He’s an elder statesman of insurance, impeccably tailored and well spoken. But that doesn’t make him a soft touch. Ellen Bennett met the man who turned his family firm into one of Britain’s biggest companies – and still has plans to expand. Portrait by Greg Funnell

Standing outside his plush City office, Robert Hiscox is neat, dapper and smiling.

Within seconds of meeting Insurance Times, the chairman of the listed insurer is chattering away about everything from the state of the nation to whether BlackBerrys cause cancer and how GDP is calculated.

Affluent but not ostentatious, with a 1930s BBC accent and an impeccable suit, Hiscox makes quite the aristocratic impression. But beneath his easy charm lies a steely businessman who famously seized the reins of Hiscox from his late father’s partner at the age of 28 and built it into one of the country’s foremost insurers, knocking on the door of the FTSE 100.

He has big plans for the company, which is run day-to-day by chief executive Bronek Masojada – “he’s much more clever than I am” – and reckons now is the best time to be in the insurance game. Always with an eye for an opportunity, he has timely plans to expand further into the US – although on this day he seems more interested in talking about the wider economy and his hobbies.

But first, the banks, about which Hiscox is scathing. “The destruction of wealth has been phenomenal and we’re all affected,” he fumes.

“I have very good friends who are senior bankers – I say they ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

The government comes in for some flak too: “Gordon Brown has destroyed the lives of savers while he bails out the extravagant. If you came down from Mars, you’d think this was all absolute madness.”

The insurance industry, meanwhile, can pat itself on the back for keeping its head while all about were losing theirs. “I thank God I’m in insurance – and it’s not often I’ve said that,” he exclaims, his energetic tones belying his 65 years. “Insurance has behaved very well over the past 15 years and has not had a bankruptcy – and yet we have had the banks held up as an example to us. When all the time even a child could work out they were exposing themselves to immense losses and leveraging them off their balance sheets.”

He believes insurance will benefit from the downturn, with a hardening market and a more disciplined approach to underwriting and investment: “An insurance industry having to sweat its assets will not be foolish.”

Hiscox, the business he built into a global brand, will be in at the ground floor. At the end of last year, it announced a £210m increase in its Lloyd’s capacity as it posted third-quarter results. Although these showed a 8% drop in gross written premium to £920m, the insurer was upbeat – and trading in the UK remained strong in household and commercial, with overall income up 14%.

Hiscox has made public his intention to build up the US business, which had gross written premium of £22.9m last September, up 63.6% on the previous year. He has already appointed 10 people to the American division.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to expand, some very good people have become available. It’s a great market because it’s not tribal – unlike Europe, where one third of Belgium won’t talk to the other two thirds. In America you can sell a product with one licence in Miami or New York.”

Hiscox is not a man to miss an opportunity – and he can see that the global centre of power is shifting east. So will he be expanding in the emerging economies too? “When it’s right. We are doing business, but we can’t plant ourselves there until there’s more established law and order. It can be very difficult for outsiders.”

These words seem strangely prescient after Aon’s £5m fine for failing to ensure money given to third parties in emerging economies wasn’t passed on as backhanders.

Comparing himself to John James Sainsbury, founder of the supermarket giant, he enthuses: “I love selling lots of little – by nature, I’m a retailer.”

The insurer has built an enviable brand in personal lines, becoming a byword for good service, and has had the courage to advertise its quality in a market renowned for selling on price. But Hiscox knows reputation should not be taken too far: “We’re aware we’ve come to be thought of as a little bit elitist, a bit Gucci. We don’t want that at all.”

Hiscox does not entirely convince as a man of the people, but you can see what he means. He is remarkably willing to share his opinions – and has a definite aptitude for self-expression. Take the memo he sent to his staff about the modern art that adorns the Hiscox offices, which comes up when you type his name into Google: “The choice of what to buy is entirely governed by my gut. Just like the attraction of a woman, it is not just looks but a chemistry and something indefinable that draws me to a certain work …

“I hope some works we have acquired will eat into your guts and give you pleasure. If any of you ever want to discuss a work of art with me, I would be delighted. Believe it or not, I would rather talk about art than insurance.”

Few chairmen would say the same. Modern art is far from his only passion, however. A keen hunter, he says: “Walking in Africa with a gun in my hand is probably the greatest pleasure I can think of – pitting myself against the animal.”

If he could share one secret of his business success, it would be his skill in choosing others.

“I have spent my time since I was 14 trying to judge people accurately because if you pick good people you get a good business,” he says. It seems to have worked – his senior team has stayed loyal for decades, although apparently they criticise him for being difficult. “I’m sharp of tongue and very intolerant.” He believes work should be fun, however.

The proudest moment in his career came in the early 1990s, when he was deputy chairman of Lloyd’s and charged with cleaning up the asbestos mess, transforming it for the 21st century by bringing in commercial insurers and phasing out the Names, the wealthy individuals who had dominated the market.

“It was a grim period, but it was fascinating. This huge institution was mortally wounded. In 1994, when those little vehicles were set up, it was inconceivable that they would grow into what they have today. I am immensely proud of that.”

These days, he thinks Lloyd’s has a promising future: “The syndicates don’t have funny investments – they haven’t leveraged up their balance sheets to go punting on credit default swaps unlike our wonderful competitors in the City.” Uh-oh, he’s back on the banks.

What does the future hold for Hiscox himself? “Building a business is the best fun you can have,” he says. “But the minute I hold it back I must go, it’s my absolute duty.” Somehow, you suspect that will be some time away yet.