Essex boy turned all-American leader, Crawford & Company’s chief executive is a man of steely ambition. We spoke to him – and his ‘wing man’ Ian Muress – about the firm’s plans for growth and how they’re bringing a bit of cool Britannia to the table
He’s an accountant. A numbers man. The kind of chief executive who drops by your office unannounced to recall and pinpoint numbers in your balance sheet that you didn’t even know existed.
Jeffrey T Bowman, as he’s known on the Crawford & Company website, is an American with an English accent. Or is it the other way around? Crawford’s global chief executive and president is actually from Brentwood; an Essex man made good.
Bowman now sits in headquarters in Atlanta with all the trappings of American corporate life, including US citizenship, Joe Plumeri-style pin badge and a son who is a marine in the US army. But don’t hold his Americanisms against him; they have oiled the wheels that have taken him to this final destination and, despite some self-effacing rhetoric, there is a streetwise glint in his eye.
Essex went by the wayside for Bowman when he decided to up sticks for the USA 14 years ago to follow opportunities on the corporate ladder. It followed a stint at a City-based loss adjuster and an MBO before he went on to land the top job at Crawford, now a $1bn-revenue, 9,000-employee global business, after 20 years with the firm.
Today, Bowman is in London on the eve of a flooding surge that will galvanise his UK operation into action. He is with Ian Muress, his self-proclaimed “wing man” from the north of England. But more of him later. First, let’s hear what Bowman has to say about insurers, the economy, and why he wants his US executives to tell him how it really is, Brit-style.
Bowman has just finished his latest round of ‘town hall’ meetings, addressing hundreds of Crawford “colleagues”. He has explained that the economy is hurting the business a little bit and that financial security is of paramount importance.
Crawford’s third-quarter results revealed that revenues decreased 8% to $245.8m (£148m), compared with $266.89 in the same period in 2008. Bowman blames foreign currency exchanges, the US property and casualty market, as well as its employee benefits business, Broadspire, which suffered due to the recession and high unemployment levels.
The Crawford UK numbers are more difficult to extract, but analysts point to its UK operations as holding up year on year, notwithstanding the decision to launch the difficult Broadspire product in the UK over the summer.
So what’s the big picture? Bowman reckons that Crawford will grow in the USA and in Europe – so no surprises there.
“I see international insurers, outside the States, beginning to look very carefully at the US market,” he says, pointing to Aviva’s NYSE listing, QBE and AXA’s growth, as well as a whole bunch of other insurers looking for acquisitions. “So you know there will be consolidation. US insurers have said they are concentrating on US businesses. That’s brilliant for us. All the companies aforementioned, we do business with. It doesn’t matter where they are, we are able to engage with them,” he says.
“The US market is worth $3.4bn in outsourced insurance claims handling. We have $200m, or a 6% market share. We are attacking that market very hard. We see growth through transfer of businesses from a fixed-cost model that insurance carriers have, to an outsourced model. And we can do that for clients very easily. All carriers have to reduce costs of transaction. They need variable costs.”
So far so good, but for some of the more UK-focused detail, we turn away from the man at the very top. It’s a complicated power structure at Crawford, but hierarchy is a fact of life at a US corporation. Under Bowman is Muress, who looks after the whole world, apart from the USA. UK
hief executive Benedict Burke reports to Muress. Clive Nicholls, global marketing boss and former GAB Robins chief executive, has a different reporting line altogether. For the record, on European shores, Muress is boss. He provides the link from the global picture in Atlanta to the day-to-day concerns of “an adjuster in Doncaster”.
A gregarious frontman, networker and now global traveller, Muress paints a vision of where the 21st century loss adjuster should sit. He talks of handheld electronic adjusting devices, online ethics training, video conferencing, emerging leaders’ courses and Crawford’s own MBA course.
“It’s the DNA of Crawford,” Muress says. “It’s a performance-measured culture. It’s how adjusting and big business should be. And in terms of innovation, what happens in the UK today happens internationally tomorrow.”
Muress is keen to point out that there are specific growth opportunities here too. “We’ve not hit a glass ceiling in the UK,” he says. “There is a flight to quality and there are new stakeholders in the transaction. Where was the risk manager five years ago? Clients don’t want surprises anymore, and you know what? When you get Crawford, you don’t get surprises. We don’t want to be seen as just a safe harbour for clients, but it’s an important factor not to lose sight of.”
Bowman backs up Muress’s message, hinting at wider expansion across mainland Europe too.
“Europe has tremendous potential,” he says.
“It has a population bigger than the USA. It’s very deregulated, but is becoming more regulated. A lot of the services of an international group in the UK are transferable to those countries as we develop. As a holistic group, it is an important part of the strategy.”
So what else is on the cards? There’ll be more diversification into different lines of business. And Bowman doesn’t rule out acquisitions. But he is clear that they will be linked to “personnel or technology”, from areas where the company is making a significant investment.
Call him an American or an Essex boy, Jeff Bowman is keen to inject a little bit of Brentwood into US corporate life. “In the USA, you never ever go outside of your hierarchical reporting line. Ian would never go around me to the board. But in the UK, everyone talks to everybody,” he says.
“What I’m introducing into my management team is more of a European style; more collaboration. Hierarchy is very low. We don’t have lots of layers. I want to deal with the problems as a team,” he says. “I have a different accent; I always say to the guys in Georgia that I’m from the New South.” You have to wonder how it all translates to that adjuster in Doncaster.