RSA UK’s chief executive faced a tough job when he took the helm 18 month ago. Things haven’t gone too badly – we meet him on the day the insurer announces a return to growth – but the stuffy reputation lingers (pink toilet paper or not)

Adrian Brown likes to win. So it’s lucky Insurance Times meets him on the day when RSA UK, of which he is chief executive, has just announced a return to growth, with a 7% rise in net written premiums to £697m, following a decline last year. As ever, Brown, or Ade, as his staff like to call him, is full of beans – brimming over with an enthusiasm that belies RSA’s staid reputation.

It’s not been an easy ride. Brown took over from Bridget McIntyre 18 months ago when she left to spend more time with her family, so they said. While still riding high in the Top 50 Insurers’ list, RSA had a few issues over its reputation following a period when it was generally acknowledged to have lost its way.

With widespread speculation that RSA could be a takeover target, a declining presence in SME, and a name for being, well, just a little bit dull, Brown had a job on his hands. It didn’t help that his background was in personal lines and that he was an unknown quantity to the all-important broker market, and – lest we forget – the country was lurching into the biggest recession in a generation.

But never mind all that. We’re here today to talk about RSA’s 300th birthday (if you haven’t received one of the plush invitations to the broker dinners around the country or the big bash planned for Biba, then get on the phone now). And to talk about its impressive results which, Brown is quick to insist, are nothing to do with economic recovery, and all about RSA’s new approach. Finally, to talk about Brown himself who, with enviable speed, has progressed from being a ‘who’s that?’ among brokers to the single insurer chief executive applauded by Insurance Times’s own mystery blogger, the well-informed Sid.

But first, let’s talk about the results. RSA put in a fair performance in 2009, given the economic backdrop, posting a 3% drop in net written premium year on year. But given Brown’s enthusiasm for being the best, that drop can’t have been easy to swallow. In fact, he’s rumoured to engage in a little friendly competition with international boss Simon Lee, who until this quarter was leaving him for dust.

It’s small wonder then that Brown is so bubbly today. “I’m more optimistic now than I’ve ever been in my life,” he grins. “All the things we put in place 18 months ago are beginning to pay off – and we’re only halfway through.”

When Brown took the helm, he split the business into eight units, each with its own profit and loss account. He is evangelistic about the success of the initiative. But there have been some big challenges too, with RSA announcing £70m in cost savings and a headcount reduction of 1,200. The insurer met these targets early, as announced in February, meaning the toughest work has been done and now it’s time for growth. You can almost feel Brown’s relief: “We’ve got rid of the hard lifting that had to be done,” he says in his Bristolian accent. “It’s still hard, but it’s a different hard – hard exciting, hard creative.”

Celebration is the name of the day at RSA, which has made a big noise about its 300th anniversary, with more to come including the bash at Biba next week. But does the focus on heritage put RSA at risk of being seen as past it? “It’s always a concern how much you play on your heritage,” he acknowledges. “We’re celebrating a birthday, we’re not trying to ram it down people’s throats that we’re 300 years old.”

Indeed, Brown is keen to emphasise that RSA is changing; that it has more to offer than just its age. “We’re consistent,” he says. “I don’t think consistency means boring, it means people understanding what you do and, when there are tough conversations to be had, having them in a mature and grown-up way.

“The thing that we’ve bought to consistency is confidence, and being more willing to be out there on the front foot and showing brokers that we’re exciting too. You can be exciting without being volatile, and you can be exciting without losing consistency.”

By now, it should be clear that Brown has infectious enthusiasm for the job – but does his main audience agree? Here’s what one broker says: “He is a good man, has done wonders with us, and he does seem to know his stuff.”

The feeling is mutual. In fact, at one point, Brown waxes so lyrical about the “great guys” in the broker market, he almost becomes embarrassed. But there’s no need to blush; few of his competitors would be able to talk that way.

While Brown won’t comment individually on his peers at the top of the UK’s leading insurers, he does make a veiled criticism of a couple of the biggest. “I still find it staggering that people are saying one thing and doing another, the flip-flopping of strategy, people talking commissions down then having a 2% summer sale. It’s bizarre … and it doesn’t do the industry any good.”

And what has he learned, 18 months into the job? “In insurance, you know if you’ve made a mistake three years down the line,” he says.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve made any big mistakes. I would say more that it’s about the character flaws in me – wanting everything faster, bigger, quicker.

“I have complete trust in my team and I have to convert that into giving them more space. The next stage of what we’re going to do needs people to have space to be innovative and creative.”

And that’s what it comes down to, really. Hands up: RSA is boring. It’s not about to launch any snazzy initiatives with fun names and special badges (though the pink-scented 300th anniversary toilet paper has quickly become the stuff of legends). But ask Brown if he’s boring and he replies: “Give me the telephone number of any broker who says I am. We’re certainly not boring when we go out.” You heard it here first: see you at Biba. IT