Insurance is a people-centric industry – sector-wide chatter around leadership changes at Aviva proves how important broker and insurer relationships are

Amanda Blanc, group chief executive of Aviva, has certainly had to contend with some high-profile senior staff departures in recent years.

Key figures well known to the broker community - such as ex-chief distribution officer Phil Bayles and his successor Gareth Hemming - have left or are in the process of leaving the Aviva fold.

Katie Scott_bw_path

Katie Scott

There’s also former UK general insurance chief executive Colm Holmes and commercial lines managing director Nick Major who have also opted to exit Aviva.

These departures, among others, have led to industry-wide speculation of management clashes behind the scenes, with suggestions that there is a lack of opportunity to collaborate or make your voice heard at Aviva.

However, before perusing the nitty gritty details of recent senior leadership swaps at Aviva, it is fair to say that the insurer has flourished under Blanc’s leadership, potentially confounding commentators that are worried about the c-suite upheaval.

In November 2022, for example, Aviva reported a 7% increase in its UKGI gross written premium (GWP) when comparing the first nine months of 2021 to the same period this year – Aviva’s GWP for this part of the business stands at £3.9bn this month, versus £3.7bn in November 2021.

In addition, the insurer’s combined operating ratio is still in profitable territory at 95% for 2022’s first three quarters.

There is also the success Aviva obtained around its eTrading extranet, Aviva Fast Trade. In Insurance Times’ Five Star Rating Report: ETrading 2022, which was published in May this year, the insurer received its fourth consecutive overall five star rating from surveyed brokers.

This was due to the fact it gained a five star score across all five of the service factors that were explored within the report.

Aviva additionally received a five star rating for its eTrading performance via platforms, once again clocking up five star results across all five of the report survey’s metrics this year.

Furthermore, Blanc has planted herself firmly at the forefront when it comes to driving the net zero carbon emissions transition. For example, in March 2021, she laid out the insurer’s plans to become a net zero carbon emissions organisation by 2040.

This includes striving to cut 25% in the carbon intensity of Aviva’s investments by 2025 – with ambitions to increase this figure to 60% by 2030 – as well as stopping underwriting insurance for companies that make more than 5% of their revenue from coal or unconventional fossil fuels.

In line with these targets, Aviva partnered with conservation charity the World Wide Fund in June 2021 and invested £50m into sustainability focused venture capital funds in December 2021.

In February 2022, the insurer confirmed that it had grew its renewable energy portfolio to be more than 150% of the size of the fossil fuel power generation book it exited in 2019.

Blanc herself became non-executive director at energy firm BP in September 2022, hoping to support the company’s ambitions to cut its fossil fuel production while expanding its clean energy operations.

If we also think back to Blanc’s appointment in July 2020, she was very swift to subsequently announce a new strategy for the insurer that focused on the UK, Ireland and Canada markets, which led to the divestment of other global arms that did not adhere to this renewed action plan.

This new strategy has played out well in terms of the London Stock Exchange - Aviva’s shares have improved from 342.52p on 26 November 2021 to 455.10p on 24 November 2022, correct at the time of writing.

Movers and shakers

Blanc is certainly a woman with a plan – and, so far, these plans appear to be bearing fruit. But there still remains industry concern at the scale of Aviva’s senior management changes.

The start of the exodus came in April 2021 when chief distribution officer Phil Bayles left Aviva to join broker Ardonagh Advisory Holdings in the newly created position of chief commercial officer.

And now, around 18 months later, Bayles’ replacement – Gareth Hemming – has also confirmed that he will be leaving the UK’s largest insurer at the end of 2022.

He told me over LinkedIn that he is yet to decide what his next role will be post-Aviva. He also declined to comment on his departure.

Let’s also not forget Colm Holmes, Aviva’s former chief executive of UK general insurance.

After working for the insurer for nearly eight years, Holmes quit shortly after Bayles - in May 2021 - to instead head up Allianz Holdings following prior boss Jon Dye confirming his own departure and move to Hiscox UK.

Holmes was replaced by Adam Winslow, Aviva’s previous chief executive of international markets.

More recently, in August 2022, Aviva’s commercial lines managing director Nick Major confirmed his planned departure from the insurer after a five-year tenure. At the same time, managing director of Aviva Private Clients (APC) Simon Mobey announced his proposed retirement, scheduled to commence at the end of 2022.

Also in August, Alison Rayner – Aviva’s group compliance and financial crime risks director – revealed she was joining Allianz in the newly created role of chief compliance and corporate affairs officer. This position will be effective from February 2023.

To mitigate the impact of these changes, some equally high profile hires are being brought in.

For example, Zurich’s head of retail David Martin will be leaving his role after a three and a half-year tenure in order to join Aviva in early 2023. Martin is set to replace Hemming.

Working alongside Martin to fulfil Hemming’s myriad responsibilities is Ryan Birbeck, Aviva’s distribution director for regional brokers, and Michael Yabantu, director of mid-market, schemes and regional speciality.

Birbeck joined Aviva in May 2022 after working more than 16 years at Axa, while existing Aviva staffer Yabantu was promoted from development director into his current position last month (October 2022).

Insurance Times is pencilling in interviews with both Birbeck and Yabantu, so we’ll be able to reveal their plans and priorities in due course.

I approached Aviva to get its take on the raft of recent moves. Winslow responded: “In the last two years, the performance and prospects of Aviva have been transformed. This has only been possible through a clear strategy, strong leadership and teamwork from across the business.

”This has inevitably involved making changes to our senior team as we refocused Aviva. We now have a refreshed and stronger management team, a much more dynamic, performance focused business culture and we are building clear trading momentum.

”Our UK general insurance business has shifted gear and with our focus on customers and our important broker partners, we continue to grow profitably and are confident about the outlook.”

A people-centric industry

Despite the buzz of industry discussions, one thing I would say is the very fact that leadership departures at Aviva continue to create such ripe, sector-wide conversations confirms how people-centric our industry is.

Chief executives and their teams are very much the faces of their firms, so industry chatter about their arrivals and departures in the job market reflect how much brokers engage and enjoy working with specific people rather than just a brand name or reputation alone.

This should definitely be something insurers consider when recruiting staff and listening to their teams. Long-term, personal relationships - particularly between insurers and brokers - are important and although change is often necessary, it can also be unsettling.