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From learning Mandarin to lunch with Maggie Thatcher

From learning Mandarin to lunch with Maggie Thatcher

From learning Mandarin to lunch with Maggie Thatcher As the CEO of Ambant Underwriting Services – an incubator for MGAs – Chris Butcher spends his working life helping new ideas find their way in the insurance world. But the early part of his career saw him working around the globe, spending a chunk of time in Asia where he helped foster the insurance industry and even learned Mandarin.

Butcher spoke with Insurance Business about hosting lunch for Maggie Thatcher, why he has previously despaired of London, and whether the market is finally where it needs to be.

How did you get your start in insurance?

I started life with a composite insurer having not got the A-level grades that I expected. I decided that I would launch myself into the real world, and joined General Accident, part of the Aviva empire as it now is. I was lucky in that I was put on to the graduate scheme at that early point in my life, so I was reasonably well-positioned versus all of my mates who’d gone off to university.

I was moved around in the graduate scheme to various different roles, different locations, and different responsibilities, and ended up in the City, in London. From there I took on underwriting roles with increasing responsibility until my late 20s, when the Group and I decided that as part of my management development it was time that I went off somewhere else and ran a business outside the UK.

Where did you travel to?

After spending a little bit of time working in South Africa for the Group, I was given the choice of either taking a role there or going off to start things in India or China. I believed at the time that China was the way forward, and I think it was the right call. But the one thing I wasn’t brilliant at was speaking Chinese, so I went off to Hong Kong and spent a year at university learning Mandarin.

I spent three years living in China, setting up offices and being part of the lobbying for a licenced world. It was very interesting from a political standpoint - we had the excitement of hosting lunch for Maggie Thatcher and Michael Heseltine, all of those political leaders of the era. Having done all that, I briefly popped back to Scotland where General Accident was based, and then was sent off to India for a bit to lead on start-ups there. While doing all of that, I was headhunted to join AXA, so left after 17 years at General Accident, which was then about to become part of Aviva in terms of acquisition, and I went off to Singapore, where’d I’d always aspired to work. After spending some time in Vietnam and then back in Singapore, I finally came back to London and joined US firm The Navigators in 2004. I then worked for Cooper Gay and eventually joined Ambant in 2015.

What are the most notable changes you’ve seen in the industry during your career? 

When I left London I’d openly stated to my peer group at the time that I despaired of London because of its unwillingness to move with the times, to adopt new business practices and new technologies, and to really position itself for the 21st century. The positive of that was that I went off to China and saw their 10-year plan and what was going to be delivered, and I think one of the most amazing experiences of my life is seeing China actually deliver on its economic growth plans that it articulated long before. Everything has pretty much gone according to plan looked at from their perspective.

On the other hand, I came back to London and, whereas I thought that the market would have disappeared completely, London still had tremendous strength. So, I misread the resilience of the market, but not totally in a positive sense – they still hadn’t made the technological changes that I felt should have been made 25 years ago.

Do you feel that the market has made those changes now?

No, not at all. I remain surprised that it hasn’t. If you look at individual entrepreneurs and their desire to get their businesses going in our space, that remains hugely difficult. But what I am massively encouraged by is that the industry has to track the changes that are occurring elsewhere in the economy that we’re in. We’ve adopted all of these things – for example, Uber – there’s all this stuff that we can now use, and the vast majority of that has an insurance requirement embedded within it that we’re having to provide solutions for.

What is your career highlight?

The positive energy around driving growth in 22 companies [which Ambant is currently incubating] is probably more fulfilling than any of the commercial activity I’ve had in the previous 30 years. What gave me the most challenges and the most individual satisfaction at the time was probably studying Chinese and moving to Beijing, and then feeling that I’d done something to support the opening of the domestic market. It’s that massive ‘outside comfort zone’ moment.


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