Henry Engelhardt: The boss who likes his staff to have fun

By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News

image copyrightAdmiral

If you need a strict, no-nonsense management style to successfully lead a multinational company, no-one appears to have ever told Henry Engelhardt.

The founder and chief executive of UK insurance group Admiral, the 56-year-old American seems far too friendly and easy-going. Much too whimsical, even.

For while he leads a business belonging to the FTSE 100 index of the largest companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, his relaxed, down-to-earth management methods seem a world apart from his contemporaries.

After all, it is hard to imagine another FTSE 100 boss officially describing their firm's most recent financial results as being like a "jacket potato" (because, using a food analogy, they were comforting - but not exciting like a steak).

Nor do any other companies on the index have a "Ministry of Fun", a team dedicated to organising weekly social activities for staff, such as come to work in fancy dress days, nights out, or computer game tournaments in lunch breaks.

And Mr Engelhardt and other Admiral managers don't have company cars.

Nor will he even have his own office when Admiral's headquarters relocates across Cardiff city centre later this year. He will instead be downgrading himself to just a desk on an open plan floor.

While this is all most unusual behaviour in such a chief executive, for Mr Engelhardt it is all part of his commitment to making Admiral a "fun place to work", where all the staff also feel as equal and valued as possible.

"We have a very simple philosophy - if people like what they do, they will do it better," he says. "Or to put it another way - have fun, satisfy customers, make money."

"And if people are unhappy at work, if they are brooding or jealous, it doesn't help you do those things."

The results of such an approach appear to be twofold. Firstly, Admiral is the only company that has made all 14 of the annual 100 Best UK Companies To Work For reports by the Sunday Times newspaper.

And secondly, Admiral says it is one of only two companies on the FTSE 100 to have reported 10 straight years of higher profits and dividends.

'Incredible industry'

A native of Chicago, Mr Engelhardt never planned to go into the insurance industry.

After studying journalism at the University of Michigan he got a job as a trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

image copyrightAdmiral
image captionAdmiral puts having happy staff at the centre of its business model

While he enjoyed the job for a few years, he then found that the dynamics and personalities of the firm changed, and suddenly it was no longer a pleasant place to work. It was a key moment in helping to shape his future management style at Admiral.

"I made a dedication to myself that if I could help it, I would never again work somewhere where I was unhappy," he says. "This is because it is simply very difficult to flip a switch and then be happy when you aren't in work."

So Mr Engelhardt and his French-born wife Diane - who met as students - quit their jobs and travelled around Asia for six months.

While away, he determined to do something else with his life, so he decided to enrol on a Master of Business Administration (MBA) course, the key management qualification, to better equip him to switch careers.

As his wife wanted to be near her family, he did a one-year MBA at Insead in Paris.

After the end of the year, and with the first of their four children having been born by then, Mr Engelhardt and his wife decided to move to the UK.

"I wasn't particularly happy with France, and she wasn't happy with the thought of going back to the US, so the UK was our compromise," he says.

image copyrightAdmiral
image captionA £1m grant took Admiral to Wales, where it now sponsors the national rugby team

After some time as a not very enthusiastic management consultant in London, Mr Engelhardt said he kept seeing the same advertisement for a job "which just said financial services".

"So I phoned and asked for more details... and it was for a job in car insurance. And I literally thought 'oh no, how boring, what could be worse than car insurance?'.

"But I really didn't want to be a management consultant any more, so I applied, and I got the job. And I found out that car insurance was an incredible industry."

Staff windfall

Finding he was a natural at the car insurance game, Mr Engelhardt spent two years at Churchill before he was headhunted by Lloyds of London to launch and lead a new company in the sector.

So on 2 January 1993, he started Admiral.

image copyrightAdmiral
image captionMr Engelhardt owns about 15% of the business

Cardiff, the Welsh capital, was chosen for its headquarters because after "sending letters to 10 places where you could get grants from, Cardiff was the only city we heard back from".

Mr Engelhardt adds: "We got a grant for £1m, and we have gone on to put about £800m back into the local economy. It has been a great place for us to be."

Admiral has grown quickly ever since, with Mr Engelhardt leading a management buyout in 1999, and then a share flotation in 2004.

In addition to ensuring the staff are as happy as possible, Mr Engelhardt and his team have also made some key strategic decisions.

Admiral was one of the first car insurance firms to cut out the brokers, and instead sell direct via call centres. And in more recent years Admiral led the way in launching its own price comparison website - Confused.com.

image copyrightAdmiral
image captionAdmiral's Ministry of Fun organises social events for staff

Today the company is worth £4bn, and has more than 7,000 staff, all of whom - including those in its Indian office - automatically get shares.

Mr Engelhardt, who owns about 15% of Admiral, also personally introduces himself to all new members of staff in the UK, Canada and India.

After the 2004 flotation, non-management staff at Admiral shared a windfall of £56m, which equated to an average of £40,000 per person.

Mr Engelhardt says what makes him most proud is that the company scores even higher now in independent staff satisfaction surveys than it did back then.

And as he is keen to reiterate - happy staff means happy customers, which makes money.

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