Barnaby Rugge-Price: In his own image
Howden chair Barnaby Rugge-Price says that while management and leadership both require certain intrinsic qualities, doing things ‘your way’ is the key to authenticity
After 18 months heading up Hyperion Group’s tech venture Hyperion X, Barnaby Rugge-Price remains first and foremost a broker – a fact that is reflected in his new role as chair of Howden Broking Group.
One of the things that makes him proud to be part of the Hyperion family is that the executive team is predominantly made up “insurance people”, all of whom have had lengthy tenures in the sector – right up to group CEO David Howden (former D&O broker) and Hyperion chairman Dominic Collins (former property broker).
Having started his insurance career in 1991 at Fenchurch Insurance Brokers as an international property broker, Rugge-Price moved to JLT in 2000, specialising in North American property.
Had he stayed on at JLT Risk Solutions, Rugge-Price could well be working for Marsh or Guy Carpenter as part of mega-broker Marsh & McLennan Companies (MMC).
Or perhaps, following JLT’s merger with MMC, he would have jumped ship to an established independent broker like Lockton or Gallagher, or a burgeoning start up like McGill and Partners.
Instead, in 2005, he decided to join RK Harrison (RKH), the well-regarded wholesale and reinsurance broker led by Paul Bridgwater, as CEO of its property team.
When the RKH P&C divisions were brought together in 2010, he was made managing director of the combined business.
Then, in 2015, as CEO of RKH Specialty, he successfully led the RKH merger with Hyperion, cementing his role as a key member of Hyperion’s executive team at the ‘super-independent’ broking group.
“One of the things that made my role easier as CEO of RKH was I’d been there pretty much man and boy. I’d gone right the way through the organisation which obviously meant I knew everybody, but [also] it was quite difficult for people to tell me that I didn’t understand,” he says.
One of his biggest achievements to date, he says, is the role he played in the Hyperion-RKH merger.
“We were able to merge what turned out to be two quite similar cultures together under one model,” he recalls. “RKH had a very small MGA business, Dual was a very significant MGA business. RKH was a London wholesale business, Howden had some London wholesale, but equally had a lot of international retail which was relevant to us – so the merger was all about London and, ironically, it was the RKH brand that we chose to operate under.”
Walking on the moon
However, he moved onto a fresh challenge in January last year, relinquishing the CEO role at RKH Specialty and taking the title of chairman as he focused on a new business area.
The boy who once saved up 10 lollipop sticks to get a free poster of Neil Armstrong may have dreamed of one day flying to and walking on the moon, but he was set to lead a very different technological and leadership challenge as CEO of the newly minted technology operation Hyperion X.
“If Hyperion X is in any way as successful as [the Hyperion-RKH] merger I’ll be very proud of that as well, but there’s some way to go on that one,” he confides.
The new venture was launched as a kind of in-house InsurTech operation, focused on data, analytics and digital, with its three major clients effectively being the broking operations of RKH and Howden and the Dual MGA business.
Rugge-Price moved to his current role as Howden chair in July, ahead of the merger of Howden’s international retail network and the RKH specialty and reinsurance operation into a single entity in October this year, but he retains close links with Hyperion X as executive chair.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is bring technology and data mastery of frankly everything we do across Howden and across Hyperion,” he explains.
“My time is spent in helping José Manuel [González, CEO of Howden CEO] in creating Howden as the challenger broker. That’s the nucleus of the merger of Howden and RKH – that we are a simple broker to deal with, and that you get access to expertise around the globe, and our clients don’t have to worry about how we deliver that.”
The other side of Rugge-Price’s chairmanship involves spending time with the Hyperion X team, helping them with some of the intellectual challenges ahead, namely: “How we scale, how we deal with markets and colleagues – and then taking that back into Howden.”
He describes the relationship between the two chairing roles as “symbiotic”. “[In] Hyperion X, we created a business that had a significant amount of data and tech expertise, a lot of which came from outside the industry, and we married that up with people from within the business and within the industry and had them all working seamlessly [together], building and designing solutions that are practical and real, but are also delivering efficiency and greater data capture.”
Looking back from his current role as chair of a $7bn gross premium business, Rugge-Price says one of his fondest career memories is the first time he took up a commanding role, as head of a property team: “[It was] realising I could do that in terms of managing the team, the broking, and the clients – and being successful.”
His awareness of his leadership capabilities grew as he progressed into “a more grown-up version” of that role, running a number of teams as head of a P&C division.
However, with greater responsibility comes greater challenges, he says.
“Inevitably, the thing you have to do in leadership positions is make unpopular decisions. And the lesson there is not to sit on it. A difficult decision doesn’t get any easier just because you delay it.”
This pragmatism shows in the Howden chair’s approach to leadership, which he describes as “hands-on” and “‘been there, done that’ collaborative”.
“It is also slightly impatient,” he admits. “If we’ve decided to do something I’m a bit like: ‘Let’s just do it’. I finish meetings and go: ‘Right, what’s next? Who’s doing what?’”
However, that impulsiveness is perhaps less evident in Rugge-Price’s approach to management. He describes his style as “pretty analytical”, adding: “I like to have the facts to hand before making a decision [and] I think it’s really important to be inclusive.”
“If you’re going to move in a direction, or you’re going to make changes, you really need to discuss them with colleagues – to get feedback, and to listen to that feedback,” he explains. “You’re not always going to get everybody where you want them to be, but [it’s about] making sure that people are both part of and feel part of that decision-making process.”
That theme of consultation highlights another challenge to the business leader however: balancing the role of decision-maker with that of collaborator. Rugge-Price cites two pieces of advice he has received in his career that illustrate this duality.
On the one hand: “A decision is better than no decision. Or maybe a better way of putting it is that the best decision is a fast decision.”
But at the same time, he says: “You have to listen to your critics. I have to confess, it’s not something I particularly enjoy, but it’s absolutely vital.”
For someone who seems perfectly at ease chatting to journalists or presenting at events, Rugge-Price admits a key part of his leadership education has been in public speaking.
“I happen to work for somebody for whom public speaking seems to come incredibly naturally. One of my harsh lessons is don’t speak after David Howden,” he says.
“But one of the [other] lessons I’ve learnt is you have to do things in your own image. There is more than one way for people to be successful and, yes, there are certain basics that you need in leadership and management, but ultimately you have to do it your way, otherwise it’s not authentic.”
With broking revenue of £599mn ($765mn) last year and 5,000 employees operating across more than 90 territories (including its partnership network), Howden is far from being a niche player, but Rugge-Price is insistent that the broker hasn’t lost its entrepreneurial spirit.
“We’re a big company that still feels like a small company. The people that founded those businesses – people who have been with the business for an extremely long time – tell you a fair amount about its culture.”
He cites the growing share ownership among employees as an indication of how engaged Howden remains with its workforce.
“We have over 1,000 employees out of 5,000 who are shareholders and we want to make more. We want people to not just act like shareholders but actually be shareholders.”
As the interview draws to a close, Rugge-Price is keen to reiterate that notion of a team of individuals, all working together.
“I’ve had the very good fortune to work for two outstanding CEOs [RKH’s Paul Bridgewater and Hyperion’s David Howden] and they are both very different. It’s hardly insightful to say there’s more than one route to the top, but that’s quite reassuring to people who think they have to [act] a certain way. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in a company that has always valued my opinions.”