Caroline Jordan looks at how the Towergate 'academy' is helping to develop the company's expanding workforce

There is no point identifying then buying first rate businesses and forgetting about the people. Beyond this, with most experts agreeing there is a serious shortage of talent within the insurance industry, quality training and development are critical for future growth and success. Indeed, better opportunities for their employees is often one of the main reasons why a principal or a broker's board will agree to sell to Towergate.

Towergate is hungry for good people and it wants them to stay. To develop the next generation it launched the Towergate Academy, with the aim of developing management talent. It also puts high emphasis on employees achieving CII exams and offers many short courses run internally and externally.

Back in 2005, when Towergate and Folgate merged, chairman Peter Cullum stated: "I have assured our staff that there will be no compulsory redundancies. Retaining quality people is pivotal to our ambitious growth plans. We will therefore be increasing our current investment in our management training academy."

The academy was set up to tackle the issue of succession planning, explains group people development manager, Kelly Harland. "We want to see around 10% to 15% of people within the business take part in the academy. You need special quality to be accepted and also prepared to put the work in. You spend one day in every three weeks attending courses and then have work to do between sessions. Some will also attend while doing CII qualifications as well."

But, while it sounds like hard work, Harland says because the academy is selective, it has gained real kudos. "Those who are approached know it is exclusive and so will take the opportunity with both hands and run with it."

Typically, just over 100 employees are taking part each year and as the company grows, numbers will increase.

There are four levels of management training offered within the academy, ranging from introductory to those needing to be managing directors. Training is overseen by the dean, Dr Brian Thomas, who is a psychologist, and trainers include a range of business specialists. This September, an MBA programme will be launched in conjunction with Cass Business School.

Julie Walker was recently promoted as the broking division's regional marketing director, having previously had a sales and marketing role in their Kettering office, a commercial lines broking firm that became part of Towergate in 2004. Julie is a graduate of the academy - known as "academicians" and comments: "I've recently completed the Academy Diploma. Getting away one day every three weeks was quite challenging, but you can't be at your day job to focus. If anything, attending the courses was easier than all the work required in between. It was hard, but I'm now considering doing the MBA."

Meanwhile, Nick Houghton, managing director of Leeds-based Towergate Professional Risks, says: "I recently started the executive diploma at the academy. I saw it as an opportunity and the best part about it was that I could apply the training to my job."

Houghton adds that access to training is also motivating for his team of 30 staff. "The culture is about making a difference and for anyone from a more corporate background, you need to adapt to change. Although we're part of a big company, we are encouraged to treat our operation as our own business. If people have the capability and are career minded, this is the organisation for them to work for."

Harland adds that Towergate also believes in recognising the efforts made. "Once a course has been completed we'll have a big celebration, when we also made sure we got feedback on how relevant the training was and any improvements we could make.

Towergate has grown rapidly from a handful of people at its inception in 1997 to over 3,000 now employed.

Keith Harrison, operations director for Towergate Northern Underwriters, based in Stokesby, north Yorkshire, says 15 out of his team of 35 are studying for professional qualifications and he has also completed a course with the academy.

He adds there is also scope for regional firms to take part in their own initiatives linked to training and recruitment. "We're running a diversity mentoring programme with Teeside University and are currently focusing on students there who have disabilities. There are 26 students who our people are engaging with. Some will do placements with us and hopefully may be interested in careers, but there will be no pressure to join Towergate. We'd like to build links with the university and for them to find out about how we operate."

Lynda Thwaites, Towergate's 'head of people, pay and fun', has known Peter Cullum since 1969 when they both worked for the same insurer. Years later, in 1999, he asked her to join Towergate two years after its inception.

She was formerly an insurance, rather than HR professional, but Cullum believed she had the type of skills that would help unite people across the business. "I was doing a totally different job, but Peter just said come and look after my people," she explains.

She says when she first joined there were 200 staff and the business had a family feel. She feels this is still tangible. "We're big now, but not faceless. The fun part of my job title is about bringing people together. We regularly take staff with their partners and children for family days to places like Thorpe Park and Alton Towers."
There is now an HR team of 11, but she says the overall aim is to avoid excessive layers of bureaucracy and management - and to allow individual firms to have some autonomy. There are some common standards, however, with minimum entry requirements for all new starters - seven GCSEs being the pre-requisite, with degrees and qualifications desired for most key roles.

Thwaites concludes: "This is a fast-moving company and won't suit everyone. But we are certainly not anonymous and every member of the HR team believes our people are the most important part of the business. We have an employee benefit trust, set up by the shareholders, which means part of the company is owned by the employees."