This group chief executive was tireless in his bid to head JLT and equally tenacious in flipping the company’s fortunes. The man who never takes no for an answer hints at ambitions to reorganise the hierarchy at the very top of the market
“He played a blinder,” recalls one former colleague admiringly, speaking of when Dominic Burke shocked the market four years ago by snatching the top job at Jardine Lloyd Thompson, the UK’s fourth-largest insurance broker. Indeed, with limited international or wholesale experience, and only a few years of life at a major corporate under his belt, Burke surprised everyone – apart from himself.
Dominic Burke knew he wanted to run JLT years before anyone at the company had ever heard of him, he tells Insurance Times in his sixth floor, central London office. That’s why he sold his Liverpool firm into the business, why he didn’t take any money off the table, and why he never even discussed a sale with anyone else.
With steely determination and an indefatigable will to win, he plucked victory from the jaws of defeat, securing the job when it looked like he had lost. He quickly saw off his internal rival and the market’s favourite for the job, Mike Hammond, who’s now running Lockton, and proceeded to use the same qualities to turn around the ailing business.
Today he is sitting comfortably on a record of year-on-year growth, with pre-tax profit up to £61.3m in the first six months of 2009, a newly launched MGA and ambitious plans for growth, both organic and by acquisition.
So, given that he didn’t join up with JLT until 2000, how did Burke get so far so fast? “It was a job I wanted and I made no secret of my desire for it – I pitched very hard. I set out a long time ago to try to get to the top table of JLT.”
Burke smiles slightly as he sets out his answers in rapid fire staccato, leaving no room for doubt. Here’s a story he’s told before, you realise – and one that there may be a little more to.
“It’s a long story. I think people never doubted that I wanted it, but perhaps some doubted whether I had the depth or breadth of experience to do it. A process took place and out of that I eventually got the job. There’s a story behind a story, there always is – but I think that’s probably best left unwritten.”
After a little gentle questioning, Burke grins, revealing a mischievous humour underlying his measured responses, and suggests that the tape recorder is turned off for a moment. The full story duly comes out and let’s just say: Burke is not a man who takes no for an answer. If things don’t go his way first time round, he will just keep hammering on until they do. It’s impressive. In fact, frankly, it’s a little terrifying.
But he got what he wanted and history tells us that the JLT board, with a little persuasion perhaps, made the right choice. Burke, who first set himself up by buying back his father’s former business at the age of 23, has an uncanny ability to succeed at whatever he puts his mind to – and he put his mind to turning around JLT.
Man with a plan
To the widespread surprise of the market, Burke performed a quick U-turn on plans to develop a retail offering in North America and focused on what he calls the two legs of the business: insurance broking and employee benefits.
“We’d lost our way,” he says. “We were trying to build a retail business on the ground at the same time as trying to get the independent brokers in North America to support our London wholesale speciality, and that was a dynamic that I didn’t think was sustainable.
“Indeed, I questioned whether we had the money to build out a retail business in North America. We had some core borrowing that was starting to look expensive and was not necessarily delivering any returns, so I took the decision to get out of North America and to restructure our London market business.”
It worked. Burke streamlined the business and brought several operations together to create JLT Re, a reinsurance broker that forms a central plank of his ambitions and is already the fourth largest in the world.
Going forward, the focus is on continuing to grow the business, in its many elements, and to take on the big three brokers, Aon, Marsh and Willis. He doesn’t say it specifically, but you get the feeling that he won’t sleep easy until he has changed the pecking order at the very top of the market. Indeed, he admits: “I have an ambition that I have started to articulate to my colleagues, and that’s around the size, scale and importance of JLT. I will not feel that I have really achieved what I set out to do until I realise that ambition.”
Characteristically, the small matter of a “once in a generation” recession doesn’t faze Burke – “it makes our jobs harder but it doesn’t knock us off track or delay us” – and he seems gleefully ready to benefit from last year’s Aon Benfield merger.
JLT has already hired a number of Aon’s big hitters, including Jonathan Palmer Brown, and there could well be more announcements on the horizon. “Any consolidation in the reinsurance space was going to benefit us, so we were pleased to see it,” he says diplomatically. “Palmer Brown and others will add a great deal to this organisation – I expect them to attract clients and staff.” Perhaps if that tape recorder was off again, he’d say more.
So Burke has benefited from Aon buying Benfield. Is he going to get out the cheque book any time soon? “Will we buy a reinsurance firm? It’s possible, if we felt they were a good fit,” he says. And what about in the insurance space? After all, JLT’s drawn-out and ultimately unsuccessful flirtation with Health Lambert is a matter of public record.
“You never want to say never, but we don’t need to do any such deal. We have the firepower if we want to do it, and I’m sure we will continue to be observant, but I think values are still inflated and therefore at levels that we would not want to pay.” Watch this space, then.
It’s hard to imagine Burke has time for anything outside work and plotting the next move in his bid for global domination, but he is an enthusiastic breeder of race horses. “We’ve had some great successes, but I want more,” he says, unsurprisingly. “I would like to think one day it could be self-funding – but then, I’m an optimist.”
He also, as everyone in the market knows, has a brother: Benedict Burke, chief executive of loss adjuster Crawford. “We lost our dad this summer; we were both very close to him,” Burke says quietly. “So Ben and I will have to rely on each other a bit more. We have never been rivals – we have always been the best of friends.”
Burke doesn’t open up too easily, but it’s not hard to see the warmth and humour that lie under his professional and occasionally dismissive manner. You get the sense there’s a lot he doesn’t say. You also get the sense of being in front of a truly impressive business leader: one who knows exactly what he wants, and sets out methodically and unerringly to get it. For JLT, it’s lucky he did. IT