Over the past year the broking community has faced some steep challenges – it’s been a time for nimble decision-making and surefootedness from top managers. Here, we meet the Top 50 leaders who really know the ropes
Chief executive: Rob Brown
“Bigger, fatter and potentially louder”. That was how Rob Brown compared himself to predecessor Peter Harmer after the Australian abruptly returned home, leaving Brown to take over Aon in July 2009. He wasn't fazed by the fact that he was a relative unknown in the sector. “I've never failed on a single thing in my life,” he told Insurance Times.
That's just as well. Brown was promoted to chief executive after a torrid year for Aon. There was that record-breaking £5.25m FSA fine for failings in its anti-corruption and bribery measures; a controversial overhaul of its pension scheme; and the continuing integration of reinsurance broker Benfield.
With eight years at Aon behind him, Brown was well placed to lead. He was head of risk transfer for Aon Global – responsible for programme design and placement for large UK corporate and multinational clients – and still retains his former job as chief executive of Aon Corporate & Affinity, overseeing its retail broking activities.
Although Brown said Aon’s core strategy would remain largely unchanged, he killed off Harmer’s plans for a roots-up organisational restructure in favour of a top-down cultural shift. He also indicated he might accelerate growth and push integration at the highest level. In November, he appointed Prudential’s Simon Allen chief operating officer, replacing David Mead.
The likeable 44-year-old is well travelled. Born in New Zealand, he was raised in Hong Kong and South Africa and worked in Switzerland and Asia for Winterthur before joining Aon in 2001. His career has included 17 years as an underwriter. Though not as polished as Harmer – Brown has a slightly bumbling manner – he hopes his enthusiasm will win support for his strategy from Aon staff.
In the news: Back in February, Aon president and chief executive Greg Case set a long-term pre-tax profit target of 25% for its broking businesses, following a 20% profit in 2009. But its first quarter results in May revealed that while total revenue was up by 3% and commissioning fee income up 4%, operating income was down 25% and net income 35%.
Aon replaced AIG on the chests of Manchester United in June, after a four-year deal said to be worth £80m. Case said it was “hard to imagine a better fit”. And in July, Aon’s Chicago HQ caused a stir by saying it would accept contingent commissions, drawing fire from the US’s Risk and Insurance Management Society and rival Willis.
Insurers’ view: Insurers find Aon demanding, but most grudgingly admit it is fair overall. It has a strong leadership team, but the least clear strategy of the competitive big three.
Chief executive (UK operations): Martin South
Having greatly improved his company's fortunes while spearheading an aggressive acquisition strategy, Martin South should inspire respect and fear in equal measure in the UK broking market.
He hardly needed to say Marsh was in growth mode in April; it’s been clear for some time. Marsh & McLennan Companies (MMC) made six acquisitions in the risk and insurance services sector in 2009, has already announced three deals this year and completed a buy-out of HSBC Insurance Brokers for £135m. South also says there is no sign of the growth slowing: “Business as usual for Marsh at the moment means growth..
The HSBC buy has paid off. As the deal went through in April, it reported a rise in pre-tax profits in 2009 of 20%, from £14.5m to £17.5m, and revenue up 7% from £146.3m to £156.4m, including a 65% increase in revenues from Middle East business. South decided to rename the business Marsh Brokers Limited (MBL), but its global brand and a partnership deal with HSBC bank is proving a great platform for global growth.
South is well used to business travel. From 2004 to 2006 he led international businesses at Zurich and was a member of the group management board, responsible for operations outside North America and Europe, particularly in China. He started working for MMC in 1985, joining UK broking unit CT Bowring, but left in 1996 as senior vice-president in its wholesale broking unit to join Zurich Re, becoming chief executive of Zurich's London operations in 2000.
There's a fair bit of organic growth at Marsh too, and it's no less aggressive. In June, a dedicated practice was launched to provide risk advice for insolvency practitioners, which will be led by Willis veteran Simon Dodd.
In the news: In July, Marsh snatched one of the largest accounts in the construction market from under JLT’s nose for £4bn giant Laing O'Rourke – signalling aggressive growth in the specialist EMEA construction business it set up in February.
There have been interesting manoeuvres as Marsh integrates its broker networks. Former Broker Network boss Martyn Denney takes up a newly created role overseeing a multibillion-pound wholesale broking arm. This will combine the SME-focused Marsh ProBroker network and the intermediary marketing division of HSBC Insurance Brokers, which had accounts with about 2,000 independent brokers.
Insurers’ view: Marsh has a strong top team and has proved itself knowledgeable about the market. But it’s playing catch-up to Willis’s networks strategy – ProBroker has ground to make up.
UK chief executive: Brendan McManus
Brendan McManus has displayed the zeal of the convert since he leapt the fence from insurer RSA to Willis in August 2007. Broking is more exciting, he told Insurance Times in March, with instant results and closer relationships with clients.
As RSA's main man to the broking community, McManus charmed intermediaries with jokes and a cheeky smile. He's taken a considerably lower profile since the move to Willis, but has robustly dismissed any threat from the competition and endorsed boss Joe Plumeri’s refusal to accept contingent commissions.
McManus sees Willis continuing to grow, with the focus on organic growth rather than the ravenous acquisition of rivals. He has taken the Willis Network global and expects the numbers of regional and community brokers in its Commercial Network and N2 clubs to grow significantly. While the likes of Marsh were gobbling up smaller brokers, Willis remained focused on clients, McManus said. Indeed, it was the only broker that grew in the first quarter without relying on acquisitions, say analysts.
He can afford to be cocky. Willis had a good year worldwide in 2009, reporting a net income of $436m (£280m), up from $302m in 2008, revenues rising from $2.8bn to $3.3bn. Regardless of the tough market, McManus has remained confident he can keep up the pace. Sluggish results for the first quarter of 2010 undermined that somewhat, with fees and commissions declining 3% in the UK and Ireland, but its second-quarter results were better, showing a rise in fee income from $772m last year to $789m.
McManus has a solid career to back up his confidence. He spent more than 20 years at RSA in operational roles and in 2003 was appointed managing director of its broker business. He's also on Biba’s board and says he wants to “make sure we keep giving something back, promoting the industry and broking in particular”.
In the news: RSA's Dubai-based regional manager Scott Pickering became Willis's chief executive for Russia, eastern Europe, the Middle East and South Africa in May. Continuing the global theme, Willis announced in June it would open an office in mineral-rich Kazakhstan – its third in the former Soviet Union.
Willis has been stepping up its campaign against contingent commissions. Plumeri spoke out at Biba 2010 and a press release was issued damning Aon’s decision to accept them.
Insurers’ view: Hard as nails in negotiations, the Willis leaders know exactly what they want. It has the clearest strategy of the top three and has been consistent on how the company will grow and where it will go with its managing general agency.
Group chief executive: Dominic Burke
Dominic Burke has been a man on a mission for years, setting his sights on the top job at JLT long before anyone in the company had heard of him. He first set himself up by buying back his father's former business, Burke Ford, at the age of 23, before selling it to JLT in 2000 – he never discussed a sale with anyone else.
But his JLT appointment in December 2005 was by no means inevitable. He admits he pitched hard to convince the top team he was the man for the job, seeing off internal rival and market favourite Mike Hammond despite Burke’s limited international and wholesale experience.
Since then, the formidable Burke has turned his attentions to turning round the ailing JLT. The surprises didn't stop with his appointment. He quickly shelved plans to develop a retail offering in North America, restructuring instead to focus on insurance broking and employee benefits in the London market. He also streamlined the business and brought several operations together to create JLT Re, a reinsurance broker that aims to rival the top three.
There may be further surprises ahead if Burke gets what he wants: a reshuffle in the pecking order of the top brokers. And given previous form, Aon, Marsh and Willis should watch their backs. Burke can boast record year-on-year growth. In 2009 revenue was up 14% to £612.9m, including 5% organic growth, trading profits rose 28% to £97.1m and pre-tax profits went up 10% to £102m. He has already completed 20 acquisitions and expects the pace to continue. He also wants to expand managing general agency Thistle to a £100m gross written premium business by 2011.
But there's more to Burke than ruthless ambition and his renowned prudence. His staccato speech belies a mischievous sense of humour and he finds time to breed racehorses – a line he hopes will one day be self-funding. He also has a brother in the industry – Crawford chief executive Benedict Burke – though he claims they have never been business rivals.
In the news: Shares soared in May following unconfirmed rumours that Aon was planning to snap up a 30.2% stake in the company.
JLT expanded its global network in Europe in July, linking with three top independent brokers and taking a 20% shareholding in Polish firm Greco Group for €17.6m.
It also reached an out-of-court settlement with Aon last month, paying it a hefty sum following high-profile defections from Aon’s aviation team to fuel JLT’s expansion in the sector and its poaching of Aon deputy chairman Jonathan Palmer-Brown last year.
Announcing JL T's results earlier this year, Burke said its business transformation project would cut annual costs by around £40m in 2011.
Insurers’ view: One to watch. Dark horse JLT is always popping up in unexpected places. There's a lot going on behind the scenes here – and it’s not only the smart management team that enables it to compete in the big league but some very clever board appointments.
Chief executive: Andrew Goodsell
The Saga/AA story reads like a parable for our times. The two companies merged in 2007 in a £6.2bn deal led by three private equity houses – Permira, CVC and Charterhouse – accompanied by a refinancing deal that piled £4.8bn of debt onto the combined balance sheet.
Permira and CVC’s cost-stripping measures at the AA since 2004 had already fired a national debate on the evils of private equity, after they axed 3,500 jobs and cut the number of patrols.
Fast forward to February this year and the planned flotation of Acromas Holdings, as the merged group is known, was off – another company to fall foul of a new concern among institutions about businesses with huge private equity-raised debt.
Presiding over all this is Andrew Goodsell, former chief executive of Saga. He led a Charterhouse-backed management buyout to liberate Saga from its founders, the de Haan family, and increased its turnover by 80% since 2004. From his 8% stake in the company, he took home £108m after the merger, enough to make him one of the richest men in Kent but peanuts compared with the windfalls the private equity firms made.
A youthful but hardworking 51, Goodsell is only just old enough to buy Saga’s products. He describes himself as a “born businessmen” – the son of a fine-art dealer who learned early on how to spot a good opportunity. He ditched his place to study chemistry and philosophy at university in London and started working in the City instead, as a trainee underwriter with Norwich Winterthur. Ten years on, he set up his own Lloyd’s box, but got out at the right time. He joined Saga in 1992 as a business development manager.
He spotted the merger of Saga and the AA as a good opportunity to cross-sell products to the AA membership – something at which Saga excelled. And despite the misgivings of the market about this model, it appears to have worked. In the company’s results for 2009/10, turnover increased by 2.3% to £1.65bn and operating profit rose 6.6% to £529m.
In the news: Last September, the company set up its own credit hire company, ClaimFast, to cut its estimated £5m annual costs, creating 100 new jobs. In April, 7,000 AA patrol workers, unhappy with plans to cap their pensions, voted to strike – the first in the company's 105-year history. It was called off as talks with management resumed.
Insurers’ view: The UK’s longest standing panel broker is something of an oddity in this list. It’s a fantastic brand but with seismic changes in the personal lines market, it has a lot of work to do to make it pay for themselves and insurers.
Chief executive: Andy Homer
Andy Homer is the closest thing insurance has to a celebrity (if you don’t count Aleksandr the Meerkat). Love him or loathe him, everyone wants to know what this larger-than-life character is up to. He's half of the most dynamic duo in the sector. Together with Towergate chairman Peter Cullum, his long-time friend and business partner, he has blasted an acquisition trail and taken no prisoners in his negotiations.
His arrogant, entrepreneurial reputation is somewhat at odds with his hippie past, and Homer can often surprise people with his agreeableness and candour. This former chief executive of AXA looks younger than his 57 years, which is perhaps fortunate as the recession has dashed his hopes of retiring early. It’s also put the brakes on landmark acquisitions. Instead, the focus is on cost-cutting and keeping the business profitable amid widespread speculation that the model is no longer sustainable.
Last year he announced up to 10% of the workforce could be laid off in the next two years. Along with Peter Cullum, he invested £10m of his own money in the renegotiation of Towergate banking covenants across more than 20 banks.
No one doubts Towergate leaders’ skill to manage the business through tough times. What could be more problematic is its debt of £646m, with interest payments in 2009 of £52m. The leadership appears sanguine, claiming earnings can easily service the debt and that EBITDA is a fairer reflection of the business – it rose from £112.4m in 2008 to £117.7m last year, compared with the consolidated profit and loss account, which showed losses increasing to £28m. Furthermore, Towergate has a key supporter behind the business, Lloyd’s banking group.
For now, plans to raise £665m from investors on the corporate bond market are on hold. In March, Moody’s downgraded Towergate’s outlook from stable to negative, reflecting the difficulties it should anticipate in releveraging. Homer and Cullum are knuckling down for the planned flotation in 2012, which presents the team with difficult questions about Towergate’s high-commission, high-volume business model.
It will be watched closely. While some in the industry might like to see Towergate fail, no one can afford that kind of a knock to investor confidence in the insurance sector.
In the news: In June, Towergate had a big push in Scotland, bringing together five general insurance and financial services businesses into one 100-strong office in Glasgow. Regional managing director Alan McEwan revealed it had its eye on several local acquisitions.
Managing general agency Towergate Underwriting told Insurance Times in July it would be focusing on consolidating its regional footprint following the opening of a new office in Newcastle in March. Plans to be the first MGA with a Lloyds box have been shelved – for now.
Insurers’ view: Towergate is a master of turning a changing market to its advantage – online venture PowerPlace is particularly admired. If insurers are prepared to stand their ground, they can secure mutually advantageous deals.
Chief executive: Peter Halpin
A giant in personal lines, Swinton is almost alone on the high street. Peter Halpin is determined to make it a major player in commercial lines, too, and to take a healthy proportion of its business online – though he insists there is still a place in the market for the old-fashioned shop window.
Last year, he told Insurance Times that 35% of new personal lines business now finds its way online, along with 13% of commercial lines enquiries. Yet the broker is still seeing growth in its offline new business of between 5% and 10%.
Halpin acknowledged he had some big boots to fill in March 2009, when he took over from Patrick Smith – a popular leader who’d presided over eight years of profitable growth and has stayed on as the company's chairman. Halpin trained as a chartered accountant at KPMG before joining Swinton in 1990 at the age of 27. He held several board positions, including finance director, operations director and franchise director, before being named deputy chief executive in 2005. Halpin says that Swinton, owned by French insurer MMA since 2001, is on target to become a top 10 commercial lines broker by 2012. It aims to increase its commercial business to £150m, about 10% of its total premium. But while the company has grown rapidly by acquisition in recent years, to boast a network of more than 600 branches, Halpin says it will develop through a combination of organic growth supplemented by purchases of smaller businesses with premium incomes between £2m and £5m.
Its £50m acquisition of Equity at the end of 2008 enabled Swinton to re-enter Northern Ireland and open up expansion prospects south of the border. This “evolution not revolution” strategy is partly informed by the prolonged integration of the Equity network, and partly because there are few large companies left to buy.
Halpin is seen as a man of the people, as at ease with his high-street staff as in the boardroom of his Manchester head office. He is sports-mad and relaxes by sailing, skiing and watching his home team, Preston North End, play football.
In the news: It's been a lean year for Swinton's 3,000 staff. In December, the broker said pay would be frozen in 2010. But they will be reassured by its announcement last month that while it wouldn't be expanding its branch network, neither was it planning to shrink it.
In February, meanwhile, Swinton bought parts of the personal lines business of Manchester-based neighbour CBR Group.
Insurers’ view: Swinton’s competent leaders have made good progress in the commercial lines market, though they’ve had to a learn a lot. It’s been a harder transition than they perhaps expected. Although it is still a success on the high street, it will have to go all out to make personal lines keep paying for insurers.
Group chief executive: Peter Winslow
BGL may not be a name many householders will recognise, but they will have heard of the many personal lines broking brands under its umbrella – Budget, ibuyeco, Compare The Market. The latter’s profits, thanks in part to those meerkat TV adverts, soared from £11m to £54m in 2009.
Overseeing it all is Peter Winslow, who claims BGL has bucked the downward trend in personal lines broking by being different. Winslow himself is not your average broker chief. Trained as a chartered accountant, he went into book publishing and built up a niche business before selling to HarperCollins and rising up the ranks there to be chief executive from 1990 to 1994.
He left after a disagreement with the chairman. Then, as he tells it, he bumped into some South Africans with a growing insurance business in the UK, who wanted someone to run it. Winslow joined BGL as deputy managing director and became group chief executive in 1997.
He retains the old-fashioned manners of the book publishing world – articulate and well educated, he has a somewhat military bearing. Since he’s been at the helm of BGL, he has led it from underwriting to broking and completed high-profile acquisitions to lead the group into the affinity and price comparison markets.
The model of the business is complex. Divided into six operating units, it encompasses a range of brands – Compare The Market, thriving affinity business Junction, call centre operation Fusion, broking business Frontline, motorcycle specialist Bennetts and claims business ACM.
Winslow takes a candid approach to controversies over claims farming in the sector. He says ACM does take referral fees but doesn't get involved in conditional fee arrangements or the after-the-event market that was slammed in the Jackson review of personal injury claims. Last summer he wrote to the chiefs of all BGL insurers explaining exactly where they made their money.
Winslow claims he's not considering any more acquisitions, focusing on organic growth instead. But his company remains one to watch – you can never be sure what it will do next.
In the news: In January, Winslow suggested BGL might break into life insurance following the FSA’s Retail Distribution Review, which threatened to put many independent financial advisers out of business and leave a gap in the market.
Otherwise, it’s been a period of quiet growth and stability. Winslow doesn’t see why there would be consolidation in the aggregator market – unless Google gets in on the act.
Insurers’ view: The best in the market at cross-selling, this is a true entrepreneurial business with some smart niche offerings. Its reliance on claims could land it in trouble, however, if the market changes.
Chief executive: Stuart Reid
Stuart Reid didn't have the easiest start when he was named chief executive of what was then Venture Preference in January 2008.
His selection over formidable rivals Chris Blackham and Paul Meehan coincided with much muttering that the AXA-owned distribution business would become nothing more than a tied agent. The swift reappointment of Meehan in a broker-facing role at AXA didn't help either.
Reid has proved himself well up to the task and, after more than two years in the job, has silenced many of his critics. Outspoken and fiercely entrepreneurial, he has given Bluefin an independent approach. He has proved he can not only rival the most acquisitive in the market, but knit all his purchases into a viable business too.
Reid is well known and popular in the market – gregarious, charming and a master-networker, though he struggled to hide his frustration when the personalities in the business commanded more attention than his plans for it.
Reid’s 25-year career in insurance began when he joined his father’s brokerage in 1983, moving to Bishop Skinner Marine three years later. In 1993, he co-founded Stuart Alexander, which he sold to AXA in 2007. Along with Smart & Cook, Layton Blackham, the Davis Group and SBJ UK, it became part of Venture Preference.
There was frenzied market speculation earlier this year that he would leave when his restrictive covenant with AXA expired, but he was adamant he would be around for the foreseeable future and still had a lot to do.
He is on the lookout for new acquisitions and has ambitious expansion plans over the next three years. Bluefin already has branches in more than 50 locations, but Reid will be tempting many more brokers to join it in the security of AXA parenthood over the coming months. His goal is to reach £1bn gross written premium by 2012.
AXA’s support seems secure for the time being. Its chief executive, Philippe Maso, has confirmed he will only sell the business at the right price, and that price is likely to be very expensive.
Reid seems to be enjoying life – though he sometimes seems as surprised as everyone else about the relative freedom he enjoys.
In the news: There's a regular stream of announcements from Bluefin as its expansion strategy continues apace. In April, it poached a senior property team from Aon, led by Ed Brown; in May it bought £5m GWP Peterborough broker GM Towns; in June it acquired St Albans-based Gilbert Business Insurance Brokers, a commercial broker placing around £2.5m in annual premiums; and last month it opened an office in Cardiff.
Insurers’ view: Refreshingly independent from its French parent, but could this cause problems further down the line? It does sit somewhat uncomfortably within the AXA group, which will inevitably have an impact on its long-term strategy. Changes within the group must make for an uncertain future, even if there’s no potential buyer in the wings.
Chief executive: Phillip Hodson
As leader of the sector's largest independent broker, Phillip Hodson keeps his cards close to his chest. Oval’s planned flotation for 2012 seems to be on the backburner until 2015, following its appointment of corporate adviser Rothschild. But although he’s leaving people guessing, Hodson has been careful to reassure his team, position the business favourably and dismiss unhelpful rumours. Postponing the flotation won't have gone down well with Oval's rebel shareholders, who are sitting on about £20m in equity and pressing for flotation at the earliest opportunity.
Whether Hodson would respond to overtures from Giles Insurance Brokers or look for his own transformational deal was a much debated topic earlier this year. In March, Hodson ruled out a sale, stating his team were “buyers not sellers”. He appears to be concentrating on doubling the size of his broking empire via a major acquisition.
On record as saying there are too many brokers in the UK market, the question is what Hodson will do about it. In March, Oval completed its first acquisition in more than a year, buying Gloucester-based JL Fisher & Co. But with a debt facility of up to £100m for acquisitions, there is no doubt something much bigger is planned.
Hodson was educated at Cambridge and played cricket for Yorkshire before relocating to South Africa, where he worked for Anglo American. When he returned to Wakefield in 1977, his father made him managing director of the family firm, RP Hodson. By the time he was approached by a financier in 2003 with the idea of forming Oval, the business had grown to £60m GWP. Hodson’s aim was to offer a complete and integrated service across risk and wealth management, encompassing healthcare, general insurance and corporate life and pensions. In 2015, Hodson reaches his 70th birthday – though how he will celebrate it is anyone’s guess.
In the news: In April, it was announced that two bosses who had bought back their businesses from Oval last year had changed their names and signed up to networks – £9.5m premium Tett Hamilton, now trading as AJP Insurance, became the 20th member to join the Broker Network this year, while Wilkinson Rodgers, now known as Waterfront Insurance Brokers, joined the Willis Commercial Network. The following month, less than two years after he had sold Liverpool-based Powell Insurance Brokers to Oval, Eliot Powell quit the broking giant as his restrictive covenant came to an end.
Insurers’ view: Ethical, straightforward broker. A good collection of companies that gives it a strong proposition with clients, which allows it to punch above its relative bantam weight in the market. IT