MM Profile: Russell Higginbotham
Swiss Re’s chief executive officer for the UK and Ireland has had a cosmopolitan career and believes the UK could learn from Australia on regulation and pensions Interview by Rachael Adams
Swiss Re chief executive officer for the UK and Ireland Russell Higginbotham is showing me his daily schedule. “See that white space? That’s the 15-minute break I get for a cup of tea and a trip to the bathroom if I am lucky.”
Since Higginbotham joined Swiss Re, he has gone from managing 20 people in Japan, to 200 people in Australia to the 1,000 staff he now manages in the UK. “It keeps me busy,” he says.
Higginbotham started life at Provident Mutual, working there during his university holidays. He worked in various departments and spent a summer in its marketing area, as that was most closely related to his degree.
“I enjoyed going round the business during summers, but not forever. I went to Munich Re when I realised there was a bigger world out there.”
After three years on Munich Re’s marketing team, the opportunity to work at Swiss Re arose. “That was 18 years ago. I intended to move on after three years but my job has changed every three to five years so it has felt like changing jobs, just in a familiar environment.”
After a secondment in Swiss Re’s global strategy team as part of his MBA, Higginbotham developed a taste for the global side of the business and in 2002 he went to work in Swiss Re’s Tokyo office.
“Our annual self-appraisals had a box that said: ’Are you interested in working overseas?’ and I had always ticked it. When the UK CEO called me up to his office and said they had an overseas opportunity for me, I thought: “Brilliant, it will be Paris or Milan!’ I did not even know we had an office in Tokyo.”
Having made a success of his four years in Japan, he picked up responsibility for South Korea as well. “I enjoyed it but I said to Swiss Re in 2006 that I would like to be doing something else, preferably back in the UK. They said, ’What about Australia?’ which was not exactly closer.”
Higginbotham spent four years as the CEO of the company’s Australia life and non-life businesses, which he says was very different from working in purely life.
“The big product line was natural catastrophes. In Japan, when we used to get tremors, all the non-life guys would run to the TV and see how severe the quake was. When you are running non-life you take a big interest in disasters because if they hit major urban areas there will be a huge claim.”
Last year, when the two CEOs of Swiss Re’s UK life and non-life businesses left at the same time, the two roles were bolted together and Higginbotham returned from Australia to take the new job.
“I have tried to bring a few Australianisms back. We have Friday night drinks now, although that is only once a month because with 1,000 employees it tends to be an expensive round.”
Higginbotham believes the UK could learn from Australia in terms of legislation. “In the UK, people are not buying pensions early enough. We need to make it compulsory from when people start work, like superannuation.”
Superannuation also rolls insurance into workplace pension schemes, an approach Higginbotham believes would benefit UK employees. “By including insurance, there is an opportunity to close the protection gap. When I returned from Australia, I was disappointed it was not in the auto-enrolment proposition. It is the natural place for it.”
But he does believe auto-enrolment will help address the protection gap as companies change they way they offer benefits to employees.
“The employer channel will become less one of providing benefits and more a facilitator of access. There will be an implied obligation on the employer to provide access to staff information, which is a big step in the right direction.”
Higginbotham says it is incumbent on the industry to make people aware of protection. “People reduce their monthly contributions before giving up their iPhone. Our challenge is to get insurance to the sexy levels of the iPhone.”
But he says cheaper products are not the way to do this. “We need to make products more accessible instead of cheaper and we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can use data to achieve that. For example, we take data from banks, such as job, income and purchase history and we pre-underwrite people. We ask a couple of gatekeeper questions and then suggest a product.”
He wants to use technology to make meeting protection needs easier. “We have a few ideas for apps up our sleeves. We work with a company that runs an online health club. If you enter your details, it gives you a health score compared with other people of your age and gender and puts you in a queue. A score of one means you are at the doctor’s door and 100 means you are at the back and are healthy. We will use people’s Q scores to offer them products.”
Swiss Re also has plans in the area of increasing longevity. “It is a big drag on capital. A lot of insurers want to transfer that longevity risk off their balance sheet to us. These large transactions are a growth area.”
He envisages the company growing despite the regulatory backdrop.
“Solvency II will mean different things to different companies. Smaller, mono-line ones may struggle. Consolidation could be one outcome but even in that case there will always be new entrpreneurial entrants to the market. We could also see more reinsurance from companies who want to strengthen their capital position.”
The pressure of regulation also offers potential acquisitions.
“As a result of Solvency II, the gender ruling and the RDR, companies may want to sell parts of their business and we are there for that. Although I have concerns about the longer term, I am positive about the short to medium-term future. I do not feel the need for reinsurance to be on the front page of the FT - I am happy to be in the background in a strong position.”
Born: Cheshire, 1967
Lives: Blackheath, with wife and two daughters
Education: Business degree at the University of Hertfordshire, MBA at Henley College
Career: 2010-present: chief executive officer, Swiss Re UK and Ireland; 2006-10: chief executive officer, Swiss Re Australia and New Zealand; 2002-06: head of Swiss Re Japan and Korea; 2001-02: head of new UK business, Swiss Re; 1999-2001: strategy manager, Swiss Re; 1994-99: business development manager, Swiss Re; 1991-94: assistant marketing manager, Munich Re; 1990-91: marketing analyst, Provident Mutual
Likes: Manchester City, my family, playing hockey
Dislikes: Peanut butter, negative people, lateness
Drives: BMW GT
Book: The Stand by Stephen King
Film: The Harry Potter series
Album: Led Zeppelin IV
Career ambition: Realise my potential, help my colleagues realise theirs and make a difference
Life ambition: Play lead guitar at a rock festival
If I wasn’t doing this I would be…A vet