COO Manages Strategic Initiatives, Costs and Tech

Barry Perkins is the chief operating officer for UK General Insurance and Shared Services, which includes commercial and personal insurance. He handles all the big decisions on run costs, strategic initiatives and technology, as well as overseeing the provisioning of management information.

CIO Insight: What are your primary areas of responsibility as the COO of Zurich UK?

Barry Perkins: My official title is chief operating officer for UK General Insurance and Shared Services. By way of background, UK General Insurance (GI) is a diverse area of the business that includes all distribution channels and most flavors of commercial and personal insurance with a Gross Written Premium (GWP) of approximately £1.6bn.

Specifically, I am responsible for managing approximately 40 percent of the expense base (approximately $200 million), the bulk of which is IT. That means all the big decisions on run costs, strategic initiatives and technology come through to me.

I’m also responsible for overseeing the provisioning of management information; our strategy on big data; ensuring that our BPO [business process outsourcing] operation in India runs smoothly; encouraging the use of lean techniques; running the central lean team to ensure operational efficiency; looking at strategic sourcing opportunities; ensuring our corporate real estate strategy is aligned to our business strategy; ensuring that our facilities are running smoothly; and driving the digital agenda.

The shared services part of the title points to the responsibilities I have for the services we share with our UK Life business—a separate entity within Zurich that shares services in countries where they make sense. This includes overall management of document logistics, supplier assurance, and our switch board. This part of the job gives me the opportunity to have an impact at the country level because of the scales involved.

Finally, I am also responsible for ensuring that the UK GI operation is in lockstep with the strategy and services of Zurich as a whole. UK GI’s project spending plans must be approved by the group and fall in line with the overall group strategy. This brings some big challenges, but also some great opportunities to be part of a global group operating in over 200 countries, which means I have to have a strong voice at the table in the GI operations council with my international peers. 

Before taking on my current role I held the position of UK CIO, which felt very much like trying to drive the bus from the back seat. The COO role gets you forward a few seats, even if you’re not driving the bus directly!

CIO Insight: You are part of a growing trend of top-level executives who have risen through the IT ranks. How did your time as an IT executive prime you for your current role?

Perkins: I’ve always viewed IT as critical to the business of insurance. There is rarely anything of significance that happens in an insurance company—or any company really—that doesn’t involve IT in some way, be it front office, back office, sales, distribution, finance, etc. So it’s the perfect vantage point from which to get a good understanding of the business as a whole.

CIO Insight: What advice would you offer others who might want to walk in your footsteps?

Perkins: I am doing my dream job, but I didn’t get this role by carefully planning my career or being political. I’ve stuck with what I love doing—a combination of thinking strategically and hard core delivery.

My natural style is to be direct, and while I’m often required to take a more nuanced approach, I haven’t changed my core. On a few occasions I’ve even been willing to walk in the career wilderness if I felt it was the right thing to do. Luckily for me, things have always worked out.  

A friend once told me that there are no bad people at senior levels, but that there can often be bad fits. To find situations that play to my strengths—the right fit—I have been mobile, living and working in the United States and the United Kingdom. I am fortunate to have a wife and children who have supported me fully.

So my advice is: Do what you love, be true to yourself, and be prepared to move to wherever the right fit is for you.

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