David Ross: A view the top of the hill

David Ross was appointed Chief Executive Officer of The Ardonagh Group in June 2017. This represented the culmination of a two-year process by shareholders and management to create the market leading independent distribution Group in the UK. David became the CEO of Towergate, the original investment by HPS in the UK insurance intermediary industry, in November 2015 and led the business through a period of turnaround and transformation which included stabilising revenue, people, financials, infrastructure and governance. The demonstrable progress made with the Towergate transformation during 2016 and 2017 enabled the creation of The Ardonagh Group in June 2017. David advised MDP and HPS on the acquisition of the other assets required to fulfil the vision during 2015 and 2016. An Insead Alumnus, David’s career has spanned 27 years on the front line of the insurance industry. This included a 25-year career at Arthur J Gallagher, latterly as the CEO of the International Division, during which time the company underwent a defining period of growth and expansion.

David Ross: A view the top of the hill
Following its foundation in 2017 the Ardonagh Group has grown rapidly to become one of the world’s leading independent brokers. FULLCOVER talked to David Ross, Ardonagh’s Group CEO about the company’s incredible journey, the drivers behind its strategy, and future plans to expand into new territories and new markets. 


Could you begin by telling us about the start of your career?  

I grew up in a small farming town in the middle of Ireland. After school I went travelling for a year in Australia, before coming back home and starting a college course - fitting night school and university around work. Then I took a week’s vacation in London and was completely captivated by how vibrant it was. The City was unlike anything I’d ever come across in my entire life. It was like listening to rock and roll for the first time, I felt completely liberated. I came back home again, resigned, and quit college. Everyone said I was an absolute loser but I knew it was the right thing for me. I had a few knock backs at the beginning - and I’ve always sworn that no organisation I’m involved with would ever treat people the way I was treated when I first started out. It took some time but I eventually got a job as a post boy for an insurance recruitment company. I was there about six weeks when a vacancy came up for a technician in a brokerage firm called Gallagher. The guy that interviewed me was called Alistair Robertson, and he was the first significant sort of role model I had in my career. He asked me what I wanted and I said, I wanted to be the youngest director in the history of the company – and he didn’t laugh. He helped me. He was my first realization that you have to work for someone you like and trust. If you like them and trust them then you can give yourself to that person. It follows that as a leader and colleague you have to make sure you become likable and trustworthy.  


How did your career develop after that?  

I was a broker trainee. In the industry at the time, you didn’t need a degree - you got on-the-job training. After two or three years of being put through your paces in a business you were trusted to go on and develop your clients. It was an amazing time. My first big break came in 1991 when I was given a US workers comp account to sub-broke. We made $100,000 and it was the biggest new account we had written that year. I became a divisional director at the age of 23. At that point I thought I’d be celebrating meeting my ambition to be the youngest director in the company’s history, but I felt unfulfilled. I realized I had been aiming for the wrong thing and what I really wanted was to be a great leader like Alastair. I was put in charge of US A&H in the North American division at 26. We had a good run and doubled the division in size a couple of times over the next few years. At 33 I was put in charge of global wholesale and at 35 I became CEO of International. The mission for the team was to take a US-centric business and essentially use that platform to build an international business from scratch. It came down to having a great team, spotting an opportunity, having a good plan and then executing it. The division grew from around $100 million in revenue to $1 billion.  


You left an international business in Gallagher and joined a smaller, UK regional business, Towergate, in 2015. What opportunity did you see there and why did you choose Towergate?  

Having been at Gallagher for 25 years, I was very familiar with the publicly traded businesses but I was also very familiar with the scale of the private ones. I was fascinated by how many US private companies had survived the financial crash and gone on to become very large businesses in their own right, yet somehow all the UK large private firms were acquired by large public firms. Towergate was the last scalable private platform left in our market and it felt like the perfect launchpad to use to fill a gap that looked very obvious. It was ten times bigger than the next independent broker in the marketplace. For all its flaws it was actually perfect. In the 2000s private equity had an important role in building businesses, but the inevitable outcome was that those businesses were either sold to a big company or went public. Now the private marketplace has become so deep in terms of capital that the narrative has changed. Private firms can control their destinies just so long as they have a great plan and can execute. Businesses that are private in the US are as big as the public companies were only a decade ago, and there’s no sign of them going public. They don’t need to. There is access to capital regardless of size. I made a dedicated effort to be introduced to investors around the financial markets and talk to them about the idea of what could be done if you had the right team backing the right asset. Scot French from HPS Investment Partners, which became Towergate’s largest shareholder, was one of the people I met. He and I went on a bit of a journey together. We said, all right - let’s start by fixing it, but let’s also assemble all the complementary assets over a twoyear period to create a truly unique portfolio of firms where culture and entrepreneurial spirit was retained and harnessed. And when the time is right, let’s bring them together and unveil this 800-pound gorilla in the world that no one saw coming. And that’s pretty much what we did.  


What happened between you joining Towergate and the launch of Ardonagh in 2017? 

Towergate was a UK regional insurance business that had suffered from having made 300 acquisitions but not actually integrating them. To give you an idea of what that looked like on the ground, there were over 1,000 different bank accounts across the company and more than 150 different front end broking systems. There was no central record of our clients. But what it did have was £300 million worth of income. And it had an incredible group of people who had stayed with the company out of loyalty to each other and loyalty to their clients. We used to say it was broken it all the right places, because you can work very hard to win the trust of the workforce and on transformational IT projects, but you cannot create scale and specialism from nothing. So, we embarked on a massive project to essentially fix Towergate. And at the same time we were working on a plan to accumulate companies that would complement an integrated Towergate in the Personal Lines and Specialty space, always working towards an end state of then launching a supergroup – but one with a twist. In 2017 our shareholders brought together Towergate with international wholesale broker Price Forbes, underwriting, administration and claims specialist Ryan Direct Group, digital van broker Autonet and private medical insurance broker Chase Templeton. Ardonagh was launched with 5,000 people and $3.5+ billion GWP.  


What does Ardonagh look like now? 

We’re now one of the largest private companies in the United Kingdom. We’re incredibly diverse - we do everything from allowing people to go online and buy insurance for a dog or a car all the way through to spaceships and airlines. We trade all over the world with over $14bn premium flowing through the group and within the networks we own, and over 5 million clients. With MDS on board we will be 10,000 people strong. What’s more is that we’re not as slow or ponderous as our size might suggest. We lean into the individuality of the businesses that come under our banner. We operate as a community of chief executives working towards a common goal from very different angles Tell us more about that twist. When I knew I was going to leave Gallagher, the question became not only about where I would go, but actually where would I go that I would be happy to work in if I wasn’t in charge of it. So we decided very quickly that we needed to create a group of culturally aligned and culturally integrated businesses, but not operationally integrated. It’s a very complicated thing to achieve because we have to move as one, but allow the different platforms to trade individually. It comes down to creating an environment where individuality and innovation can thrive, and there is cross-group collaboration to amplify the best of our collective experience and insight. 


”We’re now one of the largest private companies in the United Kingdom. We're incredibly diverse - we do everything from allowing people to go online and buy insurance for a dog or a car all the way through to spaceships and airlines. We trade all over the world with over $14bn premium flowing through the group and within the networks we own, and over 5 million clients.” 


Where did the name Ardonagh come from?  

Ardonagh is Celtic and it means a view from the top of the hill. Pat Ryan, who built Aon, told me once that the Americans and the British both have a common issue. They travel everywhere in the world but don’t realize that they’re not always welcome - but the Irish are welcomed everywhere. Aon had a real differentiator with its Irish name, because they were able to play on their Celtic roots. So we followed Pat’s lead, and Ardonagh was the name of a place just outside my hometown. Everybody liked the look and feel of it. It has certainly helped us decouple the Group from feeling like an American company or a British company How do you identify and foster cultural alignment without falling into groupthink?  

The simple truth is that you’re not going to find someone in Portugal, who thinks and acts exactly the same as somebody in Dublin - and as somebody else in Stokeon-Trent. Nor would you want that. You have to realise what works in which industry, and what works in which market. At its heart it comes down to people who are aligned philosophically in what good looks and feels like. Then you use that as the barrier to entry for anyone who wants to join the company. You have to take the best of everybody and make sure it’s as common as possible in terms of behaviours, philosophies, and client focus - and then create a way for that goodness to permeate through the business. 



Ardonagh Global Partners launched in 2021 with acquisitions in the US and in Australia, and it ended the year with the agreement to buy MDS, its largest deal by far. What attracted you to MDS? 

MDS is an absolutely essential part of our international strategy. The company has 38 years of experience, of which more than twenty under the leadership of José Manuel Fonseca. This means they have quite a head start on us in the territories in which MDS operates – and in our world that is an eternity. What we have to do is defer to their superior knowledge and intertwine everything that’s special about our business and with everything that is special about MDS and then go and really maximise our potential together. The reaction from the market to that union has been really fantastic. 


Can you give us some insight into your conversations in the run up to the deal?  

When you buy a company you’re really buying the people – and it only works if those people want to be bought by you. We often say when we’re doing a deal that it’s not us buying you, it’s you buying us. MDS made it clear that we were their preferred buyer and that is more valuable to us than paying less for a demotivated team. I remember visiting the MDS office in Porto and talking to the team about what they were looking for from a partner. What Ardonagh brings to the table is a very good reputation around the insurance market and an enormous amount of buying power and placement power, which actually goes to better serve clients’ needs. It was incredibly gratifying to see how MDS already understood that being part of a stable group with $14 billion in premium changes the narrative for them when they are interacting with carriers. We often talk about the fact that if you poke one of our team in the eye, the entire family shows up for a conversation. Every insurance company knows that’s how we work. That means MDS is now negotiating with the entire firepower and placement power of Ardonagh behind them. 



"MDS is an absolutely essential part of our international strategy. The company has 38 years of experience, of which more than twenty under the leadership of José Manuel Fonseca. This means they have quite a head start on us in the territories in which MDS operates - and in our world that is an eternity.” 




One of the characteristics of Ardonagh Group’s M&A execution has been that we’ve seen parts of the group leading their own deals. Can we expect MDS to increase its M&A activity in the same way? 

Joining Ardonagh absolutely gives them more firepower and building our global presence is a shared priority. For any business who finds themselves at a crossroads we want to be the partner who can come in with a market-leading and unique offering, sharing equity and allowing you to retain everything that made you special in the first place. If you look at the Ardonagh environment it’s really an accumulation of MDS-like businesses that are all supremely good at what they do. We see the Brokerslink connectivity as an essential tool in terms of creating that first conversation with people. 



How does that delicate balance of cultural alignment and operational decentralization manifest in your M&A strategy? 

We’re very, very selective about the deals we do. We’re only really interested in partnering up with people who are genuinely interested in having a partner - and in getting to where they want to go faster with our support. If it’s all about just simply getting deals done and getting bigger, well, then frankly, you lose all of your essence as a business because you’re no longer trying to build anything special, you’re just trying to build something big. And being big doesn’t mean you’re good.  



How do you keep a company of Ardonagh’s scale and breadth connected?  

There are a few things we do for our people. One of the better things to come out of lockdown was the return of Radio Ardonagh, something we had run as a one-off for one of our charity days. We broadcast frequently, keeping everyone connected while we all worked from home. It proved far more popular than we could have imagined, with 85% of the company tuning in on the first day, connecting in the chat function and dedicating songs to colleagues. We still have regular shows to celebrate special occasions like Mental Health Awareness Week, Pride Month, and our own Give Back Day. Across the three events where we’ve broadcast live, €420,000 – including match funding from Ardonagh Community Trust - has been raised for around 140 local charities chosen by our colleagues. We host our annual Spotlight Awards recognition event, where colleagues nominate each other and I can’t wait to get back to having hundreds of people together in a room for that soon. Our challenge now is to make sure all of that goes global, and feels like it belongs to all parts of the group. We need to work on how we facilitate the forging of individual relationships across time zones. Could we, for instance, develop a mobility structure within the group for somebody in Portugal or Brazil to go to Australia for a year and learn about that business - or to work in London for six months? It’s our responsibility to answer yes to that. 



"It comes down to creating an environment where individuality and innovation can thrive, and there is cross-group collaboration to amplify the best of our collective experience and insight” 



What was the driver of the $500m acquisition of BGC’s insurance business, including Brokerslink members Ed Broking and Piiq Risk Partners?  

It was a deal that was really a coming together of equals, and of brands that are very complementary to each other. It meant Besso Insurance, Ed Broking, and Piiq Risk Partners joined Bishopsgate, Compass London Markets, and Price Forbes, to form what is now the largest independent specialty broker in the London market with offices across the globe. Ardonagh Specialty and Capital now has a combined $450m revenue, placing over $5bn GWP on behalf of clients with offices in France, Germany, Turkey, the UAE, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Australia, South Africa, Chile, Brazil, the USA and Bermuda. The next piece for us is building out Inver Re as a real challenger in reinsurance, under Steve Hearn’s guidance, and leveraging infrastructure around digital trading and placement, access to data and analytical capabilities. 



In December Ardonagh announced investment from existing shareholders Madison Dearborn Partners and HPS Investment Partners and co-investors including the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, valuing Ardonagh at $7.5 billion. Could you tell us about that investment and what it means for the Group?  

December’s announcement was an absolutely categoric commitment that our model works and is here to stay. Investment at that valuation is not only a huge statement as to what we have achieved, but it also takes the conversation about ownership off the table. This is a management team that’s committed to staying private for a very long time, with long-term private backers who’ve been with us since the beginning being joined by the fourth largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. It means that when you welcome MDS into the organisation, you’re empowering them to continue that story of independence. It means their staff can come to work knowing they’re part of a group that does what they do for a living. That harmony, buying power and mentality can course through the business without any distractions of whether their buyer will become a seller.  



What’s the next frontier for Ardonagh? 

Investing in our data strategy is something that cuts across the whole business. After years of work the Specialty placement team now have a panel of Lloyd’s syndicates who will follow Lloyd’s leaders for several classes of business within Price Forbes. About $600 million of client premium is in scope and that’s something we will look to broaden across the wider Ardonagh Specialty landscape in the months ahead. Equally we will continue to build our proprietary digital placement capabilities for clients. Last Summer we secured support from the Irish government to open a Global Data and Risk Management Centre. That will create 60 roles across data science and analysis to provide data-driven insights to clients globally, becoming a resource that the whole group can use. 



What work have you done, or are you planning, in the ESG field?  

The Ardonagh Accountability Framework is a gold standard in corporate governance and individual responsibility and accountability. As an organisation we’ve developed resources to embed mandatory training on unconscious bias, equality and diversity and embedded D&I communities with executive sponsorship throughout the Group. Our broader work to improve the societies and communities we work with is centred around our charity, the Ardonagh Community Trust, which we launched in 2017 as a cornerstone of our shared culture and values. Strengthening our work on the E part of ESG is a priority for 2022. We’ve commenced working on a roadmap to be net zero by 2030 and we’re thinking through what we can do from a position of leadership. What it can’t be is tickbox virtue signalling. We want to take our time to get it right. 



"Ardonagh Community Trust - ACT, as it’s known for short, is the thing I’m most proud of. We’ve raised over €1.7 million and made €1.1 million of donations, including grants to community projects nominated by our people.” 



Can you tell us a little more about the Ardonagh Community Trust?  

ACT, as it’s known for short, is the thing I’m most proud of. We’ve raised over €1.7 million and made €1.1 million of donations, including grants to community projects nominated by our people. It’s built playgrounds at a school for children with learning difficulties, and bought a minibus for a shelter for those fleeing domestic violence. Last year we launched the Bright Future Prize to provide funding and support to help young people build their community-based projects. We have an annual fundraising day - Give Back Day – which is actually my favourite day of the year. In 2021 it was celebrated globally by teams in the UK, Ireland, Australia and the US. Everyone did something in their own way. HWF Partners undertook a walking challenge to cover the distance from their London office to their Frankfurt office for Alzheimer’s Research with the final mile bounced on space hoppers and at Robus Group in Gibraltar, the team scaled the Med Steps five times, for mental health charity Clubhouse Gibraltar. Our people raised over €90,000 on a single day and we matched it as a Group to raise a total of over €180,000. The thing I love most about ACT is that we don’t make a big deal of publicizing it externally. Everyone in the company knows what it is and is incredibly supportive of the cause. But it is not and will never be a marketing tool.  



"I think the first objective is to actually be remembered! I think everyone wants to have made a positive impact in the world, and wants to know that the people whose lives they interacted with were fundamentally improved.” 



Businesses around the world are navigating to what extent people should return to the office as Covid restrictions come to an end. How is Ardonagh tackling that?  

I think that there will still need to be offices – a working environment functional and vibrant enough to attract young people into the City, and into the industry. But I’m not in the camp that says everybody has to get back to the office fulltime. The truth of the matter is we were dragging an awful lot of people in that could have worked from anywhere and weren’t more productive for it. There has to be a creative answer that involves hybrid working - coming in for really effective meetings, and then staying home to actually do your actions effectively. That’s an exciting opportunity, because it should allow us to recruit more diversely. One example would be supporting more women to come back into the workforce, and making it easier for people to stay after starting families. We’ve got a unique chance to change work-life balance for the better, and I’m not intending that Ardonagh let it slip past.  


What makes you good at your job?  

I think if you want to be successful, particularly in a people business - which is what insurance is - you really have to know who you are and who you’re not. Because when you know who you’re not you can recruit good people to fill in your gaps - and then you create an environment of collaboration and accountability where you get out of the way and let them get on with it and come back in when they need to. I’ve had an amazing, amazing run where I’ve just been lucky enough to work with some astonishingly good people. I get out of bed every day trying to earn the right to keep the people who work for me. I’m only where I am with their permission, and I think keeping that in mind makes me better at what I do.  


What inspires you as a leader?  

Anything that makes me feel insignificant. I look for things everyday that will ground me. It could be seeing a view or a pyramid and that feeling of being small - or watching a rescue worker save a life. I think if you’re not looking for ways to ground yourself every day, then you really have to question whether you are worthy of being in a position of leadership. The moment you convince yourself that the whole business wouldn’t function without you is the moment you really don’t deserve to lead anymore.  


How would you like to be remembered? 

I think the first objective is to actually be remembered! I think everyone wants to have made a positive impact in the world, and wants to know that the people whose lives they interacted with were fundamentally improved.  
Discover MDS World