Combining relentless ambition, a reach-for-the-sky work ethic, and no fear of speaking out, Keychoice Underwriting’s managing director is a force to be reckoned with

There's a lot you don't know about Jonathan Davey. Spend one hour in a room with the Keychoice Underwriting managing director and you'll learn there’s more to the man who has spent years perfecting his profile in the insurance market, yet has never spent a single day working for an insurer or a broker.

Behind the big smile and smooth talk is an interesting story that spans from a police force in Hong Kong to the heady heights of Keychoice parent SSP in Halifax. Oh, and did you hear about the time he almost joined Peter Cullum’s Towergate empire?

There’s even a touch of Old Big ’Ead (the late, outspoken former football manager Brian Clough) in him, he admits. But it’s all for a good reason, he says, more of which we'll get to later.

Meeting with Insurance Times just days after opening the doors to his most recent venture, Keychoice Underwriting (as reported in Insurance Times last week), Davey has a glint in his eye and fire in his belly as he prepares to do what he knows best: start distribution businesses out of nothing.

On the up

Davey’s stock rose when he joined Primary Group (now rebranded as UK General Insurance) to launch its managing general agency Primary Broker Services (PBS) in 2002 and grew it to a business with an annual premium income of almost £100m, and 225 staff in seven locations. He left unexpectedly almost three years ago, the details of which Davey still cannot be drawn on, owing to a legal agreement with his former employer.

Prior to that, he spent seven years at Sirius Group (a company that was later bought by SSP), where he was managing director and founder of insurance schemes marketing business Masterplan. That was sold to Towergate in 2002 and almost led to Davey joining the consolidator, before he says Primary made “an offer I couldn’t refuse”.

But go way before all of this and Davey will tell you it was the 10 years he spent growing up and eventually working in Hong Kong that has shaped his life and his way of thinking. At the age of 21, Davey was installed as a police inspector in the former British colony, a role he describes as “not just a run-of-the-mill police job”, owing to its high security clearance and having to be sworn to secrecy over the finer details.

It was quite an achievement early on in the Lincolnshire-born man’s career. “I definitely think that Hong Kong had an influence in shaping my life,” he says with a hint of emotion. “In terms of life’s influences for me, there is absolutely no doubt that the Chinese work ethic has made a

big difference to who I am. It has given me a totally different outlook on life, an appreciation for some of the finer things in life, and a determination to go out and get them. There is absolutely no way I would have been doing what I am doing now had I still been living in Lincolnshire.”

It is clear that Davey has adopted a keenly focused attitude to life, and has carried it into business. He has his own personal mantra, which he admits some of his staff are “sick to death” of hearing: ‘You will never succeed beyond your wildest expectations unless you start with some wild expectations.’ “That kind of sums me up really,” he says.

So what is he like to work for? “Some people say that I’m quite hard. I don’t see that. I actually think that I’m quite consultative. I like consensus, I like people to do things because they understand why we need to do it.”

You have to wonder whether Davey’s vision for doing business is one of the reasons he left Primary after five years. Since his departure, the company has undergone massive transformation: PBS was merged with fellow Primary Group subsidiary Longhawk, and insurers including AXA withdrew their support, while Davey’s successor Tim Rolfe resigned earlier this year.

Davey describes his exit as “largely amicable” and is “happy to have moved on”. But he admits: “At the time, I felt sad on the one hand because it was disappointing to see that some of the directions we had taken the business in were not going to be fulfilled. That wasn’t about me personally; it was about leaving behind a bunch of really good people and not being comfortable with the direction that I saw the business was then going to be heading in. But equally, I?felt excitement, because I knew what I was going to. I had another new opportunity to start something fresh, and that excited me.”

Davey’s also keen to point out that a number of former Primary staff have approached him for jobs. “From my perspective, that’s a pretty firm testament, given that some of them were actually made redundant from Primary; to come back and say ‘Jonathan’s the one we believe in, the one we trust, and the one we back’.”

The right kind of MGA

After six months in the garden spent considering his options, as well as arranging his October wedding (Davey took 14 family members on a Mediterranean cruise, stopping off in Livorno, Italy to get married), he chose SSP. His brief was to find a solution to help support the technology firm’s 900 Keychoice Network brokers cope with pressures in the market. With a £2bn premium income opportunity, Keychoice Underwriting was born.

The capacity comes in the form of three major insurers: Inter Hannover (the UK branch of Hannover Re), Zurich and MMA. “The bigger objective is how we make sure SSP supports these brokers, to make sure they remain independent, service them, and give them something they are not getting from the market at the moment.”

Davey is adamant that the MGA will focus on service and making money for insurers, and talks endlessly to distance it from the broker-owned MGA model. He has a problem with this type of business. “On the one hand, you’re a broker, and on the other hand you’re an underwriter. Your legal and moral responsibility as a broker is to your client. And your legal and moral responsibility as an underwriting agency is to make money for insurers. How you square the circle of being both is something that continues to amaze and elude me in terms of how the FSA sees that it is quite so acceptable. Because I think they are diametrically opposed: they are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of responsibilities.”

Davey won’t be drawn on targets for the new operation, saying that however much premium income the business achieves, the plan is for profitability.

Meanwhile, he will continue to keep his profile high in the market. “I think that if you have a figurehead for the business, that helps the business. I’m not on a personal ego trip. You can’t have a big successful business by keeping a very low profile. Sometimes you need to be outspoken, but you are doing it for the good of the business.”

And what about the Clough comparisons?

“I wouldn’t say I was as pig-headed as him, but I’m quite dogmatic,” Davey admits. One thing’s for sure: there’s no chance of him backing down now. IT