His wife feels industry dinners are dull, but Reg Brown the CII's new president has some exciting plans. Andrew Pring reports.
Spare a thought for Reg Brown's wife, Shirley. Her underwriting husband has been ascending the ladder to Great and Good-dom for years, but when accompanying him to an evening function, Shirley's cry has invariably been: "Is it another bloody boring insurance dinner?"
With Reg now embarking on his presidential year at the Chartered Insurance Institute, 70-odd evening dinners stretch ahead. It's a programme as formidable in its way as any European campaign undertaken by his beloved Arsenal. The functions are divvied up between CII officers, but nevertheless the Browns will be eating for Insurance over the next 12 months, and Reg is already restricting himself to fish and salads, rather than the Cumberland sausages he might otherwise prefer.
It says a lot for the man's iconoclasm that he supports his wife's approach to old-fashioned ways. "Hers is a good question, and one we all need to ask ourselves. There are still too many boring dinners." For a man of 57, with 40 years' industry service behind him, many of them at the CII in various capacities, this is a refreshing mindset.
So, too, is his desire to think big and create an all-embracing Institute for the financial services sector. "We're only seen as a body to join if you want to qualify, but we ought to be a broad church for everybody working in finance. We've got to get away from this very narrow view that the CII is just for insurers. 'Risk' goes a long way beyond insurance – there are concepts like alternative risk transfer, derivatives and other financing mechanisms. One of the big challenges for the future – and it won't be done in my year – is how we can create the perception that there's more to us than insurance."
Process of modernisation
Brown's eagerness to challenge time-honoured customs will characterise his term in office. The process of modernisation is already well underway at Aldermanbury, the Institute's Thirties headquarters, where Council membership is being reduced from 150 to 49 as part of a programme of heavy constitutional reform. But, though the well-ventilated plans are progressing, Brown is impatient with the pace of change. His plain-talking, no-nonsense approach will accelerate the momentum from the moment late tomorrow afternoon when the presidential chains are slipped around his neck.
The grand idea is that Council reductions should improve efficiency in the decision-making process, as should delegating more to council committees and giving CII staff their head. Brown wants a more entrepreneurial culture to emerge from this new atmosphere of empowerment. E-commerce, for example, offers possibilities that excite him: "We ought to be doing a lot more through the fabulous web site we have – let's maximise this for accelerating council decisions, rather than process everything through committees with masses of paper."
Getting closer to employers, another Brown aim for the year, should also be easier if the CII discovers this new fleetness of foot. "I keep hearing that we don't talk to employers enough, which I find extraordinary – especially as the ABI is only just around the corner. I've been speaking to Mary Francis, the ABI director-general, and it appears to me that CII requirements are as valuable as ever."
Providing value for money
That said, Brown knows employers are exacting task masters. He recently asked if a senior insurer would continue to make CII payments on behalf of his staff – which many firms are no longer prepared to do – and was told: "Only if you are the supplier of the best product."
Fair enough, says Brown. "Employers will only pay if they see added-value in what we do – so we perhaps need to look at training in call centres, which is where so many insurance staff work these days. Employers will not throw money at us like confetti. We all have a duty to raise standards – I'm not sure they've always been high enough in the past. That's why only the best will do."
This will be his mantra for the year – and it may be the General Insurance Standards Council's too. He and his council will be watching closely for what the new regulator's educational requirements may be. As with CII/IFA exams some years ago – a rare example of quick and decisive action – he believes the CII can respond quickly to whatever comes its way.
Getting closer to the 67,000 members is, of course, just as important as getting closer to employers. And so is getting more brokers involved with the Institute. Amongst many other benefits, Brown extols the invaluable networking opportunities that membership offers. "Look what it's done for me. I'm a very small fish – underwriter in a £18 million turnover syndicate – but now I'm rubbing shoulders with people like Bob Scott at the CGU and Michael Bright at Independent."
But the real issue for members this year will be chartered insurance brokers, and who becomes one. Already the question of grandfather rights is generating fierce emotions, and dividing members. Brown understands the feelings of those who say only CII qualified members should be allowed to call themselves chartered insurance brokers. "Emotionally, I say to myself 'Over my dead body will anyone get chartered status without the same process of bleeding to death as we all did when studying for our qualifications.
"The rational side of me, though, says it's not realistic to deny the title to senior people in the industry who don't have our qualifications."
Pragmatic, yes. But such views place him on collision course with Biba chairman Simon Bolam, who has argued strongly in these pages against too lenient an approach.
"We're all getting a bit confused," says Brown. "The debate hasn't yet started, and we've got to work it all through. But certainly there's no question of chartered insurance firms – that's a non-starter."
Clearly, some heated discussions lie ahead, and how its resolved will help form judgement on the success of Brown's presidency. Issues like this, and GISC may spawn others, show the post is no sinecure. Big men's reputations are at stake when they pull on the chains, and Brown will feel the pressure during his 12 months – particularly as his Lloyd's 702 syndicate business will still be occupying at least half of his week, and the market will experience difficult times for several years to come.
There is also the issue of his successor. Michael Bright, who takes over in a year's time, is a hard act to precede. Brown will need all his well-honed underwriting skills of shrewdness and fast innovative thinking to come through with reputation enhanced. As he says, only the best will do. But those who know him – and there are few who don't – are confident that his best will serve him very well indeed.