The boss of an insurance giant has revealed how he went from a difficult childhood growing up on a miners’ estate to become a promising youth footballer with dreams of playing for Liverpool – before rising to the position of CEO of a group worth over £1bn.
Ian Donaldson heads up Atlanta Group, which owns Swinton Insurance, Autonet and Carole Nash and is part of the worldwide Ardonagh Group, but just like his business’ success, the 46-year-old’s personal story is also something quite remarkable.
In a rare interview, Ian told BusinessLive how he grew up on a 1980s miners’ estate in Kidsgrove in Staffordshire, and had a “tough upbringing” – despite getting a “strong steer” from the women in his life.
He said: “I was the middle child of five, and I lived with my gran for all of my childhood through to sixth form.
“It was a tough upbringing. With my granddad having been a miner, we lived on a miners’ estate, which is basically a step down from a council estate. After my mum and dad separated, I went to live with my grandmother.
“You were taught to work and study very hard – as hard as you could.
“I was the only one of the five kids that sat in my gran’s handwriting lessons and I remember going to high school for the first time and blowing away the head teacher with my handwriting.
“A lot of people come from poor backgrounds, but it doesn’t mean they have to be restricted and their dreams and aspirations can’t be achieved.
“It’s not down to where you live or the money that you have or the clothes that you wear, it’s down to the upbringing and the morals and the values that you have as an individual, that your parents instil in you.”
Despite Ian admitting he wasn’t the best footballer out of his brothers, he took it up as a hobby in order to spend more time with his father. And he got further than most in the sport – breaking into Port Vale’s academy.
He said: “Football was a bit of a funny subject in our house. My two elder brothers were good at it and I wasn’t
“But coming from a broken family, the one way to see my dad was getting him to come and watch me play football because I knew he watched my two elder brothers.
“So I learnt to play – watched my brothers, trained myself and did as well as I could do. I eventually got myself in the local team with some of my mates, and did pretty well.
“At the age of nine, I was picked up for Port Vale school of excellence which was an academy. I stayed there until my late teens, and really enjoyed my football, and played a really good standard.”
While having an affinity to Port Vale, Ian had dreams of playing for Liverpool FC, aspirations he still has “to this day” – but he soon opted for a more pragmatic approach, and began his journey into business.
“During the 1980s, there was no Sky or pay-per-view. You would watch Match of the Day or the FA Cup, and I guess maybe I was a bit of a glory hunter back then, and Liverpool were the team of the 80s.
“I had big dreams of playing for Liverpool. In those days I could name every single player and would have loved to play with them.
“I’ve been lucky enough to meet King Kenny [Dalglish] at a function not so long ago – he was an absolute hero of mine and still is.
“But I think I was one of the most sensible ones that knew I wasn’t quite that good, and knew I wasn’t quite good enough to [play for them]. And that’s where, I guess, the next part of my life came.
“I realised at 18 that was not going to be the journey for me. That’s when a few of my mates were working in a call centre in insurance and said I might like this ‘call centre malarkey’. They told me you just chat to people – and I was pretty good at chatting to everybody. I’d sold fruit and veg out of the back of a van as a kid – knocking on people’s doors while everyone else was doing paper rounds, so I looked into it.”
After finishing his A-Levels, Ian “fell into” insurance, and never looked back.
His first company was in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire at Auto Alliance Direct, where he joined as a call centre advisor.
“It was a very entrepreneurial company,” Ian recalled.
“I had a very strict boss, and a lot of people found that very difficult but I found it quite inspirational, and to this day, I have great gratitude to him for what I’ve achieved because he was a real taskmaster.
“But he must have seen something in myself because at 18 he gave me a supervisor, team leader role.”
Not long after, Ian was moved out to the high street branch network, where he became branch manager, before very quickly moving to larger sites through various promotions.
He said: “They must have seen something in me because at the age of 21, he brought me back to run the call centre which had nearly 300 staff at that point.”
Three years later in 1998, he left the company and, at the age of 24, set up Autonet Insurance.
He said: “It was on the ground floor of a nightclub in Newcastle-under-Lyme, meaning most Saturdays when I’d open up the shop, I would find many a present on the doorstep as you can imagine from the Friday night – including chips that had been thrown in the doorway before people got their taxis home.”
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Organic growth and success followed for the firm and it was soon known as the white van man’s favourite insurance broker. In 2013, it paid out an £11m dividend after profits soared.
In 2016, Autonet was sold to global firm HPS Investment Partners, but Ian wanted to keep the business local, and continued to lead.
While operating as its own entity, it soon fell under the worldwide Ardonagh Group, and Ian said: “My partner at the time retired from the business but I carried on running it. I wanted to acquire more businesses and grow even further.
“We had grown Autonet from literally zero to being the largest UK van insurer which was really commendable as what we achieved on our own was a huge, huge business employing about 500 staff in the Stoke-on-Trent area before we actually sold in 2016.”
After 2016, the firm looked to the North West, where Autonet’s first acquisition was Altrincham-based motorcycle insurance broker Carole Nash in 2017, before swooping for Manchester firm Swinton for £165m a year later. The firms later formed Atlanta Investment Holdings C – a subsidiary of Ardonagh, with further acquisitions including Bennetts Motorcycling Services Ltd.
Atlanta now has offices in locations including Manchester, Dublin, London, Bournemouth, Gloucester and Eastleigh, as well as its Stoke-on-Trent HQ.
The entire Ardonagh umbrella company is worth £3.6bn – with the Atlanta group worth “well over a third” of that amount, Ian said. It’s one of the fastest growing brokers in the UK motor insurance market.
Acquisitions will not end there, either, with the firm planning more growth over the coming two years.
Ian said the Atlanta group is now worth over £1bn, adding: “We’re one of, if not the largest retail broker in the UK, from a standing start of zero policies back in 1998, and just me and one of my colleagues setting it up.
“We are now knocking on the door of 2.6m customers within Atlanta, and over 2,500 staff.
“So it’s been a bit of a bit of a whirlwind. It’s not a long time – 1998 until now, but as you can imagine, it’s been it’s been a bit of a journey, and one that I’m very proud of, and one that I’ve seen a lot of local people do really, really well out of.
“I don’t just mean our staff and employees, I mean the local community and the charities we’ve helped.
“It just shows what you can create, because Atlanta stemmed from Autonet, which began in 1998 on a roundabout in Newcastle-under-Lyme.”
Ian is no stranger to good causes, and has been involved with various charities through the years, raising tens of thousands of pounds.
Most recently, he has teamed up with Premier League stars to launch Football for Change UK – an initiative promoting opportunities for disadvantaged communities.
He kickstarted the scheme in August, alongside Liverpool FC star Trent Alexander-Arnold, club legend Jamie Carragher, and Everton’s Anthony Gordon.
Football for Change UK will be sponsored by Swinton Insurance, and bring together business leaders and footballers in a collaborative effort to support young people who are not in education, employment or training, and talented young people in challenged communities who face barriers to achieving their full potential.
Through a variety of major fundraising activities, the initiative will distribute grants to organisations supporting young people in the most deprived areas of the North West, with a particular focus on supporting them into education, employment and training.
Ian said: “Now more than ever, we’re seeing the gap between rich and poor is too big, and what we’ve got to do as businessmen and sports stars and TV and media, is pass on the experiences that we’ve had to show that we’ve not all come from affluent backgrounds.
“The belief that if you’re born rich, you stay rich, or if you’re born poor, you stay poor is a real myth that needs quashing, certainly in the poorer areas.
“I think it’s time for some of these people to see role models, see people with different backgrounds and understand where they come from and to – and these are believable, true stories.
“It’s time that we get in amongst these people and show them that there’s routes to football, there’s routes to business, and there are different routes to success.
“I think it’s really important that we get amongst these people and show them what those routes can look like.
“There’s too many young people that simply just don’t have the tools to reach their full potential. Sadly, some of these then choose the wrong path – and we all know what sort of consequences those wrong paths can have.
“If we can just be around these people, and something that these people can see and touch and aspire to.
“I feel that if we can just get one person on the right pathway that tells another and tells another, then we’ve done a great job.”
Swinton Insurance also announced a partnership with the British LGBT Awards last week, as the company looked to strengthen its commitment to the LGBTQ+ community.
At the awards ceremony held on November 27, Ian presented Sir Elton John with a British LGBT award honouring him for his efforts to raise awareness of HIV through the Elton John Aids Foundation.