Former Benfield boss gives interview on first day in job

Grahame Chilton

Grahame ‘Chily’ Chilton is best known for running top-three reinsurance broker Benfield before it was sold to Aon in 2008 for £935m. His creation of reinsurance broking joint venture Capsicum Re with Arthur J Gallagher put him in the frame to take the top job at Gallagher International after the departure of David Ross to Towergate. On his first day in the job, Chilton spoke to GR’s sister title Insurance Times at Gallagher’s UK headquarters in London about the task now facing him.


Q: Why did you decide to take the job?

A: My partners at Arthur J Gallagher needed someone to do this role right here, right now. I was available right here right now. I was only six floors away from this office, ready to do that job.

I have stepped into the breach, which gives us an immediate ability to grab this. This is not what everybody would have hoped for because they would have liked to see some distraction but there is no distraction. We get on with the business.

Q: Why did you want the trouble of what could be a difficult role?

A: It is the business that I am used to doing, In the Benfield days I integrated many businesses that were larger than my own and very quickly and effectively into a force.

I don’t see it as desperately challenging. A lot of the work is underway. In the international division there is an incredible group of 6,500 professionals, who are all focused on looking after their clients and customers. I have got such great people to work with. I never make any pretence that the work is done by me. I just have to be good at leading people and pulling a few strings to make sure it happens.

Some people might say: ‘Why would you want to do that? You could ruin your reputation.’ I don’t intend to. I usually prove them wrong and make it work.

Q: What is on your immediate to-do list?

A: There will be certain people who have worked with [former international chief executive David Ross] who would want to continue to work with him. We had two resignations [Janice Deakin and Adrian Brown]. That was fully expected. We were ready for it.

For me it is now settling the business down and picking the leaders of the future. I am very pleased to say that I have had considerably more inbound calls from people who would like to come and help rather than outbound calls of people who would be going into a business like Towergate.

Q: The business has lost a large part of its senior team. What impact will this have?

A: It is five people out of 6,500. Picking a few people at high levels on the UK side is a small part of our overall business. We have got strength and depth. It is like the Pez [sweet dispenser] system. You pull the head back and another lozenge will pop out.

I can walk around the building and there are 30 or 40 people that are potential leaders.

Q: Are there likely to be any more departures?

A: I can’t speculate. I would have thought it is a really good opportunity for top-class executives to think: ‘I’ve got a great opportunity now. There has been a bit of a clear-out and I should step up to the plate.’ I would expect a few more to [leave]. People will take the opportunity to work in a private equity type environment.

Having dealt with private equity many times in the past, I wish them well. The first conversation you have is the best and it usually goes downhill thereafter. Been there. Lived that. Got the t-shirt.

Q: How are you explaining the senior departures to staff?

A: We set up calls with [the departing executives’] immediate reports within an hour of them giving their rather expected notices.

I have had to move very quickly. It is a very big organisation. It is not like the old days when if I took over a business I could walk in and take everyone to the pub. This is a business of 6,500 people. I can’t find a pub big enough.

I will reach out to everyone as quickly as I can but you can’t do that immediately. But I am very conscious of it.

One of the problems that has occurred in the past, which may be relevant to some of the departures, is that people have been brought in to do roles which have kept on changing, and that leads to frustration.

I want to bring clarity to what is expected to people, clarity over what they can get if they perform and give clarity over the leadership lines.

Q: You have given yourself 90 days to get a measure of the business. Will you suspend acquisitions over this time?

A: Absolutely not. It is business as usual. The team that looks at that will continue to look at it. We probably have one of the most stable platforms for people wanting to become partners. We will look at the right opportunities and that work continues. That’s what I’m really good at.