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?
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
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".
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.