Employing 14,500 people – including 6,500 in the UK – in 50 countries, Howden Group is a dominant presence in the insurance industry.
Mr Howden has created the largest insurance brokerage in the UK – and the largest operator outside the US – through a series of shrewd acquisitions, boosted by private equity investments from General Atlantic and Hg Capital, as well as financing from the Canadian pension fund CDPQ.
Yet Howden Group is the fifth largest employee-owned company in the UK, with 4,500 employees owning 35% of the business.
“Employee ownership is amazing,” Mr. Howden said. “We’ve built a business around people.”
Staff buy-in helped foster a positive culture without much effort, he said.
“People care about people and people seem to be having fun. It’s cultural. It’s like within your family or your friends, it’s how you behave, how you act.
“Everywhere I go where they have their culture on the wall, you know it’s not their culture. You know they lie.
The Howden Group’s combination of employee ownership and private investment is precisely the model currently envisioned by John Lewis, Britain’s largest employee-owned company.
Mr Howden said: “We have no dividend. All the money we earn, we reinvest, unlike a public company that would use a large part of its capital to pay dividends.
The long-serving executive is a refreshing counterpoint to the majority of carefully manicured British executives. Running a private business means he doesn’t have to mince words.
“We don’t make fucking kitchens!” he exclaims when asked about Howden Joinery, the kitchen supplier that shares the company’s name and is best known to the general public.
“They are worth half of what we are worth. They are worth £3.6 billion, we are worth £7.2 billion. (Add in Howden’s roughly £4billion debt and the group has an enterprise value of over £11billion.)
Mr Howden laments that his company is not as well known as its publicly traded peers such as L&G or Aviva.
“We are opening more offices on the main street than anyone else. We have a larger market capitalization than Sainsbury’s, but no one has heard of us! »
The Howden Group headquarters is an extension of the personal tastes of its co-founder. Life-size dogs, piles of artwork, and clocks of all shapes and sizes litter the 14th floor of the company’s headquarters.
“These clocks are all Howden clocks, because we were also clockmakers,” he explained, referring to the Victorian clockmakers who bore his family’s name.
For the insurance industry to thrive, it must shed its stifling past, he said. Above his office is a neon cafe and bar filled with beer and wine aplenty – more Shoreditch than Square Mile.
“We want to attract people who are not in insurance. We want to attract really bright young kids who think they’re going to work with Google,” he said. “Don’t work for Google, come to Howden.”
Mr. Howden was no doubt destined for a career in insurance. After dropping out of Radley College after his O Levels, he started working at City broker Alexander Howden in 1981. The firm was originally founded by his great-great-great-grandfather, although the link family was lost when he joined it.
Today he lives in the Cornbury Park estate in Oxfordshire, best known to younger generations as the venue that hosts the Wilderness music festival.
“I love life,” Mr Howden said. “I think to be good at a job, you have to be good at life. I don’t think you can really be a workaholic.