Steve Burrows has, he says, ‘a finger in every pie’. Now he’s about to dip into several more. . . Danny Walkinshaw meets the chief of the expanding commercial lines network
For a man who thought he was applying for a job as a quantity surveyor, Cobra chief executive Steve Burrows has had a pretty successful run over his 30 years in the insurance industry.
Cobra’s recent acquisition of UKI set it on the way to achieve a foothold in all of the major regions around the UK. Cobra Holdings has several arms, but the two most important are the broking business and the commercial brokers’ network. Both are set for major expansion in the coming months.
Two weeks after the latest deal is announced Burrows, relaxed in his second-floor offices in Fenchurch Street, lays out his plans for the future.
The Cobra chief has been at the forefront of the company’s rise in the insurance market. His modestly decorated office is a tidy, stress-free haven away from the hustle and bustle outside his door.
“I am supposed to spend three days a week here but the most I spend behind the desk is probably about three hours,” he says.
“I’m constantly backwards and forwards going around the City, and constantly in high-level negotiations with insurers. I don’t actually get much time to sit and read emails during the day; I tend to do that in the evenings. Without a Blackberry I would be dead.”
Why so busy? Burrows has overall responsibility for all the divisions of Cobra – the broker network, an underwriting agency, Cobra London Markets, corporate solutions, financial services and insurance management. Each is managed individually and contributes to the success of the business, which currently holds in excess of £400m in premiums.
Burrows, a serial entrepreneur who owns a restaurant in Kent and property companies in the UK and Spain, is relaxed for a man with so many responsibilities.
Strong management team
“I have a finger in every pie so if it all goes wrong it must be my fault,” he laughs. “Luckily we have a very strong management team. I oversee every company and sit as either the chairman or chief executive on every company’s board, and I manage all the directors.
“I’m also involved with marketing, acquisitions, banks, accountants, lawyers, stock brokers, investors and press – so it keeps me going.”
As if this were not enough, Cobra Holdings plans to acquire eight broking business every year.
Burrows says there is no shortage of acquisition targets – ten are on the go at the moment – and reckons the network can integrate a new broker every six weeks. But he finds that the whole process lasts for three or four months.
The Cobra Network is also thriving: Burrows is now looking north of the border. And, like the acquisitions programme, the operation to recruit brokers is continuous – the network markets to about 250 brokers a week, and calls 50 a week to explain the concept.
“There is no limit to what we can take on,” he insists.
“Even insurers are starting to push certain brokers our way as they would be better off in a network and better protected than they would be with a telephone service out of Hull.”
Burrows would bring energy and determination to whatever he took on – the insurance market is lucky to have him.
“Of course, people said that we failed to float. But we did not fail, we chose not to reduce our price.
As a fresh-faced youngster, he wanted to be a surveyor, and applied for a trainee’s post. “They said ‘yes’ but I didn’t realise it would be a surveyor for insurance purposes and not a quantity surveyor,” he recalls.
“It was my naivety really but, by the time I realised, I already had the job. It was too late to go back.”
He hasn’t looked back since. The high – and low – point of his career came in July this year, when Cobra floated on the AIM. “Had you asked me back in January 2006 if we would have floated by July 2007 I would have said no chance,” he says.
But Burrows’ pride at the coveted Stock Market listing was marred by the company’s well-documented failure to raise a £10m acquisitions war fund from the floatation.
Speaking about the experience for the first time, he is determined to set the record straight.
“We were delayed in floating until July, and July is always said to be a poor month because investors go on holiday. When we floated and told the story [of the company] we had a fantastic response.
“But in essence there was a queue of other companies outside their door all wanting to get in before the investors went on holiday. And whilst we did quite well, we were aiming for £10m; we did not get to £10m on the price that the analysts had felt,” he says, without taking a breath.
And, if that were not convincing enough, he continues: “The investors wanted us to reduce the price, but we were not prepared to. We felt that it was worth what we said it was worth and, as we were already in the fortunate position of having assisted funding, for us the £10m was not as important as the float itself.
“So we had a straightforward choice. Instead of having 30% on the market and receiving £10m, we probably would have had to put 40-45% on the market and still get £10m. We chose to say no.
“And then, of course, people said that we failed to float. But we didn’t fail, we chose not to reduce our price.
“In the same way if I offered you a thousand pound for your car and it was actually worth ten grand, you probably wouldn’t have taken it. Well why should I have taken it?”
Quite. It would take a brave man to challenge Burrows, and, as he lays out his version of events, he gives a glimpse of the hard-bitten negotiator behind the charm.
And there are a lot of negotiations to go – at just 47, Burrows is a long way from retirement, but will say that he plans to bow out on a high note.
“I would love to look back and see Cobra as a major and successful plc.
“The pride of being able to prove that you can build something from scratch is what it is all about.”
He will only consider leaving when the job is done and there is somebody better to take over. It is difficult to imagine that day coming.