Zurich UK's new chief ...
"This is where they'll make me jump if I don't produce good results," quips Ian Stuart as he peers from the bridge into the small pond behind Zurich's head office in Whiteley.
Zurich UK's new chief executive is in good humour as he poses for photographs and chats about his new position and his insurance career. Formerly the managing director of Eagle Star in Ireland, Stuart took up the chief executive role in May. And, despite still living in a hotel room, he is enjoying his new role. "It's fascinating and the people are enthusiastic," he says, in his lilting Dublin accent.
Those who know Stuart from his days in Ireland describe him as a "colourful" character and "one of the lads" who was often to be seen holding court in his favourite Dublin pub. Although, they also says he became a "lot more serious" when he was promoted to managing director - which for the Irish probably meant he drank less. He is charismatic and easy company, but he admits to having little time to indulge his passion for sailing, despite being so close to the sea.
As Stuart talks about the market and his aspirations for Zurich one theme emerges time after time: the customer. "Every single decision made within the organisation must be queried before implementation against the customer focus," he says.
"There has to be somebody representing Mrs Smith. Before you implement a new policy, a new wording, a new piece of IT, there must be somebody in the organisation representing the customer."
References to Mrs Smith feature strongly throughout the interview, as does his mother: "If my elderly mother doesn't understand the wording of her insurance, it's not her fault, it's ours."
He continues: "Traditionally, we get a bunch of underwriters or technicians or actuaries or accountants in a room, and we have a learned discussion about what the policy wording should be. Nobody ever asks Mrs Smith if she has any idea what we're talking about. Mrs Smith is right, the actuaries and accountants are wrong."
For Stuart the key to delivering a customer-friendly product is simplicity and convenience. "Why have we made the process so complicated? It isn't complicated; most products we sell are relatively straightforward. We have invented complexity.
"If I finish my time here having done absolutely nothing other than significantly simplifying the process of delivering the customer proposition, I'd be happy."
He uses the phrase "compellingly convenient" to describe his aim for Zurich's product and service offerings. His argument is that if the product is convenient to use, the broker or the direct customer, will choose that product over another one, even though it is a great deal more expensive.
"We have to make insurance quick, easy and convenient. If we ever allow ourselves to compete on price, the game's over."
He is also critical of the industry's obsession with technology. "We've been spending, as an industry, a fortune on IT for years," he says. "But what has it delivered? How often do we check what it has delivered? You want to get from the idea to the customer in as short a number of steps as you possibly can.
"We need to shorten the delivery process between the decision and the customer proposition. There are too many people involved in making decisions," he states emphatically,
This sounds a bit like management code for cutting jobs. Absolutely not, says Stuart quick to refute the suggestion. "Let's get this right: I'm here to grow the business. I'm here to reduce the cost per unit, which means reduce the numbers of staff per policy, but I am also here to increase the number of policies, the number of customers. I'd love to double the number of staff."
Stuart also talks of the need to ensure that that Zurich's intellectual capital is used appropriately. "We have to ensure that the brainpower, the IQ within the organisation, is used to satisfy the customer needs, rather than filling in forms," he says.
"We've tended, as an industry, to have excellent people doing fairly mundane jobs. The customer, at the end of the day, pays my salary. I'm not paid from Switzerland, I'm paid by Mrs Smith walking up and down outside."
Of course, one cannot forget costs and, being a chartered accountant by profession, cost reduction is, not surprisingly, high on Stuart's list of priorities. "As an industry we have to become more efficient and to deliver our proposition to customers faster. We have to reduce our unit costs," he says.
In Stuart's sights are inefficiencies arising from errors. "We can't afford to do things twice. I believe in doing the simple things correctly once; that makes this job more satisfying and gives Mrs Smith what she's looking for, value for money," he says.
So what are Stuart's ambitions for the business? He recites the insurer cliche of being "best in class in our chosen markets" and being "the insurer of choice". But he adds: "That doesn't necessarily mean we have to be the biggest. I want to be in a position of being able to influence that market, so at the very least we have to be in the top quartile, if not the market leader."
For Stuart, maintaining the status quo is unacceptable. "If you stand still someone else is moving ahead of you.
"My aim is increase our market share in our chosen areas; to be number three if we are number four; to be number four if we are number five.
Never be happy; to be happy is to be complacent."
He cites the likes of Richard Branson, Michael O'Leary (the chief executive of Ryanair) and in the insurance world Peter Wood the founder of Direct Line as inspiration - they have "broken the mould," he says. "Running any business according to the status quo is boring, no fun and almost always a mistake," he adds.
Going back to Zurich, he says he has no immediate plans to change Zurich's business focus. "Over time there will be changing emphasis, depending on competition, depending on pricing. But I'm not looking at any radical change."
What about Zurich's positioning as the brokers' friend? One of Zurich's most memorable advertising campaigns involved the flying pigs and the company providing the public with the contact details of local brokers.
Is he still committed to that position?
Stuart grimaces when the flying pigs are mentioned - clearly he is not their greatest fan. As to the sentiment behind the ads, he says: "We will always encourage people to use their selected brokers, where it makes sense. And we will continue to support the broker channel where appropriate."
But he says that the company must still support the direct channel. "If you intend to be a major player in the business, as we do, we would have to have a presence in each of the distribution areas, which we do today, which we will continue to do."
The company already has a small presence in the direct commercial market, which he says will remain. As for direct personal lines, Stuart does not seem convinced of the merits of this method of distribution.
"The margins in personal lines business are thin, so you've got to be extremely careful about your cost of sales. The idea of going out and building some large direct edifice isn't economically viable, so I don't really see any dramatic change," he says.
Ian Stuart on:
"There are too many people involved. If you had two people in a room who were told that unless they solved the problem by this evening the building would burn down, the problem would have been solved a long time ago"
"You don't need to have the best underwriter on the phone, you have to have the correct underwriter on the phone, the one best suited to answer the query"
The industry's image:
"It is going to be an uphill struggle for a very, very long time. We will not succeed until everybody puts the customer slap in the middle of every single conversation"
2004: Chief executive, Zurich UK
1994: Managing director, Eagle Star General
1992: Director, Eagle Star General
1980: Joined Eagle Star, with responsibility for finance across both the life and general companies.
Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, Ireland
Business studies degree, Trinity College, Dublin
Interests: Sailing, tennis, drinking Guinness and walking
Favourite food: Steamed Dublin Bay prawns