Interview

Putting the human touch back into insurance

Stefan Stern meets Paul Whittaker, a Chief Executive at RSA who, as a Human Resources Director, learnt the value of putting people first.

Human resources professionals have had to develop a pretty thick skin over the years. Labelled the human remains department, dismissed as being mere tea and sympathy merchants, or the abominable no-men (and women), HR managers have been the butt of endless jibes. What the profession lacks, perhaps, are some role models a few big-hitting characters to raise HR's profile and self-esteem. The reputation-builders could do a lot worse than head down Fenchurch Street in the City of London to the headquarters of the general insurer RSA, where Paul Whittaker, Chief Executive of the company's emerging markets business, is based. What could the head of a division of RSA do for HR's reputation?

Nitty-gritty
Until he was appointed four years ago, Whittaker had been an HR professional for most of his career. A ten-year stint in HR at General Electric (GE), followed by three years at AXA, the French insurer, and another three years as HR Director of RSA, formed the preamble to his current job. So was the step up to Chief Executive daunting? "I like numbers and the commercial aspects of business," he says. "I never saw HR as being something separate from the financial nitty-gritty of the company. At GE you had to focus on performance and numbers and be a real part of the business." Whittaker and RSA's Group Chief Executive, Andy Haste, have been on a challenging journey together these past eight years. They joined the company at the same time in 2003 and helped to overcome a legacy of difficulties from the merger of Royal Insurance and Sun Alliance in 1996. Headcount was reduced sharply and the business rationalised. By the time the company needed a new chief executive for its emerging markets division in 2006, the mood had changed to something far more positive. "The feeling was, 'we've fixed it, now let's grow it'," Whittaker says. Haste turned to him to build the emerging markets business. The pair knew each other well after working together at GE and when Haste took over at AXA he took Whittaker with him as HR Director. In 2003, when Haste was handed the task of leading RSA back to financial health, he again called on his old colleague to lead the HR team.

Upside potential
So were there any raised eyebrows at the company when Whittaker was handed the emerging markets role? "You would understand if there were," he says. But in fact, "Andy was completely open about it. He would say to anyone who asked, 'Oh yeah, it could be a bit of a risk. I'll sack him if he's no good'." Happily, Whittaker has had a successful few years making that rare move from HR to business leadership. His emerging markets group comprises 21 countries and growth is healthy. Insurance is in its infancy in some of these countries, so the "upside potential" is huge. And his HR experience is invaluable. "I knew that half the battle was going to be getting the people side of this business right," he says. "You don't really want to run businesses like these with expats. So we have a Brazilian running our Brazilian business, a Chilean running our Chilean business, a Colombian running our Colombian business and an Indian running our Indian business. There's a correlation between good leadership and good results: get the people right and the rest can follow." Cass is trying to help RSA "get the people right". The School is an important feeder of technically skilled people to the industry. Writing insurance risk is a highly specialised function. RSA has a constant need to refresh its talent base with new people and Cass has provided many from its actuarial and insurance courses. The company also sponsors a Technical Academy prize for the most technically proficient graduate, who must also display "innovation and engagement with the School and their student community".

Risky business
In addition, RSA has been a Founding Corporate Partner of Cass for the past three years. The company co-hosted the over-subscribed Solvency II event at Cass for alumni and students and provided two keynote speakers - David Innes, Head of Economic Capital, and Nathan Williams, UK Pricing Director, who talked about the implications and challenges of Solvency II, the updated set of regulatory requirements for insurance firms that operate in the European Union. Risk is a risky business, especially, perhaps, in some emerging markets. RSA has a cool head in charge of this important division - one who not only has a taste for growing the business, but who understands that it is his people who are going to deliver those results. HR managers of the world rejoice!

Stefan Stern is Director of Strategy at Edelman and also Visiting Professor of Management Practice at Cass.

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