Steve Cooke didn’t let a little thing like nearly going blind end his ambitions for his brokerage. He kept on working – aided by that magnifying glass – and had surgery to restore his sight. Now he’s on the acquisitions trail. Ellen Bennett asked him about the future of Cooke & Mason.
When the doctors told him he would lose sight in his right eye as well as his left, Steve Cooke gathered his 70 staff together. He was worried they were counting the days until he went totally blind, waiting for him to sell up, or to give up, and putting their ambitions for the business on hold. “I got everyone together,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘You have nothing to fear from me losing my eyesight, what else will I do? Even if I’m here with a guide dog and a white stick, I’ll still be here pushing things on. So let’s get on with it’.”
And they did. Last month Cooke & Mason completed its first acquisition, of Lincoln-based Stephenson Insurance Brokers, and set out its ambitions for more, with a strategy to quadruple its £25m gross written premium within 10 years. It has even drafted in an acquisitions expert: Paul Meehan, one-time boss of Smart & Cook and newly appointed AXA executive. But these successes pale next to a greater, unexpected achievement: Cooke managed to hold on to the sight in his right eye, thanks to laser surgery.
“It’s all a matter of perspective,” says the company chairman now, with more than a hint of irony. Relaxed in an open-necked shirt, he is sitting in his office in Retford, Nottinghamshire – back to the window, so he can see the room in front of him.
“This is what my vision used to be like,” he says, passing over an optician’s illustration of an image too blurry to identify. Cooke, who poses for a photograph with the chunky magnifying glass that used to be his constant companion, has become accustomed to telling the story of his sight loss.
It is harrowing stuff: he suffered a giant tear in his retina, an extremely rare condition usually associated with boxers, for no apparent reason. It failed to respond to treatment – which included lying face down for 50 minutes of every hour, 24 hours a day, for 10 days after each bout of surgery.
The doctors assured him it was incredibly unlikely that the condition would occur in his other eye. Then it did. This is so rare that on his regular trips to eye hospital, Cooke is presented to medical students as a one-off.
Cooke, a self-confessed workaholic, resigned himself to going blind but his enthusiasm for the job never dampened. “[When my sight was worse] I had many a negotiation with a client or insurer where they were invisible, and I was just doing it on voice. I learnt to do that and no one knew. I was still doing my job successfully.”
Finally, about a year ago, Cooke had successful surgery. Although the vision in his left eye has gone forever, the sight in his right eye improved drastically. He is now totally focused on the business he runs with Steve Grantham, the managing director, and Dave Charles, who has just taken up the post of managing director of Stephenson, the broker that was Cooke & Mason’s first acquisition – “but not the last”.
Cooke founded Cooke & Mason with Paul Mason in 1976, just six years after joining the claims department at Prudential at the age of 17. In a flush of what he now calls “the arrogance of youth”, he was convinced he could better existing brokers by upping service levels, so Cooke & Mason was born.
“I had many a negotiation with a client or insurer where they were invisible, and I was just doing it on voice.
The partners went their separate ways in 1992. Cooke wanted to focus on commercial lines, while Mason kept the personal lines business. “Personal lines has always been pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap. Our whole ethic with commercial is to go the extra mile and it was very difficult to have the two in the building,” explains Cooke. In the past few years, Cooke has sold parts of his business to former colleagues in order to maintain the focus on commercial lines and quality service.
Now a healthy small to medium-sized brokerage with a strong reputation, Cooke & Mason has a wide range of commercial lines clients and specialises in fleet and haulage. Last year, it joined Brokerbility, an alliance of independent brokers, to give it an “in” to the few insurers with which it did not already have strong relationships.
Stuart Randall, chief executive of Brokerbility, describes Cooke & Mason as a broker with a devastating grasp of technical detail and applauds its growth plans. “The slowdown in consolidation by the big brokers has opened the door for independent brokers looking to acquire,” says Randall.
While many brokers will wax lyrical about their service, few are as convincingly passionate as Cooke. He offers numerous anecdotes to illustrate his idea of customer service – the restaurant that sent out to a local pub to get his wife the drink she wanted; the picture that used to hang in his office, showing a pair of hands clutching the neck of a heron in the process of swallowing a frog and declaring, “We never give up”.
It is this approach, he believes, that will encourage selected brokers to sell to Cooke & Mason rather than to the consolidators. “We offer an alternative, we’re more about continuing the business,” says Cooke. “We would select a business that matches our values where we can look after the staff and customers and run it in the way they want. There are people out there who can get the same money or more from a consolidator, but they are concerned it will be swallowed up and lose its identity.”
Cooke is adamant that his business will remain independent – though he admits future acquisitions could be part-funded by insurers. The Stephenson deal was financed through equity in the business and a bank loan, but insurers including Norwich Union and Allianz have publicised their willingness to lend money to independent brokers looking to expand.
Would such a deal jeopardise Cooke’s autonomy and conflict with his own concerns about the ability of insurer-owned brokers to provide an impartial service? Not necessarily, he says. “If I take an insurance company’s money it has to be because it is on commercial terms, not because it expects me to deliver more business to it.” Cooke reiterates this point several times: it is clearly his guiding ethos.
So what’s in it for insurers? “Their attitude is that there is already a good relationship, they get their fair share of business, so if they help us to grow, that business will grow too. Conversely, if you need that funding and you go to another insurer, it might put pressure on you to steer business that way. I think there’s an element of protection.”
One person who has seen it all before is Paul Meehan, who as a non-executive director will work closely with Cooke and his team as they acquire new businesses. Cooke is keen to point out that the Stephenson deal was on the table before Meehan joined, adding: “We’re not Smart & Cook 2 – that’s not the case at all.”
“I cannot see the point in doing something you are not passionate about it. And I think if you spoke to our clients about us, that is what would come through.
Meehan is one of the best-known brokers in the industry, so getting him on board was something of a coup – how did Cooke manage it? “I guess we just got our timing right,” says Cooke, who signed up Meehan in the gap between his departure from Venture Preference in January and his return to AXA to head broker relations earlier this month.
The pair had known each other for years through the corporate hospitality circuit. “Steve called me up and said: ‘We’re looking to do acquisitions and want you on board’.” says Meehan. “I thought, what a great story. I’m only involved with a couple of brokers now and Cooke & Mason is one of them because it’s a good, solid business.”
Cooke’s enthusiasm for his business is infectious. A 54-year-old – “that’s still young, isn’t it? I hope so” – father of two, he admits to having few hobbies, though he does enjoy keeping fit and good food. “I’m very passionate about it,” he says. “I can’t see the point in doing something you’re not passionate about. And I think if you spoke to our clients about us, that is what would come through.”
He admits his dedication sometimes makes him a hard taskmaster. Many of his employees can be found in the office on a Saturday. “It’s not the easiest place to work,” he says, explaining that each renewal decision will be scrutinised by one of the directors to avoid complacency and ensure clients get the best deal.
Staff are not allowed to accept hospitality from insurers without the written permission of a director: there
will be no quid pro quo deals in this no-nonsense office.
“We find our approach pays dividends – we have to work harder, but [for example] that makes the difference between our clients’ claims being paid or not being paid.”
Now he has faced the threat of going blind and come out the other side, does the future hold any worries for Cooke? None, he says, though he is quick to add that this is not arrogance. “If I knew what the threat to the business was, I would have done something about it,” he says. “If there is a threat, it will be the thing I haven’t thought of.”
In the mean time, Cooke is revelling in his restored vision, literally and metaphorically. He can see again, which has renewed his energies, and he has big plans for the business. “I don’t have a plan that says I want to stop at 60 or 65,” he says. “Now I’ve got my eyesight back it’s like starting over, I’m getting even more out of it. Now we’ve got Paul on board, we’re growing and I think we’ll have some fun.”