IBERIAN CONNECTION – Robert Capurro – from insurance broker to Canning House CEO

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Robert Capurro, 54, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Hispanic & Luso Brazilian Council, more popularly known as Canning House. He is the son of Joseph Robert Capurro and his wife, the former Mary Bell, who comes from Devon. Robert was born in Bogotá, Colombia. His sister, Vivien, now lives in Somerset. Ralph and Rogelio Capurro were his uncles and Vicky and Maruja his aunts. His father was an underwriter in both insurance and reinsurance and never made his home on the Rock after completing his National Service, but from time to time would holiday there. His work was primarily overseas and he spent much time in Argentina, Colombia, Spain and Mexico.

Robert Capurro

Robert was married to Elizabeth and has three children, Hope (26), born in Spain, Daniel (24), born in the Netherlands and Amber (14), born in Chile.

Canning House, founded in 1943, is the UK’s leading forum for informed comment, contacts and debate on Latin American politics, economy and business. It also promotes the languages, culture and history of Latin America, Spain and Portugal. Canning House also helps its business members to achieve their objectives in Latin America.

It is proud to unite a broad and diverse community of interests from across the British political, diplomatic, business, academic and cultural establishment and their Latin American and Iberian counterparts. Country membership includes the Spanish Caribbean (Cuba and Dominican Republic), and on the non-Spanish speaking side Belize, Guyana, Suriname and Haiti. This due to the latter countries being increasingly more closely integrated into the Latin American hinterland.

Canning House consists of the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council and Canning House Ltd. The former is a non-political, non-profit organisation registered as a charity. Canning House Ltd is a wholly owned trading subsidiary that provides corporate membership services and earns the bulk of the revenues that support the charity. An example of the charitable work of Canning House is when the British Library had the opportunity to acquire the Canning family archive for the nation. The British Library received substantial grants from Heritage, the National Lottery and other Trusts but needed another donation to reach the amount required to complete the purchase. Canning House was able to give the required contribution. In return, it has been appointed a Patron of the British Library. When all is in place next year, then Canning House will be able to arrange some Canning archive events in conjunction with the British Library.

Canning House is named after George Canning (1770-1827), British Foreign Secretary (1807- 1809 and 1822-1827) and briefly Prime Minister in 1827. During his time as Foreign Secretary, he was active and instrumental in helping many of the then Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America to become independent. This led to a century of close political and economic ties with the region including British investment and firms financing and building railways, energy firms, utilities and financial institutions amongst other activities. In 1808, 40% of British exports were sent to Latin America. By the First World War, 50% of foreign investment in Latin America came from Britain, more than 20% of its trade was with Britain.

Today, Canning House runs around 80 events a year, ranging from round table breakfast meetings, talks, lectures and seminars and major conferences. The two flagship events are the Canning Conference and the Canning Lecture; the latter by tradition given by a Latin American or Iberian Head of State or Government.

It is fascinating to see how Robert’s career, which has resulted in his appointment as CEO just under four years ago, developed since his schooldays.

Robert, until the age of ten, lived in Colombia where he was born but his father decided that he must be educated in England and he was sent to The King’s School, Canterbury, and then up to King’s College London University where he studied geography. Whilst he had no preference for which profession to join, the mental decision had been made to work overseas. He graduated in 1983 which was just after the recession and jobs were few and far between. Over the years, thanks to his father’s profession, he had picked up a good understanding of the insurance world which led to a natural gravitation to a job in insurance in the city. His first job in 1985 was as a Branch Insurance Officer in Barclays Insurance, London. After a year there, he had a variety of insurance broking jobs between 1985 and 1997 in London, Madrid, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Manchester. By 1997, he was an executive director at Willis Ltd.

With his father in Bogotá circa 1967

Promotion followed and from 1998-2003 Robert was Managing Director of Willis Ltd in Santiago, Chile, an insurance broker employing 40 people, placing US$32 million in premiums and generating revenues of US$4 million. Clients included Thames Water, Codelco and CMPC (the largest private company in Chile). During this period, Willis jumped from 10th to 3rd largest insurance broker in Chile.

In 2003, Robert moved to Aon Ltd as director in the Risk Management Division where his clients included Granada, TUI, Inchcape, Logica CMG and BskyB. He succeeded in obtaining ITV and BskyB as clients.

It is important to understand what exactly the functions of an insurance broker are. In a nutshell, a broker uses in-depth knowledge of risks and the insurance market to design and arrange suitable insurance policies and cover for his clients. He acts as an intermediary between the client and the insurers and will seek cover from a variety of insurers. Commercial brokers deal with high value and more complex insurance cover in areas such as marine, aviation, oil and gas and financial risks. The broker studies and understands the client’s risk profile and will design the insurance coverage in such a way to provide optimum coverage at a competitive premium with terms and conditions that are reasonable and effective. It is the client who employs the broker. It is very much a personal hands-on profession.

Insurers are unique as compared to any other profession. Most businesses work on the principle of Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware, which means that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made. However, this is totally different in the insurance world which is governed by Uberrima Fides – Utmost Good Faith. This legal doctrine obliges the insured to reveal to the insurers any information that might influence the insurers’ decision to enter into the contract and under what terms and conditions. Although there is a tripartite relationship between broker, client and underwriter, the contract is between the insured and the insurer.

Robert, in 1987, qualified as an Associate of the Chartered Insurance Institute (ACII) and in 1997 became a Chartered Insurance Practitioner.

It is uncommon for any broker to move away from the insurance business but Robert succeeded in that for the first time when, from 2004 to 2008 he was appointed Director of Sales for Latin America, Caribbean and Spain for Mabey Bridge. This is a British family owned company that makes modular steel bridges which are a modernised version of the wartime Bailey bridges. He would have stayed longer but alas the company was successfully prosecuted by the Serious Fraud Office for bribing overseas officials, events that took place before Robert joined the company. This put paid to most prospective government contracts as governments could not be seen to be doing business with a company convicted of bribing officials.

With Michael Portillo in 2015

Robert entered the company’s history book when he sold the longest bridge to the Guyana Government. This is the Berbice Bridge which is 1.57 kilometres long with a retractable span allowing ocean going ships to pass through. It opened on the 23 Dec 2008 and links the capital, Georgetown, with New Amsterdam which is 62 miles away. The bridge is the sixth longest floating bridge in the world.

The Mabey modular steel bridges have particular attractive qualities for the governments of emerging countries. In addition to their traditional use as military and emergency bridges, Mabey pioneered their extensive use for rural development. They combined their manufacturing, engineering and project management capabilities with long term, low cost financing to enable governments to purchase and install hundreds of bridges across remote rural areas within one to two years. Connecting hitherto difficult to access villages to each other and the countries’ main arteries, allowed agricultural produce and other commodities to access markets and education and medical services to access rural populations. The resulting increase in revenues for the government made these projects largely self-financing as well as politically very attractive.

Mabey’s greatest success was in the Philippines where, during the consecutive terms of office of six Presidents, over 1300 bridges were built. A military version of the Mabey bridge is still sold and this remains an important sector of the market. Robert’s first bridge sale was to Ecuador’s Army.

In 2008, Robert returned to the City of London and for two years became a Partner in Jardine Lloyd Thompson Ltd in the Energy and Marine Division. He was the new business leader for Energy with responsibilities across Latin America and the Caribbean. His main achievement was to obtain Petroquímica de Venezuela as a client.

With Aurora Williams, Minister of Mines of Chile in 2015

Willis approached him in 2011 to be the United Kingdom Utilities Practice Leader as well as the United Kingdom Services Practice Leader. He was very successful and his key achievements included persuading these companies to become clients; Centrica Renewable Energy; National Grid Offshore; RES Ltd; Nuclear Decommissioning Authority; Drax Power and Affinity Water. His clients produced annual revenue of several million pounds.

Robert, in 2013, was headhunted to become the first Chief Executive of Canning House. The Trustees were looking for a person with business experience and acumen rather than a retired diplomat or politician and to move away from the Director General model with limited executive powers. Five years ago, the Canning House finances were severely depleted and the Trustees had to make a decision whether to close down or find a new way to carry on. The decision was to carry on by making radical changes. It was decided to sell the lease of 2 Belgrave Square back to the Grosvenor Estate and rent considerably less space. This resulted in a move to becoming a tenant in No 14 Belgrave Square.

Robert’s prime task is to return Canning House to operating profitability on a sustainable basis. Therefore, it must be run as a going profitable concern without losing sight of the cultural and social remit. In the three years he has been in command, the organisation has been professionalised and now is a provider of specialist services, treating the corporate members more like clients. For the broader individual membership and stakeholders in government, parliament and academia, it is a focal point for Latin American and Iberian themed activities and interaction.

All Latin America plus Belize, Guyana, Suriname, Haiti, Spain and Portugal are members of Canning House through their respective Ambassadors and High Commissioners and are treated equally and impartially. That said, the larger countries such as Brazil and Mexico tend to attract more attention and therefore more events.  The Latin American Ambassadors meet regularly to discuss their shared diplomatic agenda and, where relevant and appropriate, Canning House participates and facilitates.

Canning House has never ignored Gibraltar, but to date, as far as Robert is aware, has not organised any event specifically about the Rock. Robert attended the two day seminar about the Treaty of Utrecht organised by the Spanish Embassy to mark the three hundredth anniversary. Many Spanish and British historians spoke, including Lord Thomas of Swynnerton (better known as Hugh Thomas). It is the intention of the Spanish Embassy to publish a written account of the event.

With President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto and Miriam Gonzalez Honorary President of Canning House in 2015

Canning House does not shy away from controversy. Last year, there was an open meeting about the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas) and taking part were an Argentine Minister presenting, and the audience included a representative from the Falkland Islands Government and Foreign Office officials. It turned out to be a civilised debate with all the speakers shaking hands with each other at the conclusion. The purpose of such a debate is to educate those who listen to the speakers who then draw their own conclusions.

Robert is prepared to consider holding such an open event on Gibraltar. The auditorium holds some 140 people and guests can attend who are not members. A possible subject might be ‘The effects of Brexit on Gibraltar’. Speakers could be from Gibraltar, Spain, the Foreign Office and the Spanish Embassy. After the speakers have made their case then it will open for the guests to ask questions and make statements. The event has to be balanced. As a matter of course, all Latin American and Iberian Ambassadors are invited to every event.

If this idea comes to fruition then this will be first time Gibraltar will have been the theme of a Canning House event.

words | Mike Brufal