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Career profile: John Ritchie, CEO, Ellipse

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Get to know your peers in the leadership community through our career profile series. Today, we talk to John Ritchie, CEO of Ellipse.

Basic details

Name: John Ritchie

Job: CEO of Ellipse, a digital group life and disability insurer

Current employer: Munich Re Group

CV in brief:

  • 2009-present: Founding CEO at Ellipse
  • 2004-2008: Head of group life and disability reinsurance and head of marketing and communications, Munich Re
  • 2003-2004: Executive director, St James’ Place – responsible for life, disability and mortgage proposition
  • 1998-2004: Sales and marketing director in the Employee Benefits division at Swiss Life UK

A day in the life

Tell us about your job and organisation

I am the CEO of Ellipse, a digital group life and disability insurer, formed in 2009. We have three core products; group life cover, group disability insurance and group critical illness delivered though employers’ benefit schemes.

Our digital systems allow us to make things simpler, quicker and better for advisers, client employers and their employees. People and their families are at the centre of what we do – paying claims quickly in the event of death or disability. 

Who do you report to?

Andy Batley, Chief Executive of UK & Ireland, Munich Re Group.

Tell us about your team.

Team has several definitions, but when I think about team I think of everybody who works in our business at all levels, whether that is someone in the executive team that’s been there from day one or the newest person in sales support.

Our team is marvellously diverse and this helps us broaden our minds to new opportunities, innovations and ways of working. In the executive team alone, there’s me from Northern Ireland, a German who speaks English better than any the rest of us, a South African, a Zimbabwean and a Londoner. Our team is made up of people from different backgrounds with different perspectives and personalities.

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

By an absolute mile it is seeing people develop in their jobs. If people develop well it’s obviously good for them individually, it’s good for us collectively and it’s good for the business and our customers.

What is the most challenging part of the role?

The interface with our owner, a multinational with business in many markets. This means you have to work quite hard to get the German HQ to understand the business and the environment that we trade in. Despite Freedom of Services in the EU, financial services of our type are still quite national. This would be the same if the parent was from the US parent, they believe stuff works here the way stuff works in their domestic market.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Every day I decide on three important and urgent things that I want to get done before 9 o’clock. Most days I like to talk to my senior managers about current issues and the any tasks or issues I want them to focus on. I get this done by 9am most days, whether in person, via a short email or over the phone. It’s equivalent of a football manager getting in first, talking to his coaches and then walking around the edge of the training pitch observing. It’s critical to work out what’s really important and get those three things done before the meetings, calls and reactive.

Why did you choose your current organisation to work for?

Ellipse was my idea and I presented the business plan to Munich Re Group board in October 2008. I’m more excited today than I was then as the strategic conditions that we anticipated are actually here.

Expansion of the market on the back of the auto-enrolment for workplace pensions and digital processes give us the possibility of getting half the workforce that isn't covered, access to life and disability insurance. 

The automation of process, digital delivery and communication makes it economic to service all employers and their people. That wasn’t possible 10 years ago.

Perks and downsides of your role?

Perks – autonomy, the ability to get something from an idea to execution and into the market and most of all, paying the claims. Every claim we pay is a material reduction of stress for a family.

Downsides – the usual big corporate stuff is the only downside but in our data-driven model we can generate reports, revised business projections really sharply, so even that is not much of a chore. That said there are huge upsides to being part of a global group. Year by year planning is quite plodding, but that’s like every big company – you expect these processes to be lengthy.

What skills are essential for the role you’re in?

Fundamentally an optimistic nature, a very thick skin and an endless appetite for communication are the main aspects. Also getting, through good questions, to the heart of a matter. Decisiveness is a critical essential. The most important thing is not to stall the work of my excellent team.

Career path

How did you get to where you are now?

There was no great master plan. I read law and had intended to be a criminal barrister back in Belfast, but then I found I enjoyed the business subjects much more, and frankly, I did not want to live in a sectarian society as NI was in the late 70s and early 80s.

If there was a great career plan, I would have started this sort of company in my mid 30s but I didn’t, I did it in my late 40s. I’ve been an underwriter, led sales and marketing teams, as well as major systems and change projects so I’ve done senior jobs in most executive functions. I’m pretty confident about how to run this type of business.

The career path I have had was a consequence of the generosity from Munich Re Life leaders in my first spell in my mid-20s. I had exposure to people who ran the insurance companies in those years. I was very fortunate to have a good apprenticeship. 

What were your best subjects in school? What and where did you study?

English, history and economics A Levels at St Patrick’s De La Salle, Downpatrick, County Down. The classic Irish Christian Brothers grammar school. I was fascinated by economic history at a weirdly young age, then law at the University of Manchester.

What was your first job? How did you get it and why did you choose to work there?

I was behind the bar at the Downpatrick Golf Club at age 14. Originally my class mate, Brendon Kelly, got the job but he no longer wanted to do it – so I just rang the head steward and nabbed it. It was the best paid part-time job in the town and the tips were good (especially if you could add up an eight drink round in your head).

Have you followed the career path you set out to?

Yes. Not from when I was 18, but from when I was 23, yes I have.

What challenges have you faced along the way? How did you overcome them?

A little lack of self-belief early on, but that only lasted about 18 months to be frank.  Getting over the lack of self-belief was a process of saying: "Some people have to do these big jobs, why not me?". The other thing was meeting the chief executives, marketing directors and chief actuaries of insurance companies really early in my career, and I used to think: “He’s just a bloke, albeit a confident, assertive type who plans and doesn’t worry himself to a standstill.” I could see why they had those jobs, observe the way they planned, the way they executed but deep down I thought, “You know what? You’re not that much smarter than me”. I was on the executive team of Munich Re when I was 30.

Also staying in roles for too long is a mistake. There’s a point when you’re not learning anything new. If you’re doing the same cycle of job in your 30s for the 3rd or 4th year you should move on or switch roles in the company. 

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to land a job?

At 16 I borrowed a tuxedo and black tie and persuaded the general manager of one of the biggest hotels in Ireland to let me be the head waiter and wine waiter in a restaurant catering for 250 people. I convinced them I could do it and the job was mine for the rest of the summer. I had never tasted wine and knew nothing about it – but the clientele were Americans and Irish, so they knew nothing about it either!

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

I don’t really think of it in those terms. Perhaps it’s the same attitude you hear of in sports-people. You don’t parade your trophies in a cabinet, you give them to your mum or put them in your downstairs loo and focus on your next challenge. 

I’m always looking to the horizon for the next innovation, opportunity or deal. I form excellent teams, start businesses, start projects and change businesses. If you work in a large multinational there’s no shortage of people saying you haven’t made enough money, you haven’t grown fast enough, you haven’t done this or that so there is no risk of getting big headed. I think I’ve always created and enhanced value and helped grow sustainable businesses.

Do you have any career regrets?

No – that is a waste of time and energy.

What advice would you offer to others who are looking to get to where you are now?

Start early, start quick, believe in yourself and listen. Don’t be oversensitive to criticism or overly prone to fear of failure. Figure out who you rate as good, observe and learn, you can learn from the most unlikely sources. 

What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?

Calm down, you’re going to be alright.

Either/or

  • Tea or coffee? I like both! 
  • Jam or Marmalade? Marmelade, with chilli in it.
  • The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? Neither. That’s what my elder sisters listened to in 1972.
  • PC or Mac? I got one cheap from the Bermondsey Square hotel and it’s brilliant.
  • The Guardian or The Times? Neither. I bought the Independent from day 1 in 1988 and I also read the FT.
  • BBC or ITV? BBC. My wife says ITV is common and so did her Mum.
  • Waitrose or M&S? M&S – they sell Adnams beer.
  • Morning or night? Absolutely a morning person because I’m quite old.
  • Rain or snow? Rain, you can still play golf in the rain.
  • Sweet or savoury? Both – eat like the French. 

Favourites

  • App: The Economist.
  • TV show: Peaky Blinders – sex, violence and bad language from the start.
  • Band: Bruce Springsteen and the E street band – because I’m quite old, have loved their music since I was 14.
  • Song: To sing? Fire and Rain by James Taylor and Carole King.
  • Book: Currently ‘Five Lessons’ by Ben Hogan.
  • Sports team: Charlton Athletic.
  • Thing to do on a Friday night: Red wine and asleep by 9:15.
  • Place to eat: Guildford Arms in Greenwich – Guy Awford’s new restaurant. It’s the best new restaurant in London that no one has heard of.
  • Holiday spot: Tyrella, County Down.
  • Piece of advice you’ve been given: From my grandfather Jimmy Ritchie – “You can dig a ditch well or you can dig a ditch badly, it’s your choice”. There is dignity in all work and it also means respect the work of others.
  • Who would play you in a movie? The Undertones’ Feargal Sharky. He’s the same age as me and he’s from Northern Ireland. But a film of his life would be better! 
Sarah Clark

By Sarah Clark

Changeboard

Online features editor at Changeboard

Changeboard

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