facets from the contemporary history of Indian insurance industry. The caller was legendary Mr. AC Mukherji (ACM), former CMD of The New India Assurance. Co. Ltd. A company where I began my career. Interestingly, I got to know him personally well past his retirement from the company.

Two weeks or so, before that call, I had shared with him India’s Coal Story authored by Subhomoy Bhattacharjee. Having thoroughly enjoyed reading it, he said, I have to tell you something which no one after me would know. At such moments you’ve got to leave everything aside. Thanks to Mr. BK Shah, the then Managing Director of The New India Assurance Co. Ltd., we avoided the mistake of creating another LIC or repeating what went wrong with coal, he explained. Created by an Act of the Parliament, every change at the LIC had to be referred there.

For many months after announcing the nationalisation of the general insurance industry, the government was clueless as to what needed to be done next. Interestingly, Mr. Mukherji and his boss Mr. Shah were summoned by the new masters to the Ministry of Finance (MOF). They were asked to prepare an action plan. Months of hard work and 12 box files later, M/s. Shah and Mukherji were back at the MOF. One of their key recommendations was to create a separate holding company – the General Insurance Corporation of India (GIC). Almost 90% of our suggested approach was accepted, he told me. That spoke of New India’s pedigree and credibility in those times of uncertainty. ACM was always respected, in the corridors of power, for his exceptional professionalism.

Whether over a cup of tea at his home in Salt Lake, Kolkata or the Calcutta Club, at airport lounges and locations in or outside India – I had the prerogative of seeking answers wherever and whenever I was face to face with him. ACM always obliged very generously. He was a master story teller, with an encyclopedic memory, who could provide the context and rationale for all that happened in the industry since 1948. The year he joined New India as a management trainee. It was then both a life and non-life insurer (hence the ‘Assurance’) with a GWP of Rs. 2 crores. Not to miss out his joining interview with JRD Tata.

Back in 1995 I had the pleasure of hosting him at an India event in HK. During the coffee break two gentlemen approached him very respectfully and started a conversation in German. I was pleasantly surprised. After they left, he pointed at one of them and said that was Diekmann, recently announced head of Allianz Asia. He should go a long way. But I thought you were conversing in German? Yes, I picked it from my time in Germany. I was posted by New India with Allianz, our settling agent there. He got to know I am around hence the courtesy stopover, explained ACM.

We were in the process of setting up Bajaj Allianz General Insurance Co. Ltd. In late 2000. My boss, Sam Ghosh, asked me to request Mr. Mukherjee to meet him. The reason – Michael Diekmann (later became the group CEO and presently the Chairman of Allianz SE) wishes to have him as the Allianz representative on the Bajaj Allianz board. ACM readily agreed to meet Sam. However, at the meeting he politely excused himself citing a conflict of interest. Given his ongoing commitment to Tokio Marine.

ACM understood people at all levels, had an extraordinary sense of humility, grace and reach. His focus on customer service, policyholder protection and contract certainty were way ahead of time. Likewise, the belief in insurance as a knowledge industry and developing specialty were always on his radar. For much of my early days in the company there was never a mention of ‘PSU’. It was known for its processes and respected in the markets it participated or operated in. He championed management education to ensure balanced development of the rank and file. I remember vividly attending an internal management development programme (MDP) and being told by the eminent faculty – people like Mukherji can run the country. Such is the calibre of your top leadership.

As a seer he could see the coming boom in personal lines. People who dealt with him on complex claims – for instance – be it Space, MLOP or FLOP recall his legendary grip, preparedness, finesse and decisiveness at the meetings. The logic behind the four head offices of nationalised companies; the mergers of various companies into them, to the Malhotra Committee deliberations, and recommendations on the solvency margin regulations – all have his indelible stamp. If the insurance industry ever had a GOAT (greatest of all times), it is him. I have not come across anyone as well rounded and visionary.

There is so much more I can say and I am sure there are many who would have even more fascinating stories to recount. Apart from bidding adieu to one of the finest leaders of our times, ACM is an outstanding role model for the coming generations to emulate and shine. #RIP Mr. AC Mukherji.

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