The new chief executive of Aon is determined to lead the UK arm of the world’s largest broker from the front. ‘There’s nothing I like better than being out there,’ he tells Danny Walkinshaw. He’s even set up a ‘followship’ to make sure staff tread the same path

Rob Brown is a little different from his Aon predecessor Peter Harmer. For starters, he’s a bulldozer of a man who today is waving a Japanese martial arts kendo stick around his small office in the City’s Devonshire Square as if it’s a light sabre from Star Wars.

The 43-year-old explains it was given to him by Harmer, who left the chief executive’s chair in June citing personal reasons, in a mini handing-over-of-power ceremony. “I am bigger and fatter and potentially louder,” he says, putting down an immediate marker to distance his style from his more measured Australian predecessor. And, what’s more, he plans to set up a “followship” for thousands of Aon staff – but more of that in a moment.

Tweaks in strategy

Today, Brown wants to explain that it will be his enthusiasm and unique brand of leadership style that will define his time at the top of the broking giant. He says Aon’s core strategy is to remain largely unchanged, though he will be making some tweaks: his predecessor’s plans for a roots-up, organisational restructure are being shelved, and instead Brown will be looking at shaking things up from the top down.

Brown is not as polished or as slick as Harmer. He pauses for long periods before answering questions and can even seem a little bumbling. But he’s likeable and his enthusiasm shines through – although you can’t help feeling that he’s going to need it.

He’s just back from a holiday of sun and theme parks in Florida, something that will stand him in good stead for the ride ahead in the Aon hot seat. After all, it’s already been a rollercoaster 12 months for the world’s largest broker.

Aon has endured the fall-out from a record-breaking £5.25m FSA fine for failings in its anti-corruption and bribery measures, and a controversial overhaul of its pension scheme; it has taken over the shirt sponsorship of Manchester United from AIG in a reported £80m megadeal; and it is still orchestrating the integration of reinsurance broker Benfield after a £844m merger.

Its numbers make for interesting reading too. Total revenues have decreased 4% to $1.9bn (£1.14bn) following foreign currency fluctuations in the second quarter of this year, while the 69% decline in its investment income has been partially offset by a 7% increase from acquisitions, primarily Benfield, net of dispositions.

But what’s all this “followship” business? It may sound like something from the Lord of the Rings or an American cult, but Brown says that it’s simply about engaging Aon staff to drive his own style of leadership through the company. (Staffers will be pleased to note that he plans to build an incentive system giving them access to corporate boxes at Old Trafford this season.)

“My style is quite engaging,” he says. “I lead from the front. There is nothing I like better than being out there wrestling with an issue for a client or discussing with the market how we can do something better together. I am an open kind of person.”

Brown, born in New Zealand and raised in Hong Kong and South Africa, has been with Aon for eight years (he will keep his oversight of Aon’s Corporate & Affinity business) after an entire career in insurance, including stints in Asia and Switzerland.

He hints heavily at bringing in new faces, admitting that he is currently reviewing the roles close to him. David Mead, Aon’s chief operating officer until he left to “pursue other interests” last month, has left a hole that Brown is keen to fill. “If I look at the top table, instinctively I could probably do with a very strong operator so that I can spend as much time creating the followship, making sure the strategy is understood by everyone.

“David Mead’s departure does create an opportunity,” he hints once again. “I’ve got a few months to check to see how people behave and what goes on. But I feel very comfortable and if we do see the opportunity, we will take it.”

So why will Harmer’s planned restructuring now not take place? “I’m not so sure restructuring is a name that does it justice,” Brown counters.

“I look at it very simply as building a broking capability that allows our clients to access the best and write markets for them irrespective of where they sit.”

He explains that Harmer needed to take hard decisions to get the business fit for the tough times. “If I look at the overall result and how it has improved over Peter’s tenure, it is significant … you don’t get that improvement without having a greater sense of unity.

“You don’t necessarily need to change the structure. At the end of the day it is down to the people, which is why I want to create the followship, so we can reach our potential.”

“Never say never” to acquisitions

There he goes again. But as head of the world’s largest broker, all eyes are on his next move and whether his top-down people overhaul is a smokescreen for the next major deal. Brown says that acquisitions are not on the radar but “never say never”.

He has experience of working across many Aon divisions. He also now has the ear of Ted Devine, the Aon Risk Services president in the US, with whom he plans to expand a global broking capability – with a little help from internal inspector in chief, chairman Paul Manduca.

Part of Brown’s remit will be to safeguard Aon’s position. The fact that he is relatively unknown doesn’t faze him. “I don’t think you will ever get the experience of doing a job until you are in a job,” he says with a bemused look. “Martin South [Marsh chief executive]: did he have the experience? Brendan [McManus at Willis]: did he have the experience? I think you just look alongside that.

“I’m comfortable, the board’s comfortable, Chicago’s comfortable – I’ve never failed on a single thing in my life. I want to look back in three to five years very positively on what they and I have been able to achieve.

“Every day I like to go home and say, yeah, hey, I earned my salary and I added value to the company. We are on the right track.” If Brown doesn’t, he may be handing over the kendo stick a lot sooner than he thinks.

See story: New Aon head plans to start at the top in company review