Rob Brown talks to Chris Wheal.
Rob Brown is chief executive of Aon’s Corporate division, which targets mid-sized to large companies that sit below the top FTSE 250 firms. The division has 17 offices in the UK. It employs 900 staff and has a GWP of more than £800m. It also includes specialist arms, such as trade credit, and acts as the regional wing of Aon’s professions group, targeting lawyers, accountants and other professions.
How did you make it to where you are today?
While living in South Africa when I was younger, I got a summer job with a neighbour who ran Legal & General. I had so much fun that I decided to go into insurance. I started in 1984 with Sun Alliance, then I worked for companies such as AIG, Zurich and Winterthur. I had two stints in Switzerland – a head office role with Zurich in 1992 and again in 1998 with Winterthur to run its engineering and multiline underwriting business.
In late 2000 I went into e-commerce and financial services in the UK just as the dotcom boom went bust. I joined Aon in 2001 on the client relationship management side for global clients wanting access to the London market. I started running the UK broking teams in 2004. This year my boss, Peter Harmer, gave me my current role.
What are the key challenges ahead?
In this tough climate the challenge will be to stay focused on client needs. We need to help our clients, thinking forward for them.
The other challenge is to do with talent. Attracting and retaining talent is going to be a key differentiator. Their skills level will help us. There may also be opportunities after the problems in merchant banking. Is this an opportunity to show that insurance is no longer the poor relation? The best people can be more choosy about where to work and, in order to attract them, we need to demonstrate how we will give them the opportunity to reach their potential.
What has changed the most since you started?
The speed and complexity, particularly around decision-making. There used to be no mobiles and no BlackBerrys. Location has become unimportant. You cannot say the letter has not arrived. You now have far greater information than you used to have so decisions are more complex. Now people will get you on a mobile and they will expect a decision.
What advice would you offer someone just starting out?
Get a good grounding in the principles of insurance and the technical aspects. It is important not only to be good at sales but also to understand the context and to give solid, technical advice to clients. Be committed to the industry and have some fun. It is a tremendous industry and whatever you want to do you can achieve it.
What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?
Going into e-commerce right when the dotcom boom ended. I am a trusting person and I was not curious enough when a former boss asked me to join him. I have now learnt that it is always useful to be a bit more curious.
What was your biggest success?
It has to be this job. Together with the leadership team and all the people in the division, we have turned ourselves around. When I look at where we were and where we are going, it is fantastic. We are winning and retaining more clients than ever.
Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends
Both Marsh and Aon lost people in the World Trade Center attacks and the UK market rallied round and set up the UK Insurance Market Charitable Trust. The trust funds a scholarship each year (for the next five years) for two New York university students to study for an MSc at the Cass Business School and to visit the London market and report on their observations. That sort of camaraderie and generosity makes you proud.
What is your unique selling point?
My passion and commitment for this industry and for clients. I’m not in this for what I can get out of it for myself. I relish helping colleagues and clients to realise their potential.
When you are not working, what do you do to relax?
I enjoy golf and play off 13, though I still have the “yips” with my chips. I have a nine-year-old daughter so I spend time going shopping with her. And my 12-year-old son is a passionate sportsman, so I either watch him play or we watch sport together.
What is your favourite book/film/football team?
Book: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome. It was the first book to make me laugh out loud.
Film: Any Bond film. I like the idea of the good guys always winning.
Football: I’m more of a national team fan
but my son supports Arsenal so it’s them. IT
Day in the life
5:45am I get up. I am generally not a breakfast person. I live in Essex so I have to drive to the station and get a train into work. I catch up on the BlackBerry on the train.
7:45am I arrive at the office. My secretary always brings me in a cup of coffee. I catch up on emails that have come in, or I did not finish the night before. I spend one day a week in one of our offices, talking to colleagues and meeting clients, but the rest of the time I am in the London office.
9:00am My first meeting will concern one of my 12 direct reports. It might be the head of broking, discussing the markets, or a specific placement. It is my chance to find out what is going well and what help or support I can give. Or it might be with a regional director, discussing local market planning, our people or client issues.
10:00am We are quite disciplined in our approach to sales management so I will spend a couple of hours looking at salesforce.com to see who is doing what and where we are at with potential new customers. I phone people who are doing well and people who have been less active.
12:00pm I often ring people who have emailed me rather than start typing a detailed reply. A short email can then confirm things. I believe in getting things done and focusing on the outcome rather than the activity.
1:00pm It will either be a sandwich by my desk or a lunch out with a client or a market. I would rather spend time with a client or a market. It is right that lunches are shorter and less liquid these days.
2:30pm There are seven business areas I look after so each will have a business review. We will discuss the client metrics, renewals, new business, business lost, and so on. We will also look at operational data and compliance. And we will look at people issues. These are usually scheduled for two hours but sometimes over-run. I will have similar upward business reviews with Peter Harmer, my boss.
4:30pm I will meet a prospect if I can. I like to do that and as I am fundamentally an insurance person I can actually help win clients. If I am not doing that I will catch up with more emails and phone calls.
7:00pm I generally leave the office. About twice a week I will have dinner with clients or markets, and if not with them then with a member of the team.
8:15pm If I have gone home I will arrive and catch up with my children about what they have done today, what was their best bit and what was the worst. They are usually in bed by 9 and 9.15 so I will have dinner with my wife. We will maybe watch some mundane TV together before I crash around 11.