The Norwich Union boss isn't one for management nostrums, he prefers The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, he tells Andrew Davidson. He has had his disappointments but the Church and his wife, a childhood sweetheart, are the roots on which he has built his career.
Richard Harvey is, as everyone will tell you, a terrifically nice chap. Tall, lithe, boyish, with a broad, broad smile and the sort of patient, unchippy enthusiasm that marks him down as a natural communicator, he carries himself without a whiff of vanity or a hint of hubris. He answers his own phone, replies personally to all his e-mails, gives money to the church, eats in the staff canteen, has been happily married to his childhood sweetheart for nearly 30 years, constantly apologises for how boring the insurance business is, always has a warm welcome for everyone ...
Oh dear, it's the sort of stuff that makes any interviewer's heart sink.
What? No prickly bits to cling on to? No furniture-hurling or staff-abusing or shockingly naked ambition from his early years? Pretty unlikely, I'm afraid. It seems that at 48, Harvey, devout Christian, actuary-turned-manager and chief executive of Norwich Union since it came to the stock market 16 months ago, is the business world's equivalent of Michael Palin: highly accomplished, immensely likable, rather admirable and just, well, nice. It positively sparkles out. Everyone who meets him says so. What's wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, except it is an incontrovertible fact that nice people cannot run big companies. They have got to be tough. They have got to be horrible.
Well, hold on a second. No one, as two of his colleagues point out to me, reaches the top of a FTSE-100 company by just being nice. And Harvey himself has already had enough of this stuff. When I ask him if there is anything that really annoys him about the write-ups he gets, he doesn't hesitate for a second: 'I think what I really dislike,' he says, suddenly looking rather stern, 'is when people focus in a mildly derogative sense on my interest in the Church, and turn the word "do-gooding" into an insult. Now that's an interesting comment on society, isn't it? Why isn't it a compliment? In reality,' he continues, catching me off guard, 'I have always thought that those people who are hard bastards are not often the deliverers of the best results. You get much better out of people by motivating them, than by cracking the whip.'
Ouch. And then the smile returns. So, let's get this straight from the start. He is more than just a nice chap. But what? According to the Daily Telegraph last year, at least one colleague found the 'Reverend Richard' niceness something of a front, accusing him of being 'occasionally cold, a little holier-than-thou', but I can't say I saw much sign of it. When we met in a plain office on the second floor of Norwich Union's London base in Fenchurch Street, Harvey was about as warm and unstuck-up as a chief executive can get, perhaps with good reason. He had just produced a decent set of interim figures and the company was riding the stock-market roller coaster without major upheaval. Even the constant rumours that it was about to be bought - by Barclays, Lloyds TSB, AMP and a host of others who have been linked with it - seemed to leave him unmoved. Apart from an annoying habit of saying sorry whenever he had to explain an arcane piece of Norwich Union's business (pensions and insurance are 'very boring', he assured me, more than once, and I believe him), he was nothing other than reasonable.
He had other reasons to be cheerful too. He had just launched a brand new television ad campaign, designed to raise the plc's profile, that he was rather proud of: lots of people twanging red braces while The Strawbs sing You can't get me, I'm part of the Union. Everyone at the Norwich likes it, and Harvey has been handing out red braces - 'people associate them with the slick money-making side of the City,' he explains patiently, 'and we are saying that when we make money, we share it with you' - to all and sundry. He doesn't wear them himself, mind. 'No,' he laughs, in his rather golly-gosh way, 'red braces look great on people who aren't 10-stone weaklings like me.'
It is this self-deprecating manner, and his apparent lack of worldly cynicism, which probably makes it too easy to underestimate Harvey. Friends say it is partly rooted in his background, partly derived from his stints working overseas and the very nature of the business he is in. Trained as a mathematician, the son of a Cotswolds teacher, Harvey was brought up in a tight-knit, church-going family which valued hard work, proper standards of behaviour and making a contribution. He has two brothers, one a teacher, another a doctor.
And until he realised that he rather enjoyed management, he spent half his working life as an actuary, an important but essentially passionless job - calculating insurance odds - whose practitioners pride themselves on not letting the personal intrude on the statistical. He says that this undoubtedly affected his management style. 'It is bound to mould an approach that begins with the analysis and then bases action on a well considered process.' But you suspect it probably moulded his character too.
He has run businesses here and in New Zealand, where he cut his teeth in senior management for Sun Alliance before being poached to run Norwich Union's interests there. He did it so impressively that he was quickly dragged back to Britain, eventually taking charge of untangling Norwich's demutualised status. His role in organising the company's smooth transition into a plc made him the favourite to take over when his predecessor, Alan Bridgewater, stood down. And so far he has not disappointed expectations, successfully reshaping the company so that it satisfies not just the demands of its customers but also of its new shareholders.
That, especially in the run-up to demutualisation, included some painful decisions. As his chairman, George Paul, puts it: 'Richard is not so nice that he is not prepared to make people redundant.'
But Harvey's main strength, Paul stresses, is that he is a very good motivator and communicator. And right now he needs to be, as he has a tricky management message to sell. While some City analysts still mutter about 'fat to be cut' at the Norwich, and see it as a natural target for some of the larger financial groups looking to add a life insurance business to their portfolio, Harvey has set course for swift expansion, here and overseas.
Changes are afoot. The company, which pulls in premiums of close to £6 billion a year and manages funds of nearly £50 billion, is the country's fourth biggest life and pensions group. Traditionally it sold its wares through intermediaries; now it has a rapidly growing direct-phone arm and has set up deals with Abbey National and Barclays to sell its policies. It is also a major player in the highly competitive market for motor and household insurance. Its next step there will be to set up a string of insurance shops in Ford dealerships. There are rumours of moves into banking, and expectations of heavy investment overseas, where the company could be looking for more acquisitions to add to its operations in Canada, France, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. It could also, of course, be selling.
No one is saying. If it is a target for takeover, it clearly plans to be a pretty fast-moving one.
Harvey says the constant takeover rumours have never bothered him. 'I am a manager who just gets on with the job. In the absence of hard information, people will write the stories they want, and frankly, I don't have the time to be distracted.' He is confident that the Norwich will remain 'a strong and independent company' - something of a catchphrase for him now. 'We have been through the reconstruction, we have filled in the holes, we are concentrating on a group of businesses that fit closely together. The only way a takeover could happen would be if a conglomerate just said, "Oh, we want one of those".' No one, he claims, could make a serious proposition based on enhancing shareholder value.
It is this use of cold logic - and the way it contrasts with his upbeat gregariousness - that sometimes makes Harvey rather a difficult character to read. He seems on a perpetual high, but a quick flip through his life up to now shows that he has had his share of disappointments. When he was young, for instance, he wanted to be a physicist. He saw an advert for Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) scholarships in the Daily Telegraph, applied and duly got one. He read maths at Manchester, feeling like a king because the scholarship always gave him a little bit more to live on than his fellow students, and he had a guaranteed job at the end of it. The shock came when he left university, and the AEA, glutted with physicists from Britain's reduced bomb-making programme, announced that it didn't want him. In fact, he corrects himself, it did say it might be able to find him something at Dounreay, but he took one look at the map and said, 'no thank you'.
So what could a young mathematician do? He fell into insurance simply because it was a job. He joined a small firm based in Folkestone as a trainee actuary, a position he found grindingly dull. 'It was just very tedious,' he says, 'everything was done on hand-cranked calculators. In fact, you can always tell actuaries of my age by the fact that they spin their hand when they are talking figures.
They are still working the Monroe calculators.'
Then his company hit financial difficulties and was taken over. Harvey joined another firm, Phoenix, which was moving offices to Bristol. By this time he was already married to his childhood sweetheart, Kay. She had been at the girls' grammar in Stroud, while he was across the road at the boys'. 'The road was patrolled by staff and prefects,' laughs Harvey, but they managed to meet 'in the usual social round', and kept the relationship going while he was at Manchester and she was at teacher training college in Birmingham. They got married at 21 and she is the rock around which he has built his career. 'She moved around with me after marriage. We are very much a partnership and always have been,' he says.
She encouraged him to go to New Zealand in 1979 when he wanted to broaden his experience. He knew so little about the place that he didn't even realise till he got there that there were two islands. They spent three years there, came back, he joined Sun Alliance which had just bought Phoenix, and was promptly offered the chance to return to New Zealand as boss of the whole business there. This time it was a more difficult decision. His son had just started secondary school, his daughter was at primary school, and they had just bought a house in Horsham, where his office was based. But back they went.
A good decision? It was a crucial career move, agrees Harvey. It gave him a chance to develop his management skills in an open environment, where he had a broad range of exposure to other people and businesses.
He also just felt immediately at ease with the way things were done. 'I love the culture there. It is very relaxed, very personal, very easy to do business.'
Others say the postings had a deep effect on his development as a manager, and that his uncomplicated enthusiasm struck an immediate chord with that Antipodean drive to get things done without frills or carping. The return to Britain in 1992 was something of shock, not least becase Norwich Union, which he had only joined the year before, was in a mess. 'The property market had collapsed, there were horrendous results in the motor market. It all put huge financial pressures on the organisation.' The company, he says, had to reinvent itself. As another Norwich Union director puts it: 'The whole sector had to change to survive.
It was like dragging it into the 20th century.'
Harvey describes overseeing the demutualisation as 'probably the most exciting thing I have ever had a chance to do'. It was an immensely complicated project. The 200-year-old business was a life company whose policy-holders owned the general insurance company. The flotation, which became the biggest the stock market had ever seen, eventually provided the cash for the new company to buy out the life fund. Tim Clark, at lawyers Slaughter and May, who worked with him, says that, apart from a worrying tendency to support the All-Blacks in the rugby tests, Harvey handled the process brilliantly. 'Richard is very approachable, which is important.
If you have a problem, you can talk to him about it,' he says. 'He is also focused. He is a man who minds the details without getting bogged down in them.'
It was that same mix of warmth and calculation that eventually won Harvey the top job. 'He was the first actuary who ever managed to explain to the board what was going on,' jokes George Paul. Liz Vallance, an academic and non-executive director at the Norwich, says that the key to Harvey is that he is clever but he wears it lightly, and is very at ease with himself. 'He is always able to explain what he is trying to do and he takes people with him.' That was doubly important as the company had been through a period of intense change and for an increasingly female workforce (53% and rising of the 16,000 total), Harvey's insistence that the firm would continue to look after its staff as 'family' and provide a protective, caring work environment was, and is, a hit.
Harvey describes his own style as 'informal'. He has, before now, breakfasted his senior team at McDonald's and you are as likely to find him turning up in the company's squash league unannounced - 'there are quite a few Harveys here and my opponents get a bit of a shock' - as plonking himself next to people in the company canteen at lunchtime. 'It is an immensely sobering experience,' he says, 'because lots of staff just don't know who you are. I said to one guy, "Hello, I am Richard Harvey, I don't think we have met", and he went "Yeah?" and looked at me like I was completely bonkers.'
Does he think his staff like him? 'Ah, like is a difficult word,' he says, sniffing a trick question. 'They are certainly, usually, very friendly to me.'
Does his publicly avowed Christianity - he gives a tenth of his salary to the Church and was until recently his parish's churchwarden, a role now taken by his wife - sometimes make his job more difficult? 'Well,' he says, 'the only thing more difficult than being made redundant is having to tell people they are redundant. It is the toughest thing I have personally faced. But if this company is going to survive, we have got to create an environment that can sell products at a price you are willing to pay. Do you think when you are shopping around for motor insurance that you are actually making 25 people redundant at this company or another? No, of course you don't. Because our whole society turns on what is the best value proposition. To do that, we have to have the best value labour force.'
Has he ever mis-sold a pension? Harvey's smile suddenly looks rather steely. Norwich Union is perhaps fortunate that most of its pensions are sold by intermediaries, enabling it to avoid some of the heat of the Government's recent investigation into the mis-selling of pensions. 'I was actually outside the UK so I can plead innocence for the period in question,' he says eventually, 'but I would have to be pretty arrogant to claim that I wouldn't have been involved. We have dealt with our priority cases and been taken off the government list. Now we wait to see the guidelines for the manner in which the review of lower priority cases is going to be conducted.'
Certainly, those who have worked with him agree that there is a tough side to Harvey and an ambitious streak that is not always visible on first meeting.
'Richard wants to do well and get ahead in life,' says one, 'but it is masked by the fact that he so at ease with himself.' And Harvey genuinely believes that managers who are continually 'cracking the whip' have got it wrong. 'I spend most of my time telling my team not to overdo it because such is their level of commitment and enthusiasm that they will.' Otherwise he is a great believer in 'two commendations for every recommendation' and that, he says, is as far he goes with management nostrums. 'I prefer Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,' he grins. 'It simply says, "DON'T PANIC".' Adams, he adds, has always been his favourite author.
What does he spend his money on? If his predecessor's salary is anything to go by, Harvey will be earning upwards of £500,000 a year soon. He doesn't look the sort to be living in the lap of luxury. 'Well,' he says, rather gloomily, 'actually I am still at the stage where I am paying off my mortgage.' He has a home outside Norwich, where the main office is, and another small house in Cheltenham, where his youngest daughter is at school. Otherwise, no holiday houses, no expensive hobbies, no collections of anything valuable.
He likes skiing and opera, but a good chunk of his salary just goes on regularly getting his family together - his two eldest children now live in Australia and New Zealand, a legacy of his time Down Under.
Anything else to add? Only this, he says, summing up rather formally.
'Fundamentally I am a great enthusiast for Norwich Union, and I want to stress we are particularly well placed. We are not ploughing money into difficult markets like Malaysia and Brazil or Japan and China. We are selling a product where there is a huge demand. Alright, there is huge competition too, but the key issue for us is to provide delivery that either matches the competition or is one better than it.'
He grins again, with his trademark eager-to-please smile and Labrador eyes. Something is bugging me. Ah, that tune, I know what it is. Isn't the Strawbs' song, Part Of The Union, actually anti-union, a satirical, negative dig at the perceived pig-headedness of people's herd instincts? For a second, Harvey looks genuinely taken aback. 'Oooh,' he says, 'as I remember it, it was pro-union. Anti-union, you say? You were clearly closer to the action than me.' He broods a bit then his face lights up again. 'But what does it matter? It's good fun and an interesting play on the name. By the way, have you got any red braces?
Do you want some? It is the easiest thing in the world to get you some ...'
Anyway, I am just teasing. As we head for the lift Harvey is still offering me braces and asking 'Are you sure?' Yes, really, thank you. He is being much too nice. I hope a few years at the top don't diminish his sparkle.
Born 11 July,
Educated Marling Grammar School, Stroud and Manchester University
Trainee actuary, Welfare Insurance
Trainee actuary, Phoenix Insurance
Actuary, Provident Life, New Zealand
Manager, personal pensions, Phoenix Insurance
Marketing manager, Sun Alliance
Chief executive, Sun Alliance Life, New Zealand
Chief executive, Norwich Union, New Zealand
General manager, finance, Norwich Union
Finance director, Norwich Union
Deputy group chief executive, Norwich Union
Chief executive, Norwich Union plc
WHAT PEOPLE SAY
'Richard was the first actuary who could explain to the board what the figures meant. All the mumbo jumbo was gone. He is a good communicator, a great motivator and a nice guy with very high ethical standards. He is more of a consensus manager than his predecessor but he is very demanding.
He keeps us all up to the mark.'
George Paul, chairman, Norwich Union
'Norwich Union is a family and what the board has tried to achieve with demutualisation is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Richard is a very people-friendly boss. I think one of the reasons the board chose him is that he is clever but he wears it lightly. He is always able to explain what he is trying to do and he takes people with him.'
Liz Vallance, chairman of St George's Healthcare NHS Trust and non-executive director, Norwich Union
'Richard is one of the new generation of insurance people. He is very easy-going and approachable ... He is also focused. He is a man who minds the details without getting bogged down in them.'
Tim Clark, Slaughter and May
'Richard is extremely nice but the side that you don't see is that he manages to combine it with being as ambitious and as tough and as straightforward as he needs to be.'
Tim Wise, corporate finance director, Dresdner Kleinwort Benson.