Here is a write up of a quickfire interview with Douglas Barnett, Director at AXA and Chairman of BAFE. This interview touches on why doing the right thing is not always popular, the diversity of the fire industry and the current opportunity to make meaningful changes to our industry.

31 March 2021 by Adam Richardson, General Manager

Fireside Chat with Douglas Barnett

Intro: Douglas is Director of Mid-Market and Customer Risk Management for AXA Insurance UK plc. Douglas has been involved in the delivery of risk management in the insurance industry for more than 30 in the UK and also across mainland Europe. He has been involved in the development of AXA’s Mid-Market proposition (Vantage) since 2015 and took over responsibility for the segment, in addition to his risk management role, in 2017.

He has represented AXA Insurance on a number of technical groups of the ABI (Association of British Insurers) and represented ABI at regulatory and governmental bodies on flood & climate change, economic cost of fire, modern methods of construction and crime. Douglas is Chairman of BAFE (British Approvals for Fire Appliances), a Director of the Scottish Business Resilience Centre, Chair of the Scottish Business Engagement Forum is a member of the International Advisory Board to the Centre for Floods, Communities and Resilience at the University of the West of England and sits on the Police Scotland’s Independent Advisory Panel. Mid-market for AXA are customers where their customer premium is between £10,0000 - £250,000

  • How have you been affected by COVID-19?

The biggest issue for me is, the last week in March 2020, I actually caught COVID-19, I was then off work for about 6 weeks and it probably took me another 3 or 5 weeks to fully recover, after going back for 2 to 4 hours a day. 

I live in Glasgow but I was in London probably at least 3/4 days a week, in the 4 weeks prior to Covid lockdown.  So, each of the 4 weeks I was in London 4 days a week, just as everything was getting ramped up and I, unfortunately, got it.  I went down with it the day after Boris announced that Lockdown was coming.  So, I was one of the early ones.  I can’t have imagined that it would still be here 11 months later because now with my day job being in insurance, my team had actually been preparing for probably about 6 weeks prior to it because we saw it coming from South East Asia through Europe so we’d actually been preparing how to remove a team of 45 risk engineers from the road and still support our customers where the default engagement was face to face.

How that has translated at AXA as well as Chairmanship of BAFE is, we just very quickly switched to regular telephone calls with board etc moving to video. it’s very important to understand that not everyone is used to holding meetings on zoom or what-ever platform everyone could access, and there is a different way to conduct a meeting so its key to be a bit more patient.

The other thing for me is 4-hour meeting on video conference isn’t effective or good practice, you should be aiming for 90 minutes to 2 hours very maximum with a couple of breaks.  So, it’s how you actually manage a meeting that is really important and it is different during COVID-19 when people can be managing multiple challenges as well as still delivering their day job.

Regarding changing from in-person meetings to virtual ones it’s been good.  When we realised in AXA that the business would require to operate from what is in effect 900 ‘home offices ‘rather than our 12 branch offices we as a leadership team decided.  In the week before this kicked off, we decided we’d have a daily meeting at the start of the day for an hour to understand what were the issues of the day, what our individual/team priorities were, and what support we may require from others. That still continues today and we feel it’s continued with its value and something we will continue for some time.

Prior to Covid lockdown, we did meet face to face regularly in various meetings as well as dedicated leadership team meetings and when discussing the frequency of meetings s couple of years ago colleague did suggest daily catch ups…….little did we know it would be adopted a few months later and was used for a priority prioritisation forum as well as a general update forum!   

Personal Questions

  • Do you have any pets?

I have one pet, a dog, a cockapoo called Lottie. It’s actually her 3rd Birthday on the day of this interview and she’s got a couple of new toys and a new (Barbour waxed) coat.

  • What’s your favourite movie of all time?

Towering Inferno, about a futuristic tower block catching fire and people not being able to get out of it, people dying, fire climbing up the façade and people getting airlifted by helicopter.  Now, look at the job that I do.  I saw that film when I was 10 or 12 and I’ve now moved into the fire sector.  It’s a film I always remember. Sad but true!

  • Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?

Tall, blond and chilled.

  • What is your biggest pet peeve/hate? 

Arrogance, particularly from some consultants.  If I put my AXA hat on, we’d be here all day with the examples of when consultants request a meeting with the thought that we will just agree and that we may not have the knowledge or an opinion gathered from many years of experience sometimes, it just really annoys me. 

Another thing that can be frustrating, is when progression or technical advances can be hampered by going straight to ‘it isn’t possible because’ really annoys me and how some people that go back to standards and then they’ll say “Clause 23, subsection 5 line 2, there’s a comma in that line so we can’t do that”.  That then stops change, stops the debate because people are looking for reasons not to change because it’s what they’re comfortable with.

There is a dilemma of standards being a force for good for delivering quality, consistency and protecting lives and standards but having additional friction that’s halting innovation and in some ways they can be, in the longer term, worse for life safety, it’s just so hard trying to get to the bottom of it and taking a stand on it. 

  • If you could be from any other decade (or era), which would it be and why?

The 70 takes me back to childhood, great times, great music.  I really enjoyed the 70’s.

  • If you weren’t in the fire industry – what would you be doing and why?

I think I’d still be insurance.  As a kid, I wanted to be an air traffic controller but that was just one of these thing’s where I don’t know where it came from but even at age 15/16 I was still going to be an air traffic controller and then I fell into insurance and didn’t come back out. 

I’ve been in insurance for my whole career and with BAFE since February 2014, time flies.  I had been involved in the fire sector through insurance engaging with people like John O’Neill, Denis Davies and Ian Moore etc. Then I was asked if I would consider applying for the chair position of BAFE, with part of the Board at that time felt that BAFE needed a bit of a shake-up and somebody from the commercial world.  Because the BAFE chair was always ex-chief fire officers, so that was the first-ever non-chief fire officer to take the role and it was a case of a bit more commercialisation and shake the organisation up and look at it slightly differently.   

  • What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?

The Jam, Deacon Blue, Adele and Tina Turner, Simply the Best.

  • If you could have any three people (dead or alive) over for dinner – who would they be?

Winston Churchill, Trump and Ian Moore. That would be fab.  It would be loud, we’d debate and I think there would be some fantastic drink taking, I think there’d be some quite un-pc comments.

  • What is your favourite quote and why? 

Just do it.  It’s Nike’s motto but it’s very relevant in business especially when you are fed up with going to so many meetings and people keep on delaying, then you just say, look, just do it.

  • What two things would you take to a Desert Island?

IPad and Airpods

  • Name a book, movie or tv show that has positively shaped you and why?

Towering Inferno

  •  If you were an animal, what would it be and why?

A cheetah, you want to be fast-moving, you want to be quite aggressive and you want to be quite sly, as in quite in the grass watching things but moving quickly.  They go in for the kill when the time is right. 

  • What is the best gift you’ve ever received?

50th Birthday present which was a luxury cruise that included Monaco Grand Prix and seats directly opposite the Pitt Lane.  Hamilton won it and got booed by everyone as a result of team orders ordering Nico Rosberg to let Hamilton pass.

  • What's your favourite thing in your closet right now?

A thick padded Berghaus jacket. 

  • If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

I want to get the world and the UK back to where we were.  I used to travel 3/4 days a week and at one point I did 124 flights a year, I said then it was too much, but I’m really missing it.  I just want a bit of normality where we can do a bit of travel.  To be honest, I’d quite actually like to be in an airport now and just sit with a 3-hour delay just to do something different.  London City airport, within 20 yards of Pret a Manger, a good Pret coffee and a really unhealthy sandwich from Pret would be really nice. 


Professional Questions

  • What's the best piece of advice you've received?

Be yourself.

  • What time did you get to work this morning?

7.30 am.  I get up at 6.10 am, take the dog out and then I’m back on the computer by 7.30 am.  Normally I’m used to being in the Glasgow office 1 or 2 days a week apart from that I’m in London and taking the 6 am flight and being at a desk by 08:30 – if I am already in London, I’m in the office at 6.30 am, so I’m used to the early starts.  I think where we are now, once you log on at whatever time, quite often you do not move until 6 or 6.30 pm, it is really important to ensure you blank 30/60min breaks into the diary to stop others filling up your diary to ensure you get a break and clear head. 

When I was recovering from COVID-19, every single day I had an hour and a half break in the middle of the day and ensured I got out of the house to walk the dog just to clear my head.  But I always try to take the dog out first thing in the morning and then as soon as I shut down, be it 5,6 or 7 pm, I take her out again just to get fresh air. 

  • What does your usual day look like?

Up early, take the dog out, log on, an hour’s call with the senior leadership team and then meetings and calls throughout the day, and that’s a mixture of telephone and video calls. That can be internal AXA, it can be BAFE, or external with AXA customers and I also sit as a non-executive at the Scottish business resilience centre. The way I split my time percentage-wise is through having a good PA and I just do what I’m told. 

It makes everything a lot easier and I get told off if I put diary events in myself without checking! Regarding having someone else doing the thinking for me I find it’s having confidence and trust, my PA has access to all my emails and diary, so quite often I will see a diary appointment come up like later in the day and I say “What’s this about, what’s that about?” and she would have picked up a message from my diary and just arranged a meeting. 

  • What makes you excited about the future of this industry?

I think at present we have a once in a lifetime opportunity, following Grenfell and following Hackitt.  It depends on focus, on regulators and the industry as well.  I think there are too many people in this industry that have got their heads stuck in the ground and looking backwords rather than considering the opportunity. I’m excited to work towards a safer built environment and a country to live in that’s safe for all the people.

  • What do you like about the fire industry?

Diversity, I think there’s so much in the fire sector, be it from a people angle, from a technology angle. The difference between some fire extinguishers that have been around since 1819, haven’t changed much but are still an essential part of the fire protection jigsaw today as they have been for the last 200 years. Then at the same time you’ve then got real specialist knowledge and some technology that’s really pushing the boundaries.  I just love that whole diverse nature, but on the other hand a lot of people don’t take other people’s angles and it makes you think great it could be if we worked together a bit more. 

  • How does your work and family life come together?

I think I’m quite lucky as I only have one of the boys left in the house now.  He works fairly long hours as well. My wife has just recently retired.  What helps is that I have a separate office in the house so I can shut the door and I’ve got peace and quiet for however long.  But I think it’s still crucial to make sure you make time for your family.

There are really long weeks at work and making sure there are times when you say, stop its time for yourself and your family.  COVID-19 has meant working from which has allowed me to make more time for my family, there’s certainly more time to chill a bit more with your family. Before I was travelling most days and getting home about 8 or 9 pm and then I was in the office early the next day. Working from home has given me more time to be a part of family things. It’s not just Birthday’s and that kind of thing, it’s just being home when things happen rather than being on the end of a phone somewhere else. 

  • What matters most to you?

Being seen as somebody that does the right thing, even the unpopular thing.  There’s a bit in my DNA, this shows in both my roles at AXA and BAFE.  I hate when we just sit and debate something for too long.

 So, doing the right thing at the right time when it is clearly best for the business our customers now and in the future.

  • What would you tell yourself at the age of 21?

Probably just enjoy yourself.  If I go back to the age of 21 and insurance, that was the realms of the Friday lunchtime we probably used to have about 8 pints in a pub. Work life’s different now, but then it was 6 to 8 pints we used to have every Friday lunchtime and we only had 2 hours to do it in – completely different to what is acceptable in the workplace now.

  • Where do you want to be in 5 years?

I’d like to sit with some achievement that we’ve actually made a difference during this period.  Knowing me, I’ll probably still be working, I won’t have retired because I enjoy my work.  I’ll still look to have some influence in the fire sector. As the Chair of BAFE I’ve always said you’ve got a life span and thus another 5 years of me Chairing I don’t think it would be appropriate as the change will provide fresh thinking and opportunity for organisations.  There are different ways of influencing.  I’ve probably done more than some people would say is healthy for a Chair but I think we’re still in a change period and I think we’ll come to a natural changed period where we’ll be into much more of our embedded type of change in the next few years.

Regarding the acquisition of the FIA Awarding Organisation by FireQual that’s an exciting change and all we’ve got to do is get the paperwork from the 4 different regulators, with two delivered this week.  There’s a huge amount going on behind the scenes and it’s all really positive and more information will be available over the next couple of weeks.

  • Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?

The FIA is a body that brings together knowledge, experience and thought leadership to the sector.  The FIA provide a central point of access where you have a requirement for a research project, a technical question, Government lobbying or a wider discussion on future technology and how it can influence the built environment going forward.  

  • What do you want to say to the readers?

Believe in and embrace change.