Employing 14,500 people – 6,500 of them in the UK – across 50 countries, Howden Group is a towering presence within the insurance sector.
Mr Howden has created the largest insurance broker in the UK – and the biggest operator outside of the US – through a series of shrewd acquisitions, turbo-charged by private equity investment from General Atlantic and Hg Capital alongside funding from Canadian pension fund CDPQ.
Yet Howden Group is the UK’s fifth-largest employee-owned business, with 4,500 employees owning 35pc of the company.
“Employee ownership is amazing,” Mr Howden said. “We’ve built a business around people.”
The buy-in from staff has helped foster a positive culture without too much effort, he said.
“People care about people and people seem to be having fun. That’s culture. It’s like within your family or friends, it’s how you behave, how you act.”
“Anywhere where I go where they have got their culture on the wall, you know that’s not their culture. You know they are lying.”
Howden Group’s combination of employee-ownership and private investment is precisely the model now being considered by John Lewis, Britain’s biggest employee-owned business.
Mr Howden said: “We don’t have any dividends at all. All the money we make, we reinvest back in, unlike a public company that would use a lot of its capital to pay dividends.”
The long-standing executive is a refreshing counterpoint to the majority of Britain’s carefully manicured executives. Running a privately-owned business means he does not have to mince his words.
“We don’t make f****** kitchens!” he exclaims when asked about Howden Joinery, the kitchen supplier that shares the business’ name and is better known to the general public.
“They’re worth half what we’re worth. They are worth £3.6bn, we are worth £7.2bn.” (Add in Howden’s roughly £4bn in debt and the group boasts an enterprise value in excess of £11bn.)
Mr Howden laments that his business is not as well known as publicly traded peers such as L&G or Aviva.
“We’re opening more offices on the high street than anyone else. We’ve got a market cap that is more than Sainsbury’s – but no-one has heard of us!”
Howden Group’s head offices are an extension of its co-founder’s personal tastes. Life-size figures of dogs, oodles of artwork and clocks of all shapes and sizes are littered across the 14th floor of the company headquarters.
“These clocks are all Howden clocks, because we were clockmakers as well,” he explained, referencing the Victorian clockmakers who bore his family’s name.
For the insurance sector to flourish, it must shake off its stuffy past, he said. Above his office is a cafe and neon-signed bar stocked with beer and wine aplenty – more Shoreditch than Square Mile.
“We want to attract people who aren’t in insurance. We want to get 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 arguably destined for a career in insurance. After dropping out of Radley College following his O Levels, he started working at City broker Alexander Howden in 1981. The company had originally been founded by his great-great-great grandfather, though the family connection had been lost by the time he joined.
Today, he lives in Oxfordshire’s Cornbury Park estate, best known among 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’ve got to be good at life. I don’t think you can really just be a workaholic.”