RSA and a Good Plate of Pasta

Today’s blog is more secular but still thought provoking nonetheless. It draws upon an example from my market environment but the learning points are universal.

Being a thoroughbred Southern Mediterranean (if there is such a thing as a regional pedigree!) I take as much pride in cooking as I do in eating certain dishes. My kitchen top and the oven are my blank canvas (I’m not sure my wife would like the sound of that, but I do clean up afterwards, honestly!) and my imagination and the fridge’s/larder’s contents my limit.

Yesterday evening was one such occasion where I prepared pasta for the family while pondering on RSA’s pedigree. For those who are uninitiated in insurance, RSA stands for Royal Sun Alliance which came about through a merger of many insurance companies over many years. As I am slicing garlic, which in my book underpins any food worth savouring, I remembered the Post (UK) Magazine’s cover with references to RSA starting its business in 1710 and insuring property belonging to several famous personas including the likes of Charles Darwin and Captain James Cook.

In the meantime the whole-meal pasta (gnochetti) is already simmering. My wife actually taught me a very good trick; once you bring the pasta to boil, turn off the fire and the pasta will continue to ‘cook’ in the water provided that the lid of the pot is not removed. 5 minutes is enough for an eco-friendly, excellent al dente finish.

With all due respect to a prestigious company that underwrites insurance in over 130 countries from about 35 locations worldwide, RSA has only been in existence since 1996 (and not 1710). One of its predecessors, the Sun Fire Office, was established in 1710. However, to say that RSA is 300 years old is akin to me saying that I am 368 years old because the first Portelli who fathered generations of us until my birth was himself born on our tiny island in 1642 (or thereabouts)!

By this time the pasta is ready and, after a cold rinse, I let it rest in the colander while I concoct the sauce. It is important to give the pasta a quick, cold rinse as soon as you empty it into the colander to maintain separation.

But does it really matter how old one is? It is not age but, perhaps, adaptability in response to changing times and circumstances that spelled continued success for RSA. As recent as 2008 they restructured yet again to put more emphasis on emerging markets. Two years (and one mega-financial crisis) later one can’t help realise how correct the man or team behind this strategy was/were.

Okay. If you are also interested in the sauce recipe for the pasta please read carefully; this is the crucial bit. Based on available ingredients (the joys of impromptu cooking) I decided to go for a Southern Mediterranean fusion sauce of my own invention. First I let the garlic chips (coarsely cut to retain that ‘crunch’) sizzle in white wine. For those who want an alternative to white wine you may use virgin olive oil (but this would need closer attention). As the garlic starts to release it potent aroma, I throw in a generous helping of pure honey (3 tablespoons?). This starts to melt almost instantaneously; at which point I add Italian gorgonzola (for the less patriotic, French Roquefort or German gorgonzola would do) in addition to some fresh (white) mozzarella bufala (if you find the Southern Italian mozzarella burrita so much the better) chopped into small cubes and a sprinkle of basil. This process literally takes 1 – 3 minutes, at which time you also throw in the pasta from the colander onto the pasta and mix them together while on low heat. The final touch, just before turning off the heat is a splatter of plain white yoghurt which is also mixed into pasta and sauce with the heat already turned off (otherwise your yoghurt would turn into water!)

Back to RSA and the lessons from this story … The above story may seem trivial but, mixed with the pasta recipe there are some lessons that one can draw from a business perspective that can apply to our own work circumstances, namely:

  1. Age and size do not guarantee lasting success. It’s not the T-Rex but the smaller reptiles that survived extinction. One has to be fit for purpose;
  2. However size is not necessarily a recipe for disaster as long as one can adapt. Adaptability is the key to survival in any evolutionary process. We do not have the Sun Fire Office today, nor do we have the Royal or the Sun Alliance. We have RSA. It may be worth asking, “Which inherent elements have survived the evolutionary process and which died a natural death?”;
  3. Whereas adaptability is the key to survival it is not the key to success. Relevance is what makes a company thrive. What makes us relevant is customer focus; 
  4. According to Adam Smith (a Glaswegian and the grandfather of economics), “the sole purpose of production is consumption”. This statement is not as simple as it sounds; on the contrary it is a loaded statement. Some people cook with wine and others with olive oil. Hence the reason for a conglomerate not only having a presence in multiple jurisdictions but also setting the tone from the top into three distinct pillars (UK, International and Emerging Markets) addressing distinct market needs. At a more micro-level, RSA Middle East for example, commissioned a very interesting study on consumer behaviour challenging earlier held beliefs of market segmentation based on demographics. They had some very compelling arguments indicating a clear customer-driven focus. One fallacy of demographics-driven marketing, for example, is that Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Lemmy (Motorhead) fall in the same category. But would one expect them to behave similarly? 
  5. Finally, like a good plate of pasta, development and innovation need not necessarily be expensive or driven by external consultants. It can be ‘home-grown’, more economically achieved and more ‘specific market-relevant’ with greater participation from one’s own ranks. Companies that ‘work with what that they have’ and that empower and reward their resources have more success stories to impart. This does however need to be seasoned with a few words of caution. Experience alone is not sufficient. It is home-grown experienced blended with the necessary technical knowledge that results in success.

Therefore, in summary, 5 learning points for our personal life as well as the way we do business. We have to be (or our organisation / processes need to be):

a) Fit for purpose

b) Flexible / Adaptable

c) Relevant

d) Customer-focused. Anything else is just bells and whistles

e) Able to draw upon home-grown (internal) expertise. This increases the sense of ownership, accountability and accomplishment.

I will part with one final advice on the pasta dish. Please garnish it before eating. A sprinkle of finely chopped parsley and some grated cheese (a mixture of Parmeggiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano in equal proportions is my personal favourite in this case) would exquisitely dress up this meal that was less than 10 minutes in the making. Enjoy!

This entry was posted in Insurance, Life's Fellowship, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to RSA and a Good Plate of Pasta

  1. Madiha says:

    I love reading through your little anecdotes… !

    Point 3 is what got to me though.. not too sure why.. maybe because I’ve seen quite a bit of lack of focus, and irrelevance in business. I find the point simple, yet profound. I have a feeling, a few years down the line your line’s going to come back to me at an odd moment when it’s needed; I’ll probably borrow it from you then! 🙂

    Envious of your cooking skills; I don’t, for the life of me, know most the ingredients mentioned!

  2. AJM says:

    Having been on the receiving side of a few repas invites I can confirm the veracity of the contents; James and the noodle have an intimate thing going on and he effortlessly brings out the taste and the texture of each ingredient in the sauce; that is probably the secret to south med gastronomy – honesty and simplicity – the garlic tastes of garlic in all the right places and in all the right strengths, James’ post-boiling ritual ensures the pasta’s texture is just right, his choice of cheeses is unassailable, the tomato can be actually seen in the tomato sauce, the onion melts away leaving a mere pleasing memory of its permanence in the sauce..

    And yes James many a listed mammoth corporation would do good to heed your observations – expensive and exotic is not always the way to go; at times one need only look in one’s own back yard


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