Even for the industry’s high-flyers, the rat race can lose appeal after a while. We talk to Aviva’s John Kitson and others like him who are venturing beyond the boardroom
“I’m in Wales at the moment, on a powerboat course – but I’d love to have a chat this evening or tomorrow morning.”
So runs a chirpy answerphone message from Chris Blackham, one-time chief executive of Layton Blackham, in response to a request for an interview on what high-flyers do when they give up the day job. And there’s the answer.
Since selling his business – now part of Bluefin – to AXA in January 2007, and stepping aside when Stuart Reid became sole chief executive a year later, Blackham has been living the proverbial life of Riley. As well as the powerboat course, he has skippered a boat around the British Virgin Islands, cycled across India, played a weekly game of golf with a professional opponent; and found a bit of spare time to raise funds for an international children’s charity.
Meanwhile, John Kitson’s surprise announcement last week from the top broker-facing job at the UK’s largest insurer, Aviva, added another name to the ever growing list of industry bosses who have dropped off the scene. Kitson has sworn that he will never take on another corporate role: instead, he plans to spend his time fishing, writing, and watching football.
By his own admission, Kitson has had a tough 18 months. Not only has he overseen one of the biggest rebrands in corporate history – from Norwich Union to Aviva – he has also been at the forefront of the insurer’s often bitter negotiations with the larger brokers as it seeks to restore some equilibrium to the market.
“Work-life balance is incredibly important to me,” he told Insurance Times last week. “I’ve overstepped the mark in the past 18 months and I am in the fortunate position to be able to say ‘enough is enough’.”
So what kind of life does Kitson have to look forward to – and what have some of his predecessors found to fill their time?
Blackham is an excellent example of when it all goes right: relaxed and cheery, he hasn’t looked back, he says. But it wasn’t always like that. “For the first few months, there’s a loss there,” he admits. “It’s almost like a death in the family. You are so used to being pivotal to everything that goes on, and then suddenly the phone’s not ringing anymore. And you look forward to being with your family, but for them, life goes on. They can’t just drop everything. “
Then he breaks off to laugh and recalls: “The first thing I said to my wife was, ‘Where do you want to go? Let’s go away for six months.’ She said: ‘We’ve got children, we’ve got horses – and I’ve got a life.’”
But Blackham has come a long way since then. In fact, as soon as summer started and he got used to being the master of his own time, he put together a long list of things he had always wanted to do – and hasn’t had a dull moment since.
One thing still rankles, though. History is always told by the victor, and when people step out of the limelight, they rarely speak publicly about the reasons for their departure, leaving others to fill in the gaps.
Blackham complains that people still talk about him being “demoted” from Bluefin, or passed over for the top job, which was between him and fellow co-chief executives Reid and Paul Meehan. “The truth of the matter is that I chose to leave,” he says. “Running a big international company wasn’t for me at that time. We all sat down and I said, ‘I don’t want to do this’.”
So that sets the record straight; something which Blackham says he has never bothered to do before. He is rare in his willingness to talk, both about his departure from the scene and his life since. Insurance Times contacted a number of former chief executives for this feature, but most declined to comment. Their lives post-departure are in some cases a matter of record, however.
Patrick Snowball, chief executive of Norwich Union, now Aviva, until June 2007, is another big name who has stayed on the scene in one form or another. He held a board position with Towergate, which ended in June 2008, and was then chairman of Towergate Financial Services, the consolidator’s IFA arm, until June this year.
In February, he made headlines by fronting a private equity bid for RBS Insurance before it was taken off the market. When that fell through, he took the top job at Australian financial services group SunCorp. He even took on former RSA chief executive Bridget McIntyre for a temporary consultancy role there. She left RSA suddenly in September last year. According to a statement at the time, she wanted to spend more time with her family.
As this shows, the end of one big job need not mean there can be no others. Peter Hubbard, for example, who departed the chief executive’s chair at AXA in April last year, is widely expected to return to the financial services industry, and has already taken on a number of non-executive roles.
Can over-achievers ever really let go? Perhaps, even as they are tending the garden and sailing the boats, there is a part of them that longs to return to the cut and thrust of the boardroom. Even Blackham, fresh from his powerboating course, admits that a return to industry is not off the cards next year, when his restraint clause expires.
“I don’t want to be the person doing the thing, but I do want to help others get things done. I might take on some non-execs, and I’ve got a few other ideas.” He trails off coyly. Clearly, life in the garden is wonderful fun, but some people will always be glancing back towards the office. IT