In the last two years insurance veteran David Ross has been swept into a high-profile lawsuit with his former employer, been forced to fit out his home with security cameras after allegedly being spied on and taken on a job which saw him in charge of a firm in complete turmoil.
“They had a quarter of the profit I had expected,” the 49-year-old Irishman recalls of Towergate when he joined as its chief executive in 2015. “I spent a year thinking how the hell do we get out of this mess.”
Fast-forward to today and Ross is hoping the bad times are behind him, or at least the really bad ones. His heated dispute with ex-employer Arthur J Gallagher – which alleged breach of contract over his exit, with Ross claiming they then hired a security company to spy on him – was settled, and Towergate has just been part of a transformational five-way merger. There are also fewer staff crying in the office.
“When I started, I spent 95pc of my time with weeping staff. Then 75pc, then 50pc. Now the weeping is gone,” he said, a month into his new role as the chief executive of The Ardonagh Group – the umbrella company created after Towergate and four other insurers were bought under one holding company last month.
The deal, which brings Towergate together with insurers Autonet, Chase Templeton, Ryan Direct and Price Forbes, puts Ross in charge of 5,000 staff and around £500m in annual revenues. It is behind thousands of insurance policies including more white vans than any insurer in the UK as well as one in three GP surgeries.
“The insurance industry has been on the bones of its ass but, unlike the banks, it has pulled itself together,” Ross said, hopeful of the enlarged firm’s future. “Investors said this was the last big private company of any size in the UK insurance industry. It might have been the worst house on the best street, but it was the last house available on that street.”
While things are looking up – Ross said he’d consider an initial public offering or sale of the enlarged group once it becomes a “monster” next year – things still went dramatically wrong at Towergate, which had to be rescued by its bondholders in 2015. Its mistakes serve as a warning to any deal hungry business.
“They were obsessed with acquisitions – to the uneducated it looked like a top story,” he recalls of the years before its rescue. “But when you stop buying, it catches up with you. They had a lot more people than needed because it was so incredibly inefficient.”
When Ross took over, the company had no less than 1,000 bank accounts – “it had bought 300 companies without worrying about integration,” he explains – and an IT system so nightmarish that the firm had a server for every four members of staff.
The eureka moment came when he asked a member of staff in the accounts team why she had a laminated card stuck to her screen with 60 different login details.
“She told me it could take her four hours to find where to deposit a £14 cheque,” he said. “That’s when I realised what was wrong with the company. What used to take four hours now takes three minutes.”
While the problems were plenty, Ross claims to relish a challenge – hence why he joined Towergate in the first place (though he admits he didn’t quite realise the extent of the mess). It would be no surprise if the public spat involving Gallagher made him even more determined.
But despite the stresses from the last few years, it was an experience from 30 years ago – when the HR director of an insurance company in Ireland called Ross unhireable – which really motivates him.
“He said look, I see a kid with no direction, and if I let you work here for free I’d be overpaying you,” Ross recalls, adding that when he was running a division some years later he got a boat back to Ireland and confronted him. “I don’t think you can ever forget what it’s like to be young, trying to find something. I resent that guy to this day.”
It was that experience that made him notice 23-year old Omar Bashir holding a cardboard sign advertising his skills at Cannon Street station three years ago.
“I thought how would I feel, if I was 19 or 20, holding up this piece of cardboard,” Ross remembers. “He was given just two business cards that day – one from me, and one from the Bank of England’s director of statistics.
“I ripped up the other business card and told him he got the job because anybody who’s going to stand in front of 100,000 people is hungry enough to work in this company. He’s been a rockstar ever since.”
With the stress of the last few years now largely over – “I was worrying my life away,” Ross admits – he wants his staff to stay humble as the business gets bigger, with nobody to behave like the HR director that knocked his confidence when he was an unemployed teenager.
“Everybody knows that person. When this company gets stronger, i’ll tell my staff not to forget that. Don’t abuse that position,” he said. “I told him [some years later] – you’re the reason I emigrated – I’m the youngest director in the history of this company, but you told me I was only fit for digging holes. I’m going to use you as an example of how a company looks when things go wrong.”
East Sussex, on a farm with 80 pedigree cattle
Land Rover with the kids, two seater on the weekend
Farming, family, flying, fast cars
Franciscan College Gormanston
Emigrating from Ireland to London to 1989