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The HI Profile: David Capper, chief executive, Westfield Health

Tony Levene asks the questions

Sheffield United’s return to Premiership action – for the first time since their ill-fated 2006-07 season – crowns a double for David Capper, Westfield Health’s chief executive officer.

For, but for a cruel trick of injury, he might now have been on the management team at the Blades rather than at leading a health insurance provider. And just as United will have to re-invent itself if it is to last longer than one season in the top tier, Capper has been busy re-engineering Westfield Health from primarily a cash plan provider to an organisation with wellness as its watchword. He also has some words of warning to what he regards as a “largely complacent industry”.

Capper, the youngest ever CEO at Westfield Health at 40, was born in Stoke but moved with his family to Sheffield when he was eight. He left school at 16 “with a few GCSEs” and the ambition to become a professional footballer. He captained United’s youth team and was a regular reserve until a shin injury ended his playing dream.

“My body failing me took my perfect dream job away. But sport teaches motivation and control. And you can transfer that dedication, discipline and recovery. I went to a job fair and got employed by Norwich Union. I didn’t have formal education qualifications but I had application.”

He spent six years at Norwich Union, rising to become operations manager with projects in legacy pensions. But he found retirement issues boring. He saw an opening at Westfield Health, primarily because the Sheffield-based insurer sponsored both Sheffield teams – United and Wednesday.

“Health meant something to me. As I knew from personal experience, it made a real difference to lives,” he says.

After seven years, he had become head of Westfield Health sales – mainly cash plans sold as employee benefits.

“Then I was headhunted by a firm with no connection to insurance or health. Instead, it focused on translating, based in Leeds, and serving many worldwide companies. I enjoyed lots of travel and ended up as managing director. I was due to re-locate to Washington when family health circumstances intervened. I saw Westfield Health, a not-for-profit, had donated £15m to the NHS over 20 years so I re-connected and re-joined as commercial director in 2015.”

He then decided that Westfield Health should effectively rebrand from one of many lookalike cash plan companies to seeing wellness as its primary message.

“With the NHS facing financial difficulties, it was a huge opportunity to make a difference. The typical cash plan customer makes two claims a year – averaging well under £100. I wanted us to be about health maintenance, early prevention rather than disease treating by encouraging policy holders and others into better life-style choices.”

His mission would be to drive change – especially among Sheffield’s more deprived population, which suffers a 20 year gap in health and a 15 year difference in mortality compared to affluent Britain.

With the old Don Valley stadium demolished and turned into the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine, he had something on his doorstep to turn to that would further his ambition to get people to change behaviour and reduce health problems with physical activity.

“This is tough,” he admits. “Politicians and the NHS think short-term despite increasing mental health problems. We are pushing for a systematic change to allow people to take responsibility. We can’t do it ourselves but we, and the whole insurance world, can think about how we can develop our products and what we do to change. We have to re-imagine ourselves.”

He says everyone knows you need education, self-determination, a sense of belonging and job satisfaction but this has never been escalated.

“Some 40% of people absent from work have given the wrong reason, often to hide stress-related illness. It’s more so among the younger. But despite all the evidence, too many in the industry and elsewhere are only concerned with the short term bottom line. The evidence does not resonate with the non-believer.”

In 2017, Westfield Health acquired Working Health, a boutique delivering onsite gyms and the management and coaching to help maintain energy and sleep. That’s about “solutions”.

This January, he set up a partnership with Exos.

“We’re the UK partner with the $300m American group which specialises in human performance – as an example, it ensures US fire fighters have regular fitness sessions. We don’t want to insure disease but maintenance. If mainstream private medical insurance providers deployed similar strategies, they could reduce the size of payments. With our own staff – about 200 so we’re a classic SME – we stress movement, recovery, mindset and nutrition. These principles can be transferred anywhere.

“As CEO, I set the scene. I create permissions. And I don’t force. I know that ‘if you not working 24/7 you’re a loser’ is total nonsense so no emails on holiday (often in US where the time difference helps avoid anything in the UK). If you can’t have a fortnight off and leave it to others, you’re rubbish. You motivate via leadership, not over-working. I don’t have strict office clothing rules – trust works.”

He recognises he is at the start of a long journey – especially regarding many other insurers.

“Too many just don’t get it,” he says. “Too much of the industry is stuck in tradition. It’s not easy. The role to play for in health insurance is to find a niche that helps customers improve quality of life.”

“I need to convince bodies like AMII (the Association of Medical Insurers & Intermediaries). Motivations should move from must to want. At Westfield Health, we can see the transition but elsewhere, it seems too often that until they are forced to act, they won’t. In a competitive world, does the broker add value or simply churn? Do they want to prioritise early intervention or make a transaction? We are the leaders in this – much of the industry remains the problem.”

Westfield Health has created a national wellbeing index which it intends to run on a quarterly basis.

“We also want to create content around solutions – but here’s not how to do it. We were approached by a big law practice. It wanted to extend staff resilience. That was great but only so it could extend billable hours. Pressure is good, too much is bad. We walked out.”

He sums up: “We are now a health and wellbeing company. Insurance is conservative and if you think like an insurer, you’ll miss great opportunities. Make a difference. We’re selective on brokers – either they get it or they don’t.”

And just as if he had stayed in sport, Capper’s final words are “share the excitement”.