Zurich has hopped into the market for life unit deals in Australia. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Zurich Insurance Group AG overcame a record year for natural-disaster claims in the industry to deliver its first dividend increase since 2011.

Switzerland’s biggest insurer raised its dividend for 2017 by 6% to 18 Swiss francs ($19.10) a share after signalling higher investor payouts in November. Analysts expected a payout of 17.90 francs, according to the Bloomberg Dividend Forecast. Zurich Insurance also announced a share buyback of roughly $1 billion.

When Mario Greco took over as chief executive officer almost two years ago, he pledged to simplify the insurer, slash costs and improve shareholder returns. Now his overhaul is bearing fruit with almost half the planned cost savings for 2019 achieved.

“We improved underwriting, reduced costs and expanded our service offerings, while growing premiums and improving our customer retention levels,” Greco said in a statement on Thursday. “These achievements made us resilient in the face of challenges and give us confidence as we look ahead to delivering our 2017 to 2019 targets.”

Zurich has been looking outside Europe for growth, acquiring the life-insurance business Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. In December. The company then signaled possible higher dividend payments to investors because the deal will be earnings-accretive from the start. Other purchases included the life unit of Macquarie and of Australian travel insurer Cover-More.

Net income fell 6% to $3 billion. That beat the average analyst estimate of $2.58 billion.

Business operating profit in the property and casualty unit, Zurich’s main unit, decreased by $892 million to $1.5 billion, heavily affected by catastrophe losses — in particular hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

— Read Lincoln Financial Agrees to Acquire Liberty Mutual Life Unit on ThinkAdvisor.


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