Doug Smith, right, with Jim Jefferies at the retirement golf day (pic: Terry Murden)
Interview: Doug Smith, corporate insurance broker (retired)
There have been many make or break decisions in Doug Smith’s journey around the corporate circuit, not least over the sale of his insurance business and a showdown over the future of Heart of Midlothian Football Club. He’s faced calls for his head, celebrated numerous multi-million pound deals and the joy of victory at the pinnacle of Scottish sport. Now aged 75, he’s decided it’s time to wind down.
Smith marked his official retirement with a golf tournament at Archerfield Links for some of his closest and long-standing business friends. Among them were the lawyers Alastair Dickson and Peter Lawson, former Rangers chairman Malcolm Murray and, of course, Hearts’ Scottish Cup winning manager Jim Jefferies.
Smith spent seven years at Tynecastle, arriving on the board a year before the cup success and resigning as chairman in 2004 amid a contentious proposed move to Murrayfield. He says there were many things about being involved in football that present lessons to anyone in business.
“One day you’re being cheered through streets packed with supporters, and within six months you’re hearing them chanting ‘sack the board’. You learn quickly that when things are going well, don’t assume they will stay that way.”
Smith has lived and worked in Scotland for 52 years, but retains a strong loyalty to his Tyneside roots. He hails from Wallsend and was a promising young footballer until a knee injury ended his playing days and his hopes of becoming a PE teacher. In 1969 he was offered a job in insurance in Edinburgh. “Newcastle had just won the Fairs Cup and I was leaving the city,” he jokes.
He worked his way through a number of businesses until launching Corporate Risk in 1987 specialising in insurance services for the corporate market. He became widely regarded as one of the leading UK insurance advisers on transactional insurance issues to the private equity industry and corporates.
“We soon realised that there was a growing market working with venture capitalists on corporate restructuring providing due diligence insurance assessment,” he says.
“As the number of management buy-outs and buy-ins increased in the early 1990s, I found myself focusing on this side of the insurance business and we eventually opened an office in London to exploit the opportunities there.
“At the beginning of 1996, the tables were turned – rather than acting as an adviser in a takeover, we found ourselves the target of one. We received an offer from one of the world’s largest corporate insurance brokers, the American firm Johnson & Higgins, which was anxious to increase its UK presence.”
He says at that at the time they did not anticipate a massive consolidation in corporate insurance. Within a year of buying Corporate Risk, Johnson & Higgins was itself acquired in a $1.8bn deal by Marsh & McLennan – the world’s largest risk and insurance services group.
He stayed with Marsh as a consultant until he was asked to head up Willis’s private equity activities. Later he teamed up with former Corporate Risk colleague Colin Paterson, the managing director and founder of Insight, to focus on broadening and strengthening relationships with the private equity community.
In recent years Smith has pared back his activities. He bought back the Corporate Risk brand to provide independent advice to UK boards but now his commercial interests are focused on his portfolio of investments in small business ventures and there will be more time for the family.
“I really enjoyed my corporate life and it was exciting setting up a company from nothing and seeing it grow,” he says. “Many of the people I have met have become good friends.”
He and his Spanish wife Teresa have lived in Peebles since building a house in the town in 1978 and they also have a home near Barcelona. Trips to Spain will now be part of his more limited travelling itinerary, part-fuelled by the onset of the Covid pandemic, while visits to London are likely to be mainly for the cricket at Lords, another of his passions, or to meet those involved in the companies he now supports.
“Covid has allowed me to re-assess my routine in a way that I don’t think I would have done. I would normally be getting a flight most weeks. I have not been into London since February 2020, though I don’t think virtual meetings are sustainable long term. You have to meet the people you are backing, get to know them. Like other investors I am most concerned with the quality of the management.”
Occupation: Retired corporate insurance broker
Birthplace: Wallsend, Tyneside
Education: Wallsend Grammar School
Career highlights: Founded Coporate Risk 1987, sold in 1996; director at Heart of Midlothian FC (1997-2004, chairman from 1999); non-executive deputy chairman Willis M&A (2006-2013)
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career?
Former colleagues in insurance Colin Powell and Peter Raphael
What did you hope to be when you were young?
What have you learned about yourself?
“As I’ve got older I think through things much more than when I was younger and ask myself to justify a course of action.”
Optimist or pessimist?
Naturally an optimist, but I am also a lifelong supporter of Newcastle United
Time with grandchildren
What you find frustrating and what annoys you
When decisions are made without explanation.
Name three people, living or dead, who would make the perfect dinner party guests
Seve Ballesteros (golfer), Sir Winston Churchill (wartime Prime Minister) and my wife Teresa