Insurance Times speaks to Neil Thomsett, group resource manager, Adler Insurance, a delegate on the Aviva Future Leader Programme
Insurance Times: First of all, could tell me a bit about your background?
Neil Thomsett: My background is quite varied and unusual, and there’s the old stereotype thrown into it, namely that I never intended to get into insurance or insurance broking, but somehow ended up there as many people do. I actually studied engineering at university, and ended up working for Cadbury’s patent team in Birmingham.
It was a really good introduction into working life after university. It was the right company to work for and really interesting. And my girlfriend [now wife] was there as well. So it was a nice place to go, and start to learn the ropes.
My [now] wife and I had an idea at the time that we’d love to go and be entrepreneurs ourselves, and set up our own business. We were still both in our early twenties and we thought ’let’s go for it right now’, before we become encumbered by responsibility. We had the opportunity to buy a leisure business, working on canals around the UK, taking people on guided holidays.
I really enjoyed it. We had a great time. We had a fleet of boats and we took them down to London for the Olympics in 2012, and it was a great experience - a brilliant lifestyle job. Met loads of really interesting people that we had as guests on board, and built up a great network of contacts. But it wasn’t really the best job to have when thinking about settling down, and buying a house, and having a family, and so on.
We decided that it was time to settle down. I ended up having a conversation with Anthony Adler, of Adler insurance. He was looking for somebody that had experience of running a business, the ins and outs of the operational side of things, and with a bit of a marketing background.
Anthony asked if I could apply some of my marketing experience to the insurance broker, and help out with all the operational stuff behind the scenes; from IT to finance to the acquisitions.
I’ve always treated this business as if it were my own, and provided the same amount of support and advice. That was how I’ve fallen into insurance. And then the last seven years I’ve been at Adler helping them to grow. When I joined seven years ago I was employee number 20. We’ve now got 50 on staff and we’ve gone from £10m GWP to £20m in that same period.
It’s been quite an exciting journey. But [as a] part of my business, doing a few things before coming into insurance as well, I think that it’s been useful when meeting some of our clients.
IT: Why did you decide to take on professional development? Why did you feel you needed it in this stage of your career?
Neil Thomsett: Well, it’s quite an interesting point because for me, the technical knowledge, the insurance knowledge isn’t necessarily relevant in my day to day job. Because I run all of the operational functions, and I’m not client facing; having that pure insurance knowledge isn’t absolutely critical. But for me, I’ve really wanted to jump in with both feet, and understand that part; wanting to be able to stand on the same level as my peers on the broking and client-facing side of the business.
So, I started working towards my CII qualifications, and looked around for other opportunities [to learn]. The FLP provided that opportunity, and I thought it was such a great chance to get involved in that side of things with my professional development, and complementing the CII work I was doing at the same time.
It pushed me a little bit out of my comfort zone. Although I’ve got a business background, I wasn’t a finished article. I was still relatively inexperienced when it comes to managing teams, and working with large groups. My hope at the time was that the FLP would bring all of those things out in me.
IT: Did you know about the programme before, or did someone tell you about it? Did you do your own research to find your training path?
Neil Thomsett: I saw the marketing that was being put out for the first cohort in May, 2018 when it started. When the applications opened for the 2019 cohort, straight away I wanted to apply.
IT: How did you find the course? Was it as you expected it to be?
Neil Thomsett: I’ve done one year of a two-year course, next December we’ll be graduation. But I think the biggest takeaway, and the most surprising thing that I’ve found is how it’s enabled me to really build my network with my peers. Being introduced to a group of 20 other people that are at the same sort of level of view as you within another broker, facing the same challenges, being able to share those challenges, and talk about how you got through some of them. I think that’s been just as useful as the course content itself. If someone’s having a problem they can throw it out there to the rest of the group. We don’t just wait until the next time we meet up to interact with each other, and that’s been so, so useful.
It’s something that’s quite hard to achieve in the broking world, because we can be quite intolerant, internally focused, and not have that opportunity to chat openly with our peers. And then the course itself, presenting as we did in a Dragon’s Den-style pitch, which really pushed us out of our comfort zone, but in a safe environment.
IT: If you were starting the course again, is there anything from the first day you would have thought about differently or done differently?
Neil Thomsett: I was very lucky in that I knew a couple of the people that made it into the first cohort, and I asked them the same questions. They were very open about getting involved straight away. It’s one of those clichés where you get out of it what you put in, and so I did my best to do that part. I could have done a bit more of it, and gotten more involved from the outset. That’s something personally; I wish I had done a bit more; been a bit more willing to step up when volunteers were asked for to speak and things like that.
IT: How did you manage to do your day job at the same time as focusing on the FLP, and your CII qualification?
Neil Thomsett: It was totally insane, because I passed my CII diploma in the summer as well. I’ve been studying for my diploma, being on FLP, with two young kids. It involved a bit of burning the midnight oil, a bit of working on lunch breaks.
I’ve been fortunate that the business has been great. As soon as I said I wanted to do this and it would be a couple of days every other month that I’ll be committing, they said: ’Absolutely fine! We understand that you’re a future board member we want you to take this opportunity, and really make use of it, because it will benefit the business in the long run.’
IT: What are your long term career plans? What’s your long term objective for your professional development?
Neil Thomsett: The original plan that I’d discussed with Anthony Adler was that I would eventually step up to the board, and at the end of the course when I graduate, that would be the ideal time to do that.
And as a lot of those responsibilities do fall - especially when it comes to client money - into my remit, I was actually offered a position on the board [in early December].
IT: Congratulations! How has it been so far?
Neil Thomsett: This happened a bit sooner than we expected, in terms of the grand plan, but I think it just goes to show that taking these things on, being involved in FLP, has been the sort of thing that’s pushed it forward in terms of the timescales. I am really proud to take on that responsibility. I’m committed for the next 10 years; we’re looking to grow towards our first 30 million GWP.
About the Aviva Future Leader Programme
The FLP was set up to champion and protect the future of regional broking. It aims to empower and upskill the next generation of leaders within regional broking businesses, giving them the training and support required to help maximise their potential to create and maintain successful brokerages.
Designed in conjunction with industry veteran Andrew Scott, former chairman of Aston Scott Group, the two year programme combines bi-monthly workshop events, on-line learning material and experience days.
Part of the remit is to improve leadership skills, as well as tackle the stresses and strains of being a business owner. It also deals with isolation, wellbeing of staff, business planning and finance, among other things.