Manuel Padilla was on an aircraft carrier when it collided with a Russian submarine at the height of the Cold War. It would be a singular storytelling event for anyone else. But Padilla isn’t anyone else.
“If you tell me you’re worried about a catastrophe, well, I deal with those every single day,” the VP of risk management and insurance at MacAndrews & Forbes says matter-of-factly. “But if there’s a calamity, well, there’s something we need to identify and take a look at.”
Padilla is equal parts tough-talking realist and inspirational figure. The second-generation Puerto Rican rose above his community’s life and career expectations to become something of a titan in the risk management business. For over thirty years, Padilla has encountered fires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, terrorism, and ransoms.
But Padilla says his success isn’t just about him, it’s about the community of stakeholders throughout the world tasked with always preparing for the worst and ensuring that, if the worst does happen, survival doesn’t have to be a roll-of-the-dice proposition.
“My interactions with a slew of different risk professionals, including key insurance brokers, commercial underwriters, and executives at Lloyds of London have had a material impact on my success,” the VP says. “[I commend them all because] everything I know about my profession I received from key mentors who believed in me, as a person, and did not hesitate to share their knowledge and feedback. Some of my relationships have been in place for thirty years.” Now, Padilla wants to make the insurance space more accessible for Latinos because he was one of so few for so many years.
But before he could create change for others, Padilla had to break the cycle of expectations for Puerto Ricans like him from the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.
The Risk of the Journey
Growing up, Padilla was incredibly aware of the limitations when it came to job prospects for those from his tight-knit Puerto Rican community.
“There was always the feeling that you needed to stay in your lane, culturally,” Padilla remembers. “We were expected to be laborers, or maybe open up a bodega. One of my uncles was able to own a couple of laundromats that were very community-focused, but that was really all you could hope for.”
“I recall one of my uncles telling his brothers he was going to apply for a post office job,” Padilla recalls. “I was very young and it always struck me as odd since that should not have been such a reach.” He learned later on that it was a novel opportunity for people in his community, and did seem out of reach to many there.
Padilla vividly recalls the one Puerto Rican police officer, a towering six-foot-three man who acted as a sort of spokesperson for his community, but he was more an anomaly than an aspirational goal. Padilla’s community was discouraged from the idea of pursuing civil service or law enforcement jobs, implicitly or otherwise.
But Padilla caught some breaks. His family moved out of Brooklyn for a few years to New Jersey. A student at the time, he was able to meet people from other walks of life and get a different perspective on his future. It didn’t hurt that he had some street smarts and wasn’t afraid to learn.
He was eventually accepted into an accelerated program back in Brooklyn. He skipped the eighth grade entirely and completed a machine design/pre-engineering program at a vocational high school. He was also a pretty good musician; that earned him a spot on the New York All City High School Band, which performed at Carnegie Hall.
But to truly find a way out, Padilla decided to enlist in the Navy. “I graduated on a Saturday, and I was at the recruiting depot shipping out to San Diego on Monday. I had signed up six months in advance,” Padilla remembers. “I had been part of the Navy Yard Boys Club Sea Cadets program at Fort Greene. It was run by an individual who mentored us and took us on trips and got us interested in the military. It was all out of his own pocket, and it was an incredible experience for someone my age.” This new mentor introduced Padilla and the sea cadets to military academics, the mayor, the UN General, and senators and congressmen.
Advancing the Industry
Manuel Padilla helps MacAndrews & Forbes keep their portfolio ready for anything. But he’s also helping build the future of risk management. The VP currently serves on the global board of directors for the Risk & Insurance Management Society (RIMS), is a founding member and cochair of the Lloyds Counsel of Risk Owners, executive council member for the Maurice Greenberg School of Risk Management at St. Johns University, and has served regularly on RIMS committees. In his spare time, he is a member of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, and formerly a commander of a division in Brooklyn, New York.
“I wasn’t going to be a porter or work in a factory. That is good, honest work but I wanted something very different. The experience of being shown that perceived hurdles should not limit my dreams I learned here.”
In the Navy, Padilla would crisscross the country multiple times, from San Diego to Charleston, South Carolina. Aboard the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Carl Vinson, Padilla would tour the Western Pacific: the Philippines, Korea, Australia, and Kenya.
Padilla was at Naval Station Miramar while a little movie called Top Gun was being filmed. He met Tom Cruise and was present during the filming of the famous “Buzz the Tower” scene as it was being filmed. “There wasn’t actually a sonic boom that day. They must have added it in later,” the VP recalls.
Aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, a Russian submarine was playing a very unsuccessful game of cat and mouse with the ship. They were about as subtle as an earthquake. Padilla remembers the sound and vibration of metal on metal. The sub had accidentally run into the aircraft carrier and one of its propeller blades was ripped off and lodged into the bow of the ship below the water line.
It’s hard for anyone who wasn’t alive to remember the panic and paranoia of the Cold War era. Any small event could have tripped off World War III. This was hardly a small event. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.
Meanwhile, Padilla was finding out that a life in the military wasn’t something he wanted to continue. “Why didn’t I stay in the Navy? That’s very simple. They woke me up at 2:30 in the morning,” Padilla says.
After an eighteen-hour day, Padilla was raised from sleep and called back to work. He jokingly asked his chief petty officer if it ever got any easier. The officer smiled and said no.
“From that moment on, whenever I got done with my job, I was up in the ship’s library reading through college textbooks and figuring out where I was going to go,” the self-proclaimed king of calamity says. “My initial goal was to go to the Navy to secure the college benefits under the G.I. Bill. This forced me out of my comfort zone and back to the plan.”
Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges would ultimately send Padilla on his way. He flipped from A to B to C when something caught his eye. The College of Insurance.
“It was a school that offered you the chance to get a scholarship and one that gave you real-life training while you were going to school,” Padilla remembers. “I don’t know what this insurance thing was going to be exactly, but I knew this was for me.”
Padilla would eventually graduate in three years at the top of the multiple lines underwriting focus area along with actual work experience.
Always Be Prepared
Prior to graduation, Padilla was introduced to the Risk Management Insurance Society (RIMS). He was selected as a student involvement program candidate for their introductory program and was flown to New Orleans to learn about the industry. The program was then run by an unforgettable figure to Padilla, Anita Benedetti, whom the program is now named after. About ten thousand professionals from across the risk management world were all in one place, and Padilla was hooked. He decided to move from insurance underwriting to risk management.
We couldn’t resist asking a risk management expert about some of his most precarious moments in the industry. Manuel Padilla didn’t want to get into specifics but recalls being very confused when reviewing a situation where it appeared that a regulatory committee may have failed to realize that a nuclear power plant had, essentially, been built with some material engineering issues.
“This was an issue we discovered while doing due diligence,” Padilla recalls. “They had spent five years and many hundreds of millions of dollars assembling this thing and only then did they realize they had a major problem. There were many experts looking at the designs regularly; still, [there was] an issue. Truly scary stuff: it shows that even with the most meticulous of analysis, things can still happen. Catastrophes happen every day. It’s a calamity I worry about the most.”
Now at MacAndrews & Forbes, Padilla helps the privately-owned company mitigate exposures across its worldwide portfolio. It gives Padilla a chance to combine his engineering skills and his insurance knowledge to protect the assets of the enterprise on a global basis.
“I’m one of a few risk managers who can analyze a company from a global perspective and actually get my feet on the ground in international markets,” the VP explains. “I travel everywhere, because I know I need to get the real story from the key decision makers. The company has allowed me this tool and it has been a key factor for success. The insurance side of these transactions is very important [but] the relationships more so. I can’t count how many times an interaction in London or elsewhere helped us to solve a unique risk that we looking to solve.”
His partners at Alliant Insurance Services Inc. agree, with EVP and Managing Director Sandy Crystal noting, “we have worked together for 20 years on a number of extremely complex, challenging and time sensitive matters and I have never once seen Manny get flustered or stressed. He stays calm and works to solve the problem which means everyone around him follows his lead and doesn’t panic.” And with the same enthusiasm, Anthony DeFelice, Chairman National Casualty and CEO of Aon Construction & Infrastructure says about Padilla, “I have had the privilege of working with Manny for the last 30 years. Together we faced many challenges both on placement as well as claims. Manny always handled these situations with acumen and professionalism. He has been a mentor to many and is well known within the industry.”
But as astute as Padilla can be on any given issue, he can’t be everywhere at once. The VP says he’s tasked with creating and leading global teams—teams he’s clearly proud of.
“My mantra is that I would always rather be one step ahead and have addressed a number of issues before the hurricane topples a building over,” the VP says. “There are so many things we need to do before an event. After the event, it’s always too late. We are there to clean up the mess and work on the recovery.”
Padilla and his team must also see every potential issue stemming from a situation. A massive flood in Thailand in 2011 had ramifications for the rest of the world. As the world’s largest hard disk drive manufacturers were twenty feet underwater, there was a possibility of sales dropping 30 percent for a piece of technology that was needed virtually everywhere.
“This was a truly unique scenario for us, not only because of the flood, but because of the market impact to our business unit,” Padilla explains. “We were able to get our people into the marketplace quickly to buy enough hard drives so that we could meet demand before that demand became too severe. Part of this was because we worked on identifying critical manufacturers well in advance of the event.”
Padilla has dozens of these stories. Flying in generators to get facilities back online. Helping a Brazilian plant manager understand that with a few tweaks, their plant wouldn’t go out of business if some unforeseen event occurred. For Padilla, preparing in advance mitigates, if not altogether eliminates, the impact of loss. Insurance is there to protect the balance sheet after a loss, but proactive loss prevention keeps the business running and generating revenue uninterrupted.
When it comes to encouraging more Latinos to join the insurance industry, Padilla hopes that more will choose to be bold. “I think our cultural bias is that we don’t want to speak up if we are not confident or don’t know the answers; we might not want to take a risk out of fear of ridicule,” the VP explains. “I think that’s something we need to recognize and combat. Sometimes, you just have to close your eyes and walk through the door.”
Padilla says there is significant opportunity throughout the insurance industry for Latinos, but that it needs to be sought out. It requires individuals to make themselves visible, to reach out for opportunities or information, and to commit firmly. “Do not be shy or reserved, this is a field where fortune favors the bold.”
“If you don’t see the opportunity, it’s because you’re not looking in the right places,” the VP says. “To be blunt, sometimes you just need to do some more homework. And sometimes you have to be willing to take the risk of sounding a little dumb in order to figure out where you want to be.”