As Jelf explodes into the Top 50, Sandy Maxwell talks to group Chief Executive Alex Alway to see where the Bristol-based broker is heading.

Bristol is more renowned for its connections with Brunel and the industrial revolution than its financial strength, but one broker based in the city has been steadily building a formidable reputation over the past year.

Jelf is one of this year's biggest movers and shakers, storming into the Top 50 at number 43, a leap of 20 places on last year's position.

Given Jelf's ravenous appetite for acquisitions over the past year, with the £10m purchase of Goss Group the most high-profile coup, many observers could be fooled into thinking that consolidation was the company's main route to growth.

But Alex Alway, group Chief Executive, refutes this. He says: "We've achieved just as much organic growth as acquisitions growth. We recently announced 27% year-on-year organic growth in our half-yearly stock exchange announcement."

Alway was in expansive mood when discussing Jelf's strategy. Recent acquisitions have focused on southern England and Wales. Alway says: "We're concentrated along the M4 and up and down the M5."

So will the AIM-listed broker expand away from its southern roots? Alway thinks not: "We're not finding any shortage of opportunities but geographically we're a business that will always be based in southern England."

Holistic ideal

Last month, Jelf picked up asset finance broker, Auto Business Solutions. Alway is particularly pleased that this purchase came about as a result of the firm's belief in cross-fertilisation and treating Jelf's four arms - insurance, healthcare, IFA and commercial finance - as a holistic entity.

He says: "We get the true value if we sell all the services in. We are very much client-focused and if we talk to clients about all the offerings we have, then we will prosper."

Alway adds: "We often talk to clients about insurance and they end up talking to us about their businesses and where they can go with finance."

He is keen to emphasise Jelf's focus on the customer. "We are regarded as a broker in the truest sense," he believes.

"We have very little in the way of schemes... we're very much a good commercial broker. We sell the whole group and all of its services. That's very much what brokers used to do before they became specialists in insurance. When we talk to a client, we talk about the range of things we can offer."

So Jelf is bucking the trend towards niche specialisation. Alway says: "We have niches, but we sell the whole services. We have specialists in certain areas, such as fleet and removals, but the key is then to play in the whole group."

He reckons this separates Jelf from its peers. Another key differential is Jelf's expertise across the business, says Alway.

"A lot of businesses that achieved rapid growth in the Top 50 are led by one or two entrepreneurial characters. Jelf has a good team of managers and owners that perhaps makes it a little different. Chris Jelf made a clear decision to bring in people and use equity to attract them before we floated. We have a team capable of taking it to the next level."

As for schemes, Alway is not a believer.

"We haven't avoided schemes deliberately but we feel more comfortable dealing with businesses... the key thing is understanding the client and offering a range of services.

"I'm not ruling out the possibility that we might have schemes in the future but we just haven't gone down that route. We see ourselves as very much the intermediary."

Technology provider

Technology is key. Alway enthuses about the offerings of Acturis, which Jelf recently brought on board across its insurance division.

He says: "We were with Misys and Goss were with Sectornet but going forward we've converted to Acturis. We did a full in-depth review of the market and for our particular offering they stood out as the best provider. People are now looking at end-to-end processing and that was the advantage of Acturis."

But it's Jelf's listing on the Alternative Investment Market that places the broker in "a unique position", according to Alway. He says the flotation in October 2004 "has given us access to capital, given people the opportunity to enjoy the wealth creation in the business. Over a quarter of our staff now own shares in the company".

Jelf's share price at the time of writing stands at 165p, close to its all-time high of 175p and an improvement of almost 50% since the start of the year.

Alway isn't worried about being beholden to stock price fluctuations. "If anything, a highly-rated stock gives us an unbelievable opportunity," he says.

When Jelf floated in October 2004, it had an annualised turnover of about £6m. The broker now controls gross written premiums of £90m.

All the indications are that Jelf has a long way to go before growth levels off. Alway drops a heavy hint that more acquisitions are in the pipeline. "You only have to look at the way the market is to see there are plenty of opportunities. The trick is to get the ones that add value".

Brunel's Clifton suspension bridge and Temple Meads station have stood the test of time. One has the feeling that the foundations being laid by Jelf will leave a similar legacy.