What does the England rugby team’s change to Lycra kit have to do with competing as a young broker? Everything, says Kyran Bracken, one of the guest speakers at our recent IT Pack event

Young brokers were given some valuable guidance on how to be competitive at the third IT Pack Event of 2010.

Speakers included Clear Group chief executive Howard Lickens, Aviva’s head of trading Jodi Grattidge, 2009 IT Pack winner Matthew Stringer, and former England rugby star and 2007 Dancing on Ice champion Kyran Bracken MBE.

The event was held at Panacea restaurant and cocktail bar, a nightspot popular with Manchester footballers and celebrities.

Guests were welcomed into Panacea’s low-lit enclave by Aviva’s head of corporate sales and marketing Brian Spinks.

Insurance Times assistant editor Saxon East then introduced Clear Group’s Lickens, who told the eager audience that the key to gaining a competitive edge in the insurance industry is to always maintain a clear strategic vision.

Lickens said: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I can point to dozens of insurance brokers full of people who just advise their clients. Advising is great, but it’s not great if you want to grow. You must do more than that.”

Focusing on a specific area of broking is part of Lickens’ strategy. He advised young brokers not to get too distracted by growth. “It is impossible to grow organically at the same time as making acquisitions,” he said.

Lickens emphasised the importance of maintaining good relationships with both staff and clients. He said: “Running a successful business is about relationships, relationships, relationships. Ours is a people business, so you have to look after people.”

Creating a performance culture where staff want to achieve is key to retaining the best talent in the field, according to Lickens.

He said: “As bosses, you must trust your staff. If people enjoy what they’re doing, they try harder and do a better job.

Lickens dared young brokers to be different from their competitors to gain an edge, perhaps seeking credentials in a specialisation. He said: “It doesn’t matter how you are different. But you have to understand your position in the market and exploit it.”

He finished by noting other reasons businesses do not have a competitive edge. He said those who focus only on broking are missing the “heart of the business”.

Lickens also said that business owner who fail to invest capital back into the business will fail to have long-term vision, as well as those who fail to embrace change.

Walk tall and show your individuality

Aviva’s head of trading, Jodi Grattidge, offered the young brokers further advice on using their personalities in order to gain a competitive edge.

“What is it that makes you different? What is it that makes you memorable? Because that’s what is important in our industry,” she said.

Grattidge told the brokers how appearance and body language carry unspoken messages about professionalism. “The minute you walk in a client’s door, people are making an assessment about you before you have said anything.”

She used her 6ft 4in stature as an example of how to use unique character traits to gain an edge. “I don’t shy away from my height. I try to use it to my advantage. When I come into a room, I walk in confidently, shoulders back.”

Grattidge encouraged the young brokers to speak out and change the industry for the better. There are benefits to belonging to a new generation, with fresh ideas, she said. “What you’ve got to say is as valid as what someone with 30 years’ industry experience has to say”.

Keeping promises to clients and colleagues is an easy but vital tool for upcoming brokers trying to stand out from their peers, Grattidge added.

“You can make such an impact by just doing what you say you are going to do,” she said. “Think about the little things that you can do to really stand out and make a difference to the client.”

Before breaking for lunch, Lickens and Grattidge answered questions from the brokers. 2009 IT Pack winner Matthew Stringer asked Lickens what his biggest career failure has been and how the group could learn from it.

Lickens said: “Almost all the times I have made big career mistakes, it’s been because I haven’t been assertive enough. When I haven’t challenged something I knew wasn’t right.”

Reich property account handler Leon Walker asked Grattidge how young brokers can help to change the perception in the market that insurance is a “weaker younger brother” to other financial services, such as accounting.

Grattidge said qualifications such as CII would help to establish insurance as a credible industry against other tertiary-qualified professions.

But Lickens argued that it is also the industry’s fault for downplaying the profession. “We’re all a bit sheepish about it. I used to say I’m one step up from a traffic warden and one down from an estate agent,” he said, adding: “We should be more confident about insurance. We do a bloody good job.”

On that note, the brokers and guest speakers enjoyed a lunch of mezze, gourmet sandwiches and wine, with a side order of industry networking. Following a flurry of card-swapping, the afternoon began with a short address from Stringer.

Don’t promise to paint the sky pink

Having started Bloomhill Insurance Solutions from his bedroom in his parents’ house aged 21, the UK’s youngest brokerage owner implored the delegates to always maintain their integrity.

“What I’d say to anyone looking to set themselves apart from their competitors is keep it real. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not, because a client will pick up on it and tear you to pieces,” Stringer said.

He echoed the thoughts of Lickens by emphasising the importance of people and relationships for young brokers looking to stand out. “People buy from people. We’re in an industry that is very money-led. There are a lot of clients who’ll move for a fiver. But if you develop a relationship with people, you can get past the financials,” he explained.

Stringer said that managing client expectations with honesty is the key to maintaining relationships. “Much better to tell a client that you have done something better for them than to promise to paint the sky pink and tomorrow it’s still blue,” he said.

Knowing your own weaknesses and exploiting those of a competitor will sharpen the edge, he added. And, like Grattidge, he also emphasised the importance of keeping promises to clients.

Following on from Stringer was star attraction Kyran Bracken, former England rugby international and now ice dance celebrity, who discussed lessons he learned during his time as a competitive sportsman. It was preparation, he said, that gave England the competitive edge and helped win the 2003 Rugby World Cup in extra time. “A huge part of preparation is being the fittest. For us to be the best, we had to be a lot fitter than anyone else in the world.

“We went out there and we were the fittest, the strongest, the fastest. We knew everything there was to know about everyone else. We had security. It wasn’t just luck that we happened to win the World Cup. We were prepared.” Bracken said.

For young brokers, the equivalent is gaining an edge by working hard to stand out in a crowded market. Impressing upon his audience the importance of always striving for more, Bracken said his determination and inner drive saw him practising throwing 201 passes a day – one more than his nearest competitor – until he was selected to play for England.

Bracken used Al Pacino’s classic ‘inch by inch’ speech from the film Any Given Sunday to remind the brokers how small steps like these in the short term can achieve long-term career gain.

Gain respect before you innovate

But being prepared, he added, is not enough. Young brokers also need to strive to be innovative and different because resistance to change gives competitors an edge. “What is going to separate you from other businesses? How are you going to change?” Bracken asked.

As an example, he offered England’s innovative uniform change from thick cotton jerseys to form-fitting Lycra, which prevented players being dragged down by their collar in a tackle. InsuranceTimes’s Saxon East then delighted the crowd by donning a skin-tight French rugby team kit over his suit.

Walker then grilled Bracken about how young brokers can overcome the obstacle of senior management who resist change. Bracken said: “It’s about is doing what is asked of you, but doing a little bit more, making a success of what you have been asked to do, gaining respect from your colleagues and then trying to influence change.”

In summing up the session, Bracken told the brokers: “You are a business within your own right. You need a game plan for the rest of your career. Everyone is motivated by success, but you have to get off the treadmill.” IT

Click here for more photos from the Manchester IT Pack.