“Whether CEO or not, I’d be up at 6 a.m. doing stuff,” laughs Abigail Clifford, the new chief executive officer of BF&M Limited.
It’s not hard to believe her. The first thing you notice when speaking to Abby, as she is known, is her wide smile. A split second later, you pick up on her energy; she seems to have it in abundance. Her path to the top, she says, has not been a straight one—she’s a self-described “non-traditional CEO”—but it’s given her numerous opportunities to rise to a challenge and she’s relished every chance. “I believe in the value of stretch opportunities,” she says, explaining that she’s all for people taking on new roles when they’re, say, 80 percent, rather than 100 percent, ready.
That includes herself and the job she began on September 1—leading a “small but complicated” group of companies which provide insurance and investment products in seventeen jurisdictions and which has offices here, in Cayman, Canada, Barbados and the Bahamas. “Like almost every position I have ever taken, even though it’s a stretch, the exciting part outweighs the stretch part,” she says. “If you left it up to me, I would never say I’m ready. I’m a planner, a natural worrier.”
Perhaps the 18-year-old Abby—the one who took a year out before university to study art in the south of France—might be surprised to see the present version. She wasn’t imagining herself as a corporate leader back then; her goal was to go into psychology, inspired by her English mother, a guidance counsellor and educational consultant. “I did not have my eyes set on that as being my future,” she says. “I didn’t sort of have this target of ‘I want to be CEO one day.’” But she can now see how, even earlier in life, she showed signs of being a leader. “If I think about my childhood, I’ve always been a very independent thinker and I’ve always been somebody who feels a great sense of responsibility, if things were not fair or were unjust,” she says. “I’ve not been afraid to speak my mind.”
Clifford grew up in Bermuda—her father is a Bermudian from St George’s who can trace the family tree here for generations back—as the middle child of three siblings. Her mother, she says, was and is a “big influence,” and her face lights up when she talks about being raised by this “lifelong learner” who juggled a busy work and home life. “My mother…she really validated my intuition when I was younger,” she says. “If I said something wasn’t right or if I said something needed to be changed or altered, she very much validated the way I felt about things.” Clifford views that now as an “incredible gift,” imbuing her with the confidence to trust her instincts and not be afraid to make mistakes. “I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but when I look back and think, that has certainly been something that she taught me,” she says. “Quite honestly, that is something that has played out throughout my career.”
Clifford went to Bermuda High School for Girls and then boarding school in Connecticut at 15, leaving her, she jokes, with an American accent she can’t shift. Her dalliance with art in France before college isn’t so surprising, she adds. Her elder brother is an artist and so is her husband. Outside of work, art remains something she places a “huge value on.”
“I’m a believer in, you don’t have to take the straight path, even academically,” she says. “The most interesting people are those that don’t necessarily take the straight path.
“Having an interest in many things can be a real asset.”
Clifford returned to the island from France, before an undergraduate degree at Washington College, in Maryland. She majored in psychology, with a minor in anthropology, and then began a master’s degree in counselling psychology at Santa Clara University in California. After two semesters, despite acing the classes, having a “brilliant time,” and forming deep friendships with like-minded students, she had to listen to her instincts. “There was a missing piece,” she says. “It didn’t resonate in terms of something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. “It took a lot for me to switch gears but that’s very much been my life. I have turned on a dime. I’m not afraid to walk away.” That pivotal moment set her on the corporate path. She came home to Bermuda and spoke to people in business here about a possible way forward. Human resources—then known as personnel—kept coming up in those conversations and it piqued her interest, so much so that she switched to a master’s degree in organisational development at Johns Hopkins University. “It was a relatively new field,” she says. “It looked at the whole system of how an organisation functioned, the group dynamics. For me, that was fascinating. I loved it.”
Back in Bermuda, her first break in business came when Butterfield Bank hired her to run its training and development department. She was young and fresh out of university, but she was given a lot of responsibility and she seized the opportunity. “I was certainly daunted by the prospect but I was also excited.
“I remember feeling like I can really apply myself to this job. There’s opportunity here to do some exciting work. I got given a lot of latitude to build out a training platform with a great team of people.”
Clifford sees herself as a “builder,” someone who loves being part of an organisation and bringing that organisation together. At Butterfield, she watched her first boss, Patricia Bean, do just that with poise, decisiveness and fairness—and found it inspiring. She pauses when asked if she displays those same characteristics as a boss. “It’s hard for me to say I’m those things,” she responds. “It’s really a question of what other people say.” She says she doesn’t have an “inflated sense of self,” but she can pinpoint her strengths as a leader: providing clarity for people on what’s expected of them, cutting through the “noise” and drilling down to the essence of a problem, navigating through change, and making quick decisions. “I think you can have fun at the same time,” she adds. “It doesn’t have to be serious all the time. I want everybody to feel like they can be themselves…and that includes coming to me when there is a problem.
“When stuff is not working, you want people to be able to come and tell you that.”
Ensuring there is room for humour, even in pressured situations, is something she learnt from her “mentor and sponsor” at her next job, at PartnerRe. She applied to be HR assistant at the international reinsurer in 1999, and the late Mark Pabst became her boss. “It was a lateral move, arguably,” Clifford recalls. “I took less pay and it didn’t have the fancy title but it was a great opportunity.” She describes how Pabst’s instinct was to defuse stress through humour. “Laughter is really important, and he was the one I saw doing that and he modelled that for me,” she says. “I saw that in action and it resonated for me.”
Pabst also championed Clifford’s expertise in organisational development, promoting her to a role where she built and ran a management and development programme for the company. That meant flying around the world—to Zurich, Paris, and the US – and really getting to grips with the business. She recalls sitting in the office of the “quite imposing” Bruno Meyenhofer, then the global head of PartnerRe, and explaining “how I thought we should tackle things.” She chuckles. “I look back and I think I really did have a lot of chutzpah. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been very well received.”
After five years with the firm, she was asked to move to the US to become its human resources director. Living in New York City and doing a reverse commute to Greenwich, Connecticut, was an “exciting time.” Her “hugely supportive” husband stayed in Bermuda, designing and building their home here, and flying back and forth to see her. Clifford was pregnant with their first child toward the end of her time there and was asked to return to Bermuda by CEO Patrick Thiele to be chief human resources officer.
“I had a newborn and moved into a new house and had this new job,” Clifford says. “That again was this stretch job. It was a stretch for me at a time when I had a newborn.” The support from her husband was critical to her success, she says. “It was a lot. To some extent, I think times have thankfully changed. This was 16 years ago.
“There was support for me to have a child but it felt like it was very compartmentalised at the time, so it was about work, and I don’t recall speaking about my children to the same extent that I do now.” She feels lucky to have had mentors like Mark Pabst and Patrick Thiele and feels compelled now to be a “proponent of women.”
“The reinsurance industry, particularly at that time but probably less so now, is very male dominated, very white male dominated,” she says. “We need women that are diverse, so we need women who have children, who don’t have children, we need women of colour, we need women who are financially really strong, we need actuaries, and we need women who don’t come from that background, women that think differently.
“We need the whole spectrum of women so that the next generation can identify and see themselves.”
Clifford has had the chance to put that ethos into action since joining BF&M nine years ago, hiring professionals such as Michelle Jackson, Stephanie Hanson and Geraldine Kempe into senior executive roles. “It just so happens they are women,” she says. “I was hiring the best person. What I’ve been able to do is bring in incredibly talented, intelligent women to sit at the table, and that in and of itself starts to shape the opportunities within the organisation for other people.” Of BF&M’s 30-strong management team, 24 are women.
Her own decision to join BF&M as chief human resources officer almost a decade ago came at a time when her children were small, and she was constantly on a plane. A need to scale back the travel for family reasons was part of her motivation—but there was more to it. “I felt quite disconnected from my community,” she says. “I felt like I could have been in a virtual office, it could have been anywhere, and I wanted to connect to back home.” She did her homework on BF&M and her predecessor as CEO, John Wight. “It was a very different environment,” Clifford says. “John always put an emphasis on family.”
The move came as a surprise to some because of the perceived glamour and perks surrounding international business, but it shouldn’t have, she says. “I don’t have a problem walking away from anything if it doesn’t align and it wasn’t as fulfilling.” Even then, on joining BF&M, she didn’t have her sights set on becoming its CEO. She says Wight trusted her “very quickly” to “build out the organisation.” Years of getting to know the business inside out and plan for its future talent pool followed. Another of her strengths, she explains, is knowing she doesn’t have all the answers and being unafraid to ask questions. “People are really willing to help you,” she adds.
Clifford became chief operating officer in 2019 and she recalls when Wight first raised the idea of her one day succeeding him to lead the organisation, as they waited for a flight in JFK’s executive lounge. “I did not expect that at all,” she says. “I obviously was very grateful and appreciative.” She agreed to throw her “hat into the ring,” and then “you get access to lots of things and the benefit of learning and continuing to learn.” As part of an “incredibly thought out and multi-year succession process,” Abby took part in a nine-month leadership programme at Harvard Business School, including coaching sessions which enabled her to pinpoint the advantages of taking on such a demanding role.
The “pro” which really stood out for her? “To represent, to be the first female CEO in the 100-year history of this company. It’s such a huge honour and a huge responsibility.” She knows her time at the top is finite, precisely because it’s so intense. She says there is a danger of ending up in a bubble as CEO, of becoming too used to the power dynamic of “ask and receive.” For now, she’ll continue to rise at 6 a.m.—for a gym workout or some quiet meditation—and start her working day by 7:30 a.m. Her focus will be on maintaining BF&M’s commitment to serving its customers in times of need, improving its digital agility, fostering a diverse talent pool, growing the business—perhaps even to more jurisdictions—and leaving a legacy of giving back to the community. She promises BF&M will not be “afraid to support things that maybe not everybody in the community supports,” mentioning LGBTQ+ causes as one example.
“I’ve had an amazing career.” Clifford says. “I’m the right CEO for the right time right now.
“I know why I’m good for right now, but it’s not forever. I’m a big believer in the next generation.”
Favourite work of art?
“Modigliani paintings, de Moura [her husband Russell and their children] household creations.”
Favourite charitable cause?
“Too many to select.”
Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi.”
Favourite song/piece of music?
“80s reggae, like ‘One Dance’ by Audrey Hall.”
Favourite way to relax?
“Meditating, cooking while listening to podcasts and downtime with my family and friends.”
Favourite place in the world?
“The south of France.”
Favourite place in Bermuda?
“The dock at my house.”
Favourite part of the job?
“Unleashing people and organisational potential. Working with an amazing team.”
Least favourite part of the job?
“Making difficult people decisions.”
“Still a work in progress.”
To read more from our series on women in leadership see the articles below:
Taking Back Life with Tina Laws
The Deconstruction of Tammy Richardson
Elena Strong on Shaping our Identity and Strengthening our Purpose