The former Layton Blackham boss has a new job at Howden. He tells us about his role and why the offer from the Lloyd’s broker persauded him to give up long days on the golf course
He’s back! Fresh from two years in the garden (and on the high seas), Chris Blackham has returned to UK broking with a bang. He will be forever associated with Layton Blackham and that sale to AXA, but today he’s here with David Howden to talk about the future: his new role on the board of Lloyd’s broker Howden, owned by the Hyperion Group.
Blackham has signed on as Howden’s UK market man, to act as a fixer for acquisitions, of businesses and teams, as the international broker looks to increase its clout at home. He’ll be out with his old muckers in the broking market and schmoozing his old insurer contacts.
Howden boss Tim Coles, group founder David Howden and Blackham plan to make a number of acquisitions, with money handily provided by private equity backer 3i, as they seek to grow the business in its existing specialties, and build a new base in mid-market commercial.
Today, we’re in Howden’s boardroom, portraits on the wall, photographer snapping away, hefty files on the table. Last time we spoke, Blackham was full of the joys of giving up the day job. Having sold Layton Blackham to AXA in 2007, he stepped aside after a brief period of running the resulting broker business, then called Venture Preference, alongside fellow vendors Paul Meehan and Stuart Reid. It’s a well-rehearsed story that we needn’t go into here, but it was decided one man had to run the show. Blackham stepped aside, Reid got the job, and Meehan eventually returned to AXA where he is now customer experience director.
Blackham retired to his garden and, by the sounds of it, had a whale of a time: regular golf with a pro, power-boat piloting courses, trips abroad, philanthropy, the lot. So what’s with donning today’s suit and tie and returning to the dreary world of corporate power broking?
“It was never the intention to begin with,” he laughs. “Tim Coles knew of me and my experience in the UK market, and asked me to come in and do a strategic review of what they could and are doing in the UK. I always said I would never become a non-exec of a Lloyd’s broker, but I was approached and I found a very different company with a very different attitude.”
So he’s gone from a self-made UK retail broking boss to the glitzy world of Lloyd’s. Isn’t he sad to be leaving the beachfront lifestyle behind? “I want to have a mixed and balanced life,” he smiles – and, suit or no, he seems pretty relaxed behind the polished table in Howden’s boardroom. “I’m off to Cambodia in November, I’m still working with charities – and if I’m not abroad every month, I’m not happy. I’m off skiing tomorrow!”
As for Howden, the thinking behind the appointment is clear. Blackham has the instant recognisability factor, creating maximum impact and the contacts to follow through.
They seem to get on well too. Howden is always buzzing with energy, and there’s a chemistry apparent between his energy and enthusiasm and Blackham’s understated experience.
“When we expand overseas, we always find an expert in that area,” Howden says. “It’s the same in the UK. Having someone like Chris is going to help raise our profile with the people we want to attract into the group.”
So that’s the rationale. What is the remit? “Howden’s is a specialist broker. Number one is to build specialisms in the UK and to expand
those; two is to give them a strong commercial insurance base; and, three, they own DUAL, the underwriting agency, and there’s lots of cross-over opportunities that we think we can work on in the next couple of years.”
Put simply, Blackham is the man to call if you think Howden’s might be the place for you – and he’ll be making some calls of his own, no doubt.
Blackham has obviously maintained a number of strong relationships with former colleagues at Layton Blackham, now part of Bluefin. Indeed, as revealed by Insurance Times three weeks ago, he has been approached to chair Aquilla, a new property broker set up by his former right-hand man Geoff Bradford. So should Stuart Reid be worried? “I couldn’t possibly comment,” Blackham smiles. “There are plenty of good people in the market and I don’t see Bluefin as a hunting ground. That said, I know people in Bluefin, and …”
He trails off, sentence unfinished. “We didn’t bring Chris in as a stalking horse for his old company,” Howden twinkles.
But the chaps are right, really. It is a big market, and Bluefin isn’t the only consolidator in town. In fact, they’re fairly open about their belief that frustration with the big boys will cause the talent to come knocking.
“There’s a lot of discontent in the UK retail market … a lot of companies are debt laden, and they are not doing what they could do. For them it’s a time of big problems, whereas for a company such as Hyperion, it’s a time of opportunities. There are two completely separate faces to what’s going on in the industry at the moment.”
And just to sweeten that sales pitch a little bit more, Blackham points out that he’s not going to be around forever. “I’m not here to run the UK in the future – I’m here to make it happen for them, and that’s what gives me a buzz now.”
The logic is clear. Howden wants to become an established force in UK retail broking – so he brings in an established force in UK retail broking. The timing’s perfect, because just as Blackham’s restrictive covenant has expired, so have those of many of his peers. The money’s there (thanks 3i), and with that AXA back story in everyone’s mind, maximum impact and headlines are guaranteed. It’s going to be one hell of a ride. IT