Peter Cullum joined Royal Insurance at the age of 18 in 1969. He was appointed marketing director of ITT London and Edinburgh in 1988, after taking various marketing roles within Commercial Union. Three years later he joined Economic Insurance, where he led a management buyout before its eventual sale to Hiscox in 1996. A year later he stepped down as marketing director at Hiscox to set up Towergate, where he is deputy chairman. It now handles more than £3bn in premiums and employs 5,000 staff. Cullum, 63, studied at Cass Business School in London.
When and why did you decide to do an MBA?
I wasn’t making a huge amount of progress at Royal Insurance — I was managing myself rather than others — so I took a year out. I enrolled at City University Business School [now Cass] in October 1974, the only MBA to provide an insurance and risk management module. I wanted to differentiate myself from the traditional insurance industry.
What was it like?
Much more challenging than I had imagined. I had some self-doubt. I was also broke, so I applied for the Edgar Bowring scholarship and won £1,500.
What was the hardest part of the course?
As one of the youngest on the course my business experience was limited and the practical aspects were demanding. I was 24, which, looking back, is too young. I think to fully benefit from an MBA you have to be early thirties or older. Quantitative theory in economics was also hard, given that I did not have a first-class degree in maths.
What part did you most enjoy?
Working on case studies, looking at real businesses. M&S was the definitive example on the basis of its success and ethos of looking after customers and staff. I also studied with very bright individuals from other industries, including Muhtar Kent, who became chief executive of Coca-Cola.
Do you ever think, thank goodness I did an MBA?
Yes, though at the time employers were yet to be convinced of its merits. I would recommend it to anyone now, which is part of the reason I created the Peter Cullum Centre for Entrepreneurship at Cass for MBA graduates. I pledged £10m to fund start-ups like Cloud Business, Microsoft 365’s partner of the year.
What value would you put on your MBA?
It changed the way I thought about business. The MBA teaches you problem-solving, which is transferable to personal or social issues. It enabled me to enjoy success as an individual, executive and entrepreneur.