The man behind Brett & Randall, Brokerbility and now broker buyer Ataraxia is always cooking up the next big idea. We find out why being a super hero just isn’t enough
Stuart Randall is the light-bulb man. Dreaming up, planning and then executing new ideas is what gets him out of bed in the morning. So it’s no surprise that the former chief executive of Brett & Randall is up bright and early to make the journey from Leicester to London to talk to Insurance Times about the latest feat of his imagination, the mysteriously named Ataraxia.
As one of the broking world’s most chatty characters, he’s happy to share his thoughts on everything from business psychology, the highs and lows of a 30-year career, and why demographics is changing the face of broking.
But first, a bit of background. Over an early morning coffee, Randall recalls his journey from wide-eyed teenager to broking entrepreneur. He started out as a teenage apprentice with Royal Insurance in Birmingham in the late 1970s, quickly being promoted to inspector – an account executive who sells and arranges business to brokers. It wasn’t long before Randall realised he knew more about winning business than the brokers themselves, so in 1982 he set up his own firm with his friend and Leicester-based motor broker David Brett.
The business went from strength to strength, helped by a clutch of clients from Randall’s days at Royal. But this wasn’t enough, and in the mid-1980s he began dreaming up his next big idea.
During a rain-soaked coach trip on holiday with his girlfriend, Randall decided that his business should become an in-house insurance provider for a large company. And, true to his word, he went on to seal a deal with a £300m turnover company called Sims Food Group. “Food factories pay large premiums,” Randall says, before pausing and adding with comic timing: “But they do burn down.” He breaks out into an infectious laugh. “One of them resulted in our biggest loss of £20m, and I could see the smoke 10 miles away from the motorway as I was driving to see it.”
Randall’s next big vision was Brokerbility, formed in 2005. Brokerbility built up to an insurance partnership of 25 to 30 large provincial brokers, supporting each other with business links, best practice and advice. By the time Brokerbility hit around £500m in combined premium income, and with Brett & Randall well established, Randall was ready to move on. A management buy-out at the end of last year paved the way for Brett & Randall’s directors to take over, while Ashwin Mistry succeeded at Brokerbility.
He admits: “Running your own company, despite the fact that you’ve got very good people around you, is not necessarily a lonely place but is a hard place to be. Ultimately, your assets are tied up in that company. And you can’t afford to take your eyes off it for a single moment, because all your security is tied up in that company.”
Randall speaks quickly, and you can almost hear the cogs in his mind turning over at breakneck speed. It’s the sort of mind that would keep you awake at night: countless thoughts tumbling around in the head like a whirling tombola, constantly in search of the golden ticket.
A business course at Cranfield University helped harness this brain power and drive, enabling him to decide on his next venture. He explains: “Cranfield helped me focus on what I needed to. They show you a table and in four corners it has artisan, hero, meddler and strategist. Everyone starts as an artisan and then moves to hero. Most brokers can relate to that – you’re the superman in the office who runs around solving all the problems.
“People then learn to delegate, but in doing so can become meddlers. They constantly have to check up on what people have done, and it’s very difficult to get past that stage for many people. But if you get it right, you can move up to strategist; where you get a helicopter view of what’s going on. Only 5% of people make it to strategist, because most people get stuck at hero or meddler.
“Since that course, I’ve tried to divest myself from the day-to-day stuff to concentrate on the lateral thinking, and the strategy of what we do. Problem-solving and ideas is what I like.”
The latest light-bulb moment came during a business talk with business guru Daniel Burrows.“He is a world leader in trends and a go-to man for Fortune 500 companies. I’ll always remember what he told me. He said there are soft trends and hard trends, and you must base your business in hard trends. If you base your business in soft trends, you’re gambling with your company.”
Randall believes he’s found a hard trend in demographics. He says there is a large swathe of broker owners in the final stages of their career looking to sell. And that’s where Ataraxia comes in.
But it’s a competitive market, with Giles, CCV and Bluefin, to name but a few, all vying for business. So why would a broker choose Ataraxia?
Randall says he can’t go into too much detail because it’s still not fully formed, but says that Ataraxia – which means ‘freedom from emotional disturbance and anxiety’ – will allow brokers to work under their own name for as long as they want.“It’s very difficult when you’ve been an owner-manager to start taking orders and discipline from other people, especially corporate, and people should not underestimate how hard the change is. It’s a dilemma for brokers. We want the choice to be theirs: whether they work for three years, five years or 15 years. The difficulty is that, once you sell, you sell the name above your door.
“A lot of local brokers are well known within an area, and their social life and business life, and status within an area, is inter-linked. If you sell to the Giles or Towergates of this world, you lose your identity. If you’re not careful, it kind of takes away from you as a person, having been part of a community for 20 years, and then having to be part of a corporate or conglomerate.”
If there’s one thing that brokers need to get up to speed on, it’s e-trading, he says before adding that he’s amazed how “behind the curve” the industry has become. His vision of e-trading is not the orthodox arrangement of multi-quote systems, but of using the insurer’s own electronic platforms.
“The reality is that insurers want you to trade with them directly, but they’re not that friendly in the way they do it. You can’t learn all the different systems. The move to a multi-tie basis, where you do it with four insurers, like the consolidators do, means that e-trading is possible directly with the insurer. And it’s not so difficult, because you’ve got four systems to learn rather than 15. Insurers are desperate to keep e-trading within themselves.”
Perhaps there’s a little hint there of what’s in store for Ataraxia? It’s not going to be easy competing against the might of the consolidators. But you sense somehow that Randall will find a way to penetrate the community he loves. It looks like those lights will be flickering a good while longer. IT