Profile: A passion to succeed: What drove David Rowland to tackle the Lloyd's quagmire? David Bowen reports

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The Independent Online
David Rowland sits at the top of the Sedgwick Centre on the edge of the City eating Twiglets and drinking fizzy water. 'It is water,' he says. 'Someone wrote that I seemed to be drinking gin at three in the afternoon: I want to make it clear I don't drink during the day.'

Rowland cannot afford to be seen as a boozer, because he is all set to take over as chairman of Lloyd's. It is a boozy and clubby place, and it needs someone quite different to drag it out of its quagmire.

There is little doubt that Rowland will stand out from the Lloyd's crowd. One of his hobbies, according to Who's Who, is running slowly: but he runs slowly a lot. He was out jogging near his Islington home before 6.30am on Thursday, as he does three times a week, and is always in his office by eight. He is close to being a workaholic and, according to a former colleague, 'he doesn't see how people can be less than totally committed to their business.' It is not surprising that some of the more established members at Lloyd's are nervous that he is coming.

At first sight David Rowland seems to come out of a standard City-leader mould: public school, Cambridge, a smooth climb up the insurance ladder. He is dapper, fit (as he should be), perfectly mannered: a proper City gent.

But like so many successful people, he is not quite what he seems. His upbringing was strange and far from comfortable, and has provided him with great drive: drive that at 59 is forcing him to take the hardest job in the City.

Rowland's paternal grandfather was a successful engineer from north Wales, who in the late 1920s had seen his son go through Cambridge and on to read for the Bar. Then came the Wall Street crash and the Depression, and the family fortune vanished. Suddenly the young Cyril had to find a job, and became a lowly insurance inspector. David, who was born in 1933, was brought up in a small flat in Marylebone, one of the Thirties' new poor.

His father joined the Indian Army in the Second World War, because the pay was better than elsewhere, and sent enough money home to send David to prep school and then on to St Paul's. After the war he returned to the insurance world and rose rapidly, becoming managing director of the National Employers Mutual group.

David's career, like his father's, did not follow the path that seemed ordained for him. At 14 he opted for the science stream, 'because saying I wanted to be a doctor produced an extremely good reaction among elderly female relatives' and went on to Cambridge to study natural sciences, still on course for a medical career.

He suffered from more than an average share of self-doubt, however. At St Paul's he was never sure that he was very clever, because although he was in the top stream, he was surrounded by superstars who hoovered up big scholarships. 'It was easy to get a sense of academic inferiority,' he says.

Then at Cambridge he decided he was too cack-handed to become a doctor. '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.' The structure of his course made it difficult for him to switch degrees, so he coasted through Cambridge, enjoying himself but picking a poor degree.

A kidney complaint cut short his National Service career and a possible life in the Royal Horseguards, and he took up an introduction his father had made to Anthony Wrightson, chairman of the City insurance broker Matthews Wrightson. In 1956 he started his insurance career at the bottom, carrying notes to Lloyd's, sticking clauses (cack- handedly) on to policies, and learning every nook and cranny of the City's insurance district. 'It was a funny mixture between liking the community and seeing there could be interesting things to do, and being forced to do some pretty mindless things.'

But, he says, 'one thing that stood out was the standard of probity. At Matthews Wrightson, very particular attention was paid to teaching young entrants what they could and could not do. We were taught that if you lost your reputation you might as well bail out of Lloyd's'

Rowland married a musician at 23, and headed off up the Matthews Wrightson hierarchy. He had already decided that he would no longer be influenced by the views of aunts and others, and although he can still appear sensitive, nervous even, he is known professionally as a man who does not suffer fools gladly.

He puts much of his success down to the help he received from others. 'I made a number of balls-ups, which was very healthy. But I found that if you sought help, it was extraordinary how people would help you. I quite frequently feel the reason I've got on is because people have been so nice to me.' He felt so strongly about this that he deliberately took on other activities, such as helping Templeton College - soon to be Oxford Business School - to expand, in order to find out if he could succeed without a helping hand; he found he could.

Although he had become a director at the age of 31, his big break came in 1966, when the Wrightson family decided to bring in a Scot, Gordon Henry, to tighten up the organisation and beef up profits. Rowland became Henry's protege, and in 1972 was appointed managing director. He threw himself into building up the company, buying and merging, until by 1981, when he became chairman, Stewart Wrightson (as it was now called) was an international broker with 2,700 staff.

According to former colleagues, Rowland's success at the top owed most to a clear strategic brain, combined with an ability to create consensus, particularly useful during a period of merger. 'He could get people who wouldn't give the time of day to each other to begin to work together,' one said. He also had a useful ability to speak publicly with comforting and plausible fluency.

In the Eighties, Rowland's charmed life suffered setbacks. His marriage came under pressure, as his wife became disenchanted with his high-speed lifestyle. They divorced last year, and he has since married an Islington estate agent. And in 1987 Stewart Wrightson was bought by Willis Faber, in what turned out an unhappy deal.

The price was so good it could not be refused, but a number of senior Stewart Wrightson people fled. Rowland was involved in a power struggle with the Willis chief, Roger Elliott.

He lost, and six months after the merger was asked to become chief executive of Sedgwick. 'In people terms, the merger didn't work well,' he says. 'A business I had a large part in building up was disintegrating. It was very frustrating.'

So why, happily remarried, with pots of money and many outside interests (among them modern art and membership of a respectable portfolio of golf clubs) should he want to take hold of the poisoned chalice of Lloyd's? The simple answer is that he was asked and he accepted. The reasons behind the acceptance are more complex.

He says: 'I wouldn't choose to leave Sedgwick, but Lloyd's is the catalyst for the London international insurance market. I passionately want Lloyd's and London to develop and prosper, and Sedgwick passionately wants that as well. And if I didn't do it, what would I feel like in five years' time? It's better to have tried and failed, than not to have tried at all.'

(Photograph omitted)