by Mark Chillingworth

RSA Group CIO interview – The right Price at insurance house

Jan 28, 20158 mins
Financial Services IndustryIT Leadership

In February 2013 David Henderson, now Broadcast and Technology Director for the Global Radio organisation, wrote for this title that COO is an obvious career progression for CIOs. Darren Price, Group CIO of insurance giants RSA, has been a COO and is today the first group-wide CIO for the global firm, as it recovers from some difficult times that led to a £200 million hole in its finances and a change of leadership.

“RSA is a FTSE 100 general insurer and one of the truly global players,” Price says from his office high up in London’s latest architectural showstopper building, the Walkie Talkie. His office is like RSA, a blend of strikingly new and the old, with the walls decorated in seals telling the story of the financial services company that can trace its history back to 1710.

Today RSA is known on the street for its More Than general insurance brand that provides car, home and pet insurance to name just three, but in various guises it trades in over 100 nations, employs 21,000 people and has reported a turnover of £8.2 billion.

The RSA brand name has been in existence for almost 20 years, but its recent history has been difficult. A £200 million hole in its finances led to a change of leadership with Stephen Hester joining as CEO in February 2014 from RBS, and he’s aiming to reduce the cost base by 10%. In December 2014, RSA sold its business in Thailand, following a spate of divestments in Asia, Eastern Europe and North America. According to industry watchers, non-core business units are also being considered for sale.

Price became Group CIO in May 2013 and joined the executive committee of RSA a year later in May 2014, following careers as a COO and CIO.

“That shows the significance that the group is putting on technology and the capabilities it can drive,” he explains. Price says his appointment to the executive committee is about growing and developing the business, not just giving the CIO a chance to listen in to the board discussions.

“My responsibility is that I own IT end to end in the business and also the digital agenda,” he says of the obvious growth opportunity for insurance to be an almost totally digital customer relationship. As a CIO you have to understand how the business operates, and digital is part of that business operation.

Of being the first Group CIO, he says: “We are a loosely federated business and IT was owned and led in regions. I wanted to address having a culture matrix that owned the technology, but remain aligned to regional needs with a global leadership team.

“We have made significant progress. Now there is an end-to-end IS strategy with three key areas. First, a market-leading capability of retained personnel and a method for selecting partners. Secondly, a standardised model and taxonomy, with simplified elements for under-writing, pricing and workflow. Thirdly, a focus on our investments and how do we address our legacy and complexity.

“What this means is that we need to have the right design and technology across the group, and we are now in the implementation of that group strategy. The key is to leverage the opportunities of a global organisation and commoditise where we can to allow a regional focus. And we will carry out this transformation while operating business as usual,” Price explains.

“We won’t say this is the answer and drive it through the business, we remain loosely federated, as that can drive business advantages of speed and less red tape. Although we will have stronger execution and governance. This will support the reduction in complexity.”

Price has a matrix of CIOs reporting to him, including Tim Skates as CTO, Dave Roberts as CIO for UK Commercial Lines, Malcolm Whitehouse, CIO for UK Personal Lines and Ian Hood the organisation’s first CDO, as well as a team of regional leaders.

“From a cost perspective, we are not where we need to be,” he says of how his strategy is part of Hester’s strategy to reducing operating costs by 10%. “But working on these three pillars we will get to the upper quartile.”

The Group CIO is in a challenging role, bringing the business closer together, while at the same time divesting part of its family. He also plays a key role in reducing costs, while enabling new digital business models to thrive.

Price has been with RSA since 2007, joining as CIO of its Baltic business before becoming COO for the Central and Eastern European business in September 2008. He was then the Global COO for its Emerging Markets group, where he led transformation both in IT, but also supply chain, operational risk, change management and mergers and acquisitions until he returned to the CIO title as Group CIO.

“Emerging markets was a great development area as you get responsibilities in areas where they may not have the right people, but I had come to a crossroads of either becoming a CEO and run a business or become the Group CIO. The broader responsibilities mean this role has more significance.”

Group technology

RSA has had a long-standing relationship with outsourcing and consultancy provider Accenture, which Price says spans the entire business. Like many CIOs, he is looking to ensure that existing supplier relationships are “taken to the next level” to ensure a greater level of partnership, and focus on business outcomes with shared benefits.

“What I would like to see is that we are doing more strategic work, but with less strategic partners,” adding that at present, across the entire RSA business there are too many suppliers and consolidation will take place.

As a global and federal business RSA operates an internal shared service business, which manages email and the networks. Price is looking to reduce the number of datacentres RSA operates and increase the amount of cloud computing in use. In 2014, the entire organisation migrated off the veteran email client Lotus Notes and on to Microsoft Office 365 for desktop tools and collaboration via a BT provided private cloud.

“SharePoint on BT cloud gives us the security we need and we are looking at ways we can increase the utilisation of this,” he says. “It’s easier to attract people with a modern IT estate.

“Cloud and personal technology is about new ways of working rather than technology. We are looking at bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and still run a secure and compliant business,” he says of the passing of Lotus Notes and his support, within a regulated environment for new methods.

Not only has RSA invested in its technology estate, the Fenchurch Street HQ move – RSA were the first tenants of the building that reportedly melts car parts – has enabled the business to consolidate itself into one London premises.

“People now work in an area, not a set desk and that has driven real benefits,” Price says. He was highly involved in the office move and says it was an opportunity to “drive a new way of working.” RSA has four floors of the skyline-changing building, and is running at 130% utilisation, he explains. RSA still has major operations in cities such as Manchester and Peterborough, as well as Scotland.

Collaboration tools is not the only area where Price is reducing legacy systems. “The real key is that as you simplify your operations, and so should you simplify your application suite. One of the challenges, though, is there has not been investment by the key technology players,” he says of the specialist applications insurance companies require. “We make significant investment in policy, administration and accounting tools.”

Customer focus

“I think the disruption in our sector is doing the basics right,” Price says. “Big Data, telematics, social, CRM are all things to build with from good basics. Care, end to end is critical. If we can get that right and consistently that is disruptive,” he says.

Although RSA is the insurance partner of the UK government’s self-driving cars research programme, it is developing app-based insurance services for the SME business market. “People no longer want to ring a call centre, they want to buy online easily and perhaps use an app to do the notification of a loss and for automatic processes to begin as a result – if you embed that into how you do your business, then the opportunity is fantastic. If you look at the data that produces, it is far more powerful as you can start to sell the right products, digital and data and the opportunity,” Price enthuses of the importance of adopting new methods, but ensuring your existing processes can match the expectations and demands of a new service and its users.

As a listed company on the comeback with Stephen Hester at the helm, the market and industry peers are keeping a watching brief on RSA and therefore Group CIO Price. With a group strategy set to create an alliance towards strong foundations, RSA should be in a sunny position as market forces and technology reap change.