As his four decades in insurance draws to a close, Brit’s chief executive reflects on how things have changed through the years and his more recent success in pushing the insurer to new heights.We meet the man who takes it one step at a time

Peter Burrows is a bit embarrassed. He’s ushering Insurance Times into the Brit offices, but his security pass doesn’t work. “They haven’t kicked me out already, I promise,” he laughs. And, no, it turns out they haven’t – he’s just forgotten his own card and this one has limited access.

Still, there’s only nine months to go before the chief executive of Brit UK will have to sign in at the front desk like any other visitor because, as announced last year, he’s retiring at the end of 2010. 31 December will officially be his last day.

It’s been a long career – a 40-year stretch – for 56-year-old Burrows, and a successful one. Man and boy at RSA and its predecessors, he left in 2001 for a five-year stint at Zurich and then on to the top UK job at Brit, steering it from Lloyd’s of London insurer to regional player, taking on the composites where he forged his career.

Today, Burrows is in a reflective mood, pondering the changes that have hit the industry and the wider world in those four decades. He’s looking forward to retirement, and reckons he’s left Brit in pretty good shape for whoever takes over.

In the front row

Certainly, the insurer has come a long way in the past few years under his leadership and that of his boss, group chief executive Dane Douetil. While Brit still sits in the second tier of the UK regionals, it has won the right to be considered against the first. The financials speak for themselves: Brit increased its 2009 profits by 300% to £171m, it reported in March. It enjoyed a quiet hurricane season and an uplift in investment returns of £137.4m last year, compared with £7.4m in 2008. Combined operating ratio improved slightly from 96.4% to 94% and Brit returned 60p per share, the same as 2008.

Not bad for a man who never planned to be a chief executive. “I’ve never had a career plan,” he insists. “I can honestly say I’ve never taken a job thinking about what the next job is going to be. I’m not pushy, but I have taken every opportunity that’s been offered to me.”

Burrows looks every inch the formal chief exec: suit, tie, upright bearing. He has a sense of humour, though, and perhaps rarely for one in his position, doesn’t mind laughing at himself. When asked: “What’s Dane looking for in your replacement?”, he quips, tongue firmly in cheek: “How do you replace perfection?”

But more about the successor later, because today we’re here to talk about Burrows’ career, and what it’s been like to have a front-row seat over arguably the most intense period of change ever to hit the insurance industry.

It all started in 1970, and it looked very different then: “It was clubby – it was more status-oriented and it was more white, male middle class. The industry is closely reflective of the society it serves, and though we’d just come out of the 1960s, which was a time of revolution, still it was a very different country in 1970.”

Burrows explains how, when he started out, pay was strictly related to age, and in a branch office employing 150 people, there would be three dining rooms: one for workers, one for junior management and one for senior management. No popping out for a latte back then. Ah, the Starbucks phenomenon. But is it a change for the better?

“It’s neither better nor worse; it’s just the way things are,” he says, pausing to think. “It was much easier in the old days for people in positions of authority, because employees were much more deferential. If you asked – well, if you told – them to do something, they would go away and do it. I think the leadership challenge today is that people aren’t like that anymore. Your communication skills have to be much better.”

It’s been a long road. Has Burrows done what he set out to do? “Yes,“ he says emphatically. “I think we are now seen as a viable alternative to the top five commercial insurers in the UK. That’s not judged by size, but by reputation and delivery.”

Has he made any mistakes? Here, a lengthy pause. “I need to come back to that,” he says, unwilling to dodge the question altogether. “It’s very British, isn’t it …” he tails off.

So let’s fast forward half an hour to when we return to this thorny question. “Can we say lessons learned, instead of mistakes?” he asks. Well, sure – after all, what chief exec worthy of the name would confess his blunders to an eager journalist with the tape recorder running?

“I would have trusted my instincts more quickly, particularly about people,” he says finally, “because more often than not they’re right, and if you think something isn’t working, then dealing with it quickly is the right thing to do.” He’s learned this from first-hand experience. “Over time, I’ve not dealt with some people issues quickly enough.”

There have been other moments when he should have acted quickly. “When I think of my last 18 months at Zurich, I wasn’t happy. The organisation had changed – it wasn’t the firm I had joined – and things had changed to the extent I knew it was no longer the place for me. Time is precious and once it starts to feel like that, the lesson I have learnt is to do something about it – trust your instincts.”

Well, hats off to the man – for acknowledging a problem, trusting his instincts, and bowing out in good time.

Moving on

With his end date in sight, what is Burrows’ legacy? There have already been some management changes. When his retirement was announced last year, it was also declared that distribution director Simon Cooter would take on the direct management of the UK regions and, underneath him, Tim Grant would step up to become head of distribution. Does he have an clear successor?

There are four people reporting into Burrows in head office: as well as Cooter, there is underwriting director Ray Cox, London regional director Paul Dilly, and John Murphy running the liability and special risks unit. But, he points out: “I don’t have a deputy; there’s no obvious successor.”

So, as well as some “strong internal candidates”, Brit has appointed headhunters and is just about to get down to the difficult business of shortlisting and interviewing. “I’d be disappointed if the organisation wasn’t in the position to make an announcement during the summer,” he says. That will be a good moment for Burrows, because when his successor is announced, he’ll start thinking about his retirement in earnest. Right now, it’s still up in the air.

“I’ve no firm plans and I’m not thinking about it at the moment,” he insists. “I’ll be thinking about it in the second half of the year. But I won’t be pretending to retire – I’m not going to take on another executive job. Whether I’m going to do anything, I don’t know. One or two people have asked me and I’ve said it’s not the right time; I want to make sure we focus on the knitting here.”

Nine months isn’t a long time, but a lot can happen. By the end of this year, Brit will have found its successor, Burrows will have planned his retirement – and that pesky security pass will be switched off for good. IT