A master of the name game: David Rowland

Paul Farrelly meets the man who could well save the day for the Lloyd's insurance market and its warring members
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The Independent Online
Guile, clear thinking, purpose, low cunning? What qualities has David Rowland brought to steer Lloyd's of London through bloody waters? The chairman of the troubled insurance market peers in patrician fashion over half-rimmed spectacles, lays them down calmly, then side-steps with a half smile.

"The only thing I think I've been able to bring is passion," he says. "I'm conscious of what has gone on before. I'm concerned never to let the misdeeds of the past cloud what is going on now. We have a great asset here," he adds, warming, with a wag of the finger, to his theme.

This weekend he might well look pleased. After almost four years in the hot seat, pounds 8bn of losses and a year of rough and tumble over the market's Equitas survival plan, the chairman has had a very good week indeed.

Last Tuesday, the ruling council of Lloyd's extended his contract by a year to the end of 1996 - a vote of confidence in his tenure. True, the next day, favourable UK and California court rulings were followed by a hiccup that might yet let US members escape their debts. But on Friday, Rowland finally offered thousands of long-suffering names - as members, who risk everything down to the last cufflink or gold earring, are known - pounds 1.2bn of extra help that might just ease their ruin enough for Equitas to succeed.

He may have lost a chief executive - Peter Middleton left abruptly last November - and sold everything but the boardroom silver and famous Lutine Bell along the way. But if the rescue succeeds, if names pay their debts and halt the lawsuits, all the disastrous pre-1993 claims will be hived into the new Lloyd's Equitas vehicle. The 300-year-old market will survive and - for market insiders and names sick of worry, at least - it will be an impossible job well done.

Rowland, his silver hair showing his 62 years, climbed into the chair in late 1992 at Lloyd's nadir. It was a job, the toughest in the City, that nobody wanted. His predecessor, David Coleridge, had quit after 18 months of savage abuse. The previous chairman had also left to a massive, derisory cheer.

After kicking out the most blatant crooks in the mid-1980s, the supposedly cleaned-up market lost more than pounds 8bn between 1988 and 1992, the result of negligent underwriting of asbestosis, pollution and catastrophe risks like the North Sea's Piper Alpha disaster.

Swathes of outsiders from comfortable Middle England complained they had been dumped into "dustbin syndicates", while working names in the market kept profitable business to themselves.

Rowland, public school- and Cambridge-educated, has been in insurance all his life, but the family came to the business in a distinctly roundabout way.

His grandfather ran an engineering firm in Wales and his father, Cyril, read law for the Bar in 1920s, before the Depression wiped out the family fortune and forced him to find a job as an insurance inspector in London. He rose to managing director level after the Second World War.

David seemed destined for a medical career after studying natural sciences. It was his lack, then, of a sure touch, not squeamishness, that propelled him along his future path.

"I'd look at a body I had dissected and wonder why there were more bits hanging off than anyone else's. I decided I should be doing something I was naturally good at," he said before taking the Lloyd's poison chalice.

After national service in the Royal Horse Guards, he joined City brokers Matthews Wrightson at the bottom, scuttling around the London market, his arms full of papers. A director at 31, by 1981 he was chairman of Stewart Wrightson, as the firm became.

Mirroring Lloyd's itself, Rowland's apparently charmed existence faltered in the 1980s. His marriage foundered under the pressure of work - married to a musician at 23, he divorced in 1991, but he has since tied the knot again. He also lost out in a power struggle after Stewart Wrightson was bought by rival Willis Faber in 1987. However, he bounced back to become chairman and chief executive of Sedgwick, the UK's second largest broker.

With such a background, he was hardly a stranger to Lloyd's; indeed, he was a member of the ruling council from 1986 to 1990. As a broker, not an underwriter, he came with the advantage of being seen as an outsider.

Before his appointment, Rowland played a key part in designing reforms to make the market more efficient, competitive and, above all, profitable, which he has since seen through.

But Equitas, launched last May to bale out the worst hit names, has presented more intractable problems. Profitable names balk at coughing up for loss makers who cannot or will not pay. Litigating action groups, vying with each other before the compensation pot runs dry, have viewed the courts in the UK and US as a better bet. Others seeking blind revenge want the market to fail come what may.

Add to that the professionals - Lloyd's agents, brokers and auditors - playing hardball over how much cash to hand over and you have a gaggle of competing interests, all fighting like rats in a sack.

Not surprisingly, the assessment of Rowland's record differs around the ring's corners.

"He has seen as his priority the continuation of the market. But names see his priority as protection of the members' interests, which is different," one opponent says, citing Peter Middleton's greater championing of stricken names' interests.

No one, though, doubts the keen ability Rowland has brought to get Equitas within sight of the finishing post, with a mixture of carrot and stick, inner steel tempered by outward charm - all aimed at ensuring enough of those who can pay will pay.

"He is the best pilot Lloyd's could have had and very good at delegating," says one supportive market insider.

"He is utterly ruthless, totally amoral and the best chairman Lloyd's has ever had, and he needs all three qualities to drive the steamroller through," says one action group leader.

The timetable for final bills to names has slipped again, by two months, to the end of July, but Rowland still hopes to get Equitas off the ground by September. The path ahead is far from smooth. Reactions this weekend suggest the new package is more likely to succeed, but it is hardly the last word.

Action groups, naturally, want more and, contrary to denials on Friday, the new second round of indicative bills by mid-June is likely to prompt more haggling.

After a series of standstill agreements with US State Security Commissioners, Rowland is sanguine about the situation there, despite the indignity of suffering subpoenas himself.

A first ever intervention by the powerful federal Securities and Exchange Commission last week has bolstered US names' attempts to avoid paying bills. Rowland insists they will be pursued, but a telling comment on Friday - that they are not a large enough liability to stop Equitas going ahead - suggests Lloyd's has already provided for such an outcome.

That, too, has raised hackles among UK names, who would bear that burden - as well as the risk, ultimately - of Equitas failing if its reserves are too low.

As for the future, Rowland has already planned his "escape", but in rather more opulent style than many of the32,000 names who have deserted the market since 1988. Eighteen months ago he bought an Elizabethan manor house in Suffolk, reportedly worth pounds 500,000, but a small multiple of his pounds 450,000 salary.

"There is no conceivable possibility of my going on beyond the end of next year. I think five years doing this job is quite enough," he says.

"One of the things the chairman has to do is leave an orderly situation behind, with leadership," he adds, leaving open the question of succession.