Anthony Hilton: Banks need their Hiscox, the man who salvaged the reputation of Lloyd's

 

Walking into the Savoy Ballroom on Wednesday for a dinner to mark Robert Hiscox's move from chairman to honorary president of the firm which bears his name, the man concerned delivered a typically robust greeting: "You are the only journalist here and you are not to write about it."

But I have to because the occasion marked the end of an era and the passing out of the London insurance market of one of its greatest talents. Mr Hiscox has for 30 years been a dominant figure in Lloyd's and the wider London insurance market. direct, outspoken, courageous and above all a visionary who understood before anyone else how things had to change if Lloyd's was to have a chance of surviving to prosper in the 21st century. The dinner was to wish him well, to celebrate his career but perhaps most of all to record the fact that everyone in the industry owes him a huge debt.

It is no exaggeration to say, indeed the former chairman of Lloyd's, Sir David Rowland, did say, that without Mr Hiscox there probably would no longer be a London insurance market on anything like the scale and importance it is today and certainly not one where Lloyd's of London remains entrenched as the global centre for specialist insurance. When Lloyd's hit trouble in the early 1990s, when it lost all its capital and wiped out most of its names it became a byword for greed, sharp practice and appalling low standard of conduct, very much like banking is today.

Most people then thought Lloyd's was a goner. It was largely down to Mr Hiscox and a few others that the necessary reforms were forced through. In particular they put in place a strategy which separated its toxic past from its cleaned-up future and made possible the rebirth which saved the market from oblivion.

Outside the 200 at that dinner there are surprisingly few around today who remember just how dark those days were for Lloyd's. Today, although no one would describe the insurance industry as popular, it has rebuilt its reputation and it is trusted by public and politicians alike. Twenty years ago no one in the business would have dared to use words like honesty, integrity, or public service. Today they can, and do.

So perhaps there is hope for those banks who are struggling to cope with the damage done by the greed and incompetence of the previous generation of leaders, in that time does pass, reforms can be made and reputations do get rebuilt. But the lesson they have to accept is that positive change only happens when key people in the industry are prepared to lead from the front, to confront the truth about their business and to fight for reform, however unpopular that makes them with their peers.

The banking industry badly needs its Robert Hiscox.

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