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Dave Watkins talks to workingwise.co.uk about his global career in insurance, about the benefits of a flexible and diverse workforce and about taking risks and testing yourself to see how far you can go.
Dave Watkins is sixty two and, although he has been with one company for over 30 years he has definitely not stayed still. Throughout his career Dave, now Head of Service Operational Integration at insurance firm Zurich, has taken risks as the insurance industry – like many – has undergone huge changes. He has stretched himself, moving country several times to take up new opportunities and, to a large degree, making his own luck. But he says he has also been fortunate to be employed by a multicultural company which has enabled him to change roles over the years, describing the experience as being “like moving job and company, but within the same supportive group”. His experience of working in multinational teams within Zurich has also made him a firm advocate of a flexible and diverse workforce.
Dave took risks from the very start of his career, moving to the US when his then employer Avis Rent-a-Car shifted its European Datacentre there. It was the first of several international moves which has given Dave a rich appreciation of different cultures. In New York he met his wife and the couple moved back to the UK in 1988 where Dave took up a job at Municipal Mutual, a local authority insurer, which was eventually taken over by Zurich.
The 90s was a period of much change in the insurance industry and Dave moved from project management to customer services management, eventually becoming server support engineering manager, covering a wide area in the South and West of England. His wife supported him throughout, even when he had to commute to visit all the areas, spending two to three nights a week away from home and his young family.
In the early 2000s, Zurich was moving its data centres to the European mainland and consolidating jobs elsewhere. Dave’s job was at risk of redundancy, but a new role came up as Head of European Distributed Technology Services in Switzerland in 2004 and he was encouraged to apply. Dave spoke to his wife and, given their experience of moving from the US to the UK, they decided to go for it. “We didn’t want to end up having a ‘what if’ conversation later. We decided to go for it and take a chance,” he says. It was a “head above the parapet” moment, but, with support from Zurich, it was a role that was to lead to opportunities which would never have come Dave’s way had he stayed in the UK.
For the first year, he commuted from Hampshire to Switzerland while his daughter finished her GCSEs. He would get a 4am flight on a Monday from Luton to Basel and then travel to Zurich and be back at around 1am on Saturday morning. His family moved to Switzerland in August 2005 and his children attended an international school. The family spent nine years in Switzerland and Dave’s children say it was the best experience they have ever had. “They learned so much and it made them more rounded individuals,” says Dave.
He too learned a lot. While the job was similar to what he had been doing in the UK, it covered a wider area and, as a manager, he faced all the pressures of dealing with the fallout from the 2008 recession. Moreover, Dave did not speak much German. Fortunately, Zurich has a very international culture [there were 20 different nationalities in his unit] and the day to day language at work is English. Dave thrived within the organisation and was promoted to Head of European Technology Services and from there to Head of European Service Operations, taking responsibility for engineering across all technologies in the region.
In 2013, after another restructure and with his children having left home, Dave was looking for another challenge in another country. He moved to Dublin to create a new technology hub there for Zurich. On day one there were just four people working in the hub. Dave enjoyed building it up from scratch – he speaks of the excitement of working in a large organisation, but with a start-up mentality. The unit aims to modernise the service delivery model and implement processes and technologies to support ‘always-on’ IT services. It has gone from the original four members of staff to 150 employees. Over the years, Dave grew to love Ireland and is proud in particular of the diversity of the team he built which now comprises people from over 30 nationalities. “It is wonderful to see what you can do with a truly diverse unit,” he says.
Dave and his wife stayed in Ireland until the end of 2017 when the pressure from family to move back to the UK became too much. Once again, Dave spoke to his manager about his situation and he was invited to set up and head a new function – Service Operational Integration – with much of the team being in Dublin but others being based in the US, Spain and the UK. The global nature of the team who are connected via technology means that Covid has had little impact on their ability to work effectively, although Dave used to visit different members of the team regularly for face to face meetings before the pandemic and says that such meetings do bring value. Nevertheless, he is a firm believer in the value of flexible working for inclusion and engagement. In fact, he introduced flexible working – three days in the office and two at home – in the Dublin office and received very positive feedback and says that it improved the team’s motivation.
Looking back on his career, Dave is very appreciative of Zurich which he says has been a very supportive employer that is absolutely focused on its people. He says that creates motivated teams with a vested interest in contributing to the best of their abilities. He praises the company’s senior management for the way they “put employees front and centre”. That support and his own determination and openness to new experiences have helped him throughout his career. “I’ve taken a lot of risks in my career and it could have gone horribly wrong, but it didn’t,” he says, adding that he believes passionately in stretching people, a clear theme of his own career. He adds: “If you are willing to take a chance on people you will be surprised by what you get back.”