How many of us have dreamed of setting up our own company with a group of friends who share the same ideals? For the majority, it doesn't go beyond that conversation in the pub on a dreary Wednesday evening after a bad day at work.
But, for the determined few, it can actually exceed the daydreams. Michael Kenney, Richard Evans and Martin Ward had similar conversations in 1992 and 1993. Seven years on their company – Ward Evans – was named the second- fastest-growing company, of any type, in the Yorkshire region, in a survey by Newsco. And it achieved a turnover of almost £18m last year.
"We started with big ambitions," says director Martin Ward. "We were perhaps too ambitious in our first five years but we still achieved our targets."
The threesome met while working for brokers Whiteley Henshaw, which was taken over by Lowndes Lambert in 1993. Through sheer will and hard work they built up the company, and since 1992 the group has been expanding at a rate of more than 250% each year – all without any takeovers or acquisitions.
"We had particular experience in the commercial sector, especially the manufacturing and distribution sectors, so this is where we started off," says Ward. "Today it is still our core business.
"For the first six to eight months we were all things to all men, and often burned the midnight oil. We thought the hardest thing when we first set up would be getting agencies with insurance companies, but we had good contacts, which got the ball rolling. What was our biggest concern turned out to be our greatest success."
Also fundamental to their success, Ward believes, has been the company's willingness to invest in technology.
"Technology has played a massive role in our growth and we have invested over £1m in it over the past five years."
With eight full-time technology staff, Ward Evans has moved towards a paper- free environment and the company has been taking advantage of ecommerce for a number of years.
"We want customers to use their preferred route when doing business with us. Some will want personal meetings while others have embraced technology very quickly. Whichever way they think is best, we will do it."
In addition, the group's account executives can visit a client in the morning with a digital camera. They can photograph the risk and fill in a form on-screen which can be on the insurer's desk by mid-morning. "This is something we are very proud of," says Ward.
The company has also recently launched a website (www.wardevans.co.uk) that offers a host of information on the company and its plans for the future.
The Ward Evans Group comprises three companies – Ward Evans, Ward Evans Financial Services and Ward Evans Direct.
Ward Evans is the longest established of the group's companies and provides a commercial insurance broking service for corporate clients, predominantly in the manufacturing and distribution sector.
The financial services side of the group was formed in September 1993 to provide life assurance, pensions and financial services advice to commercial clients and individuals.
Ward Evans Direct is the most recently formed, and offers packaged insurance policies to smaller businesses, shops and the self-employed. It acquires business by telemarketing and telesales, using an in-house-designed computer system to generate quotations from a panel of insurers. It covers anything from book shops to butchers, retail furniture to small manufacturing and distribution companies.
In 1992 the company had four members of staff – the three founders and an administrator. Currently there are over 125 staff in offices in Glasgow, York and London. There are also plans to open an office in Bristol later this year and the group is expected to recruit an extra 100 staff over the next 12 months.
"We have excellent staff who are all motivated people," says Ward. "Some of our branch directors have risen through the ranks, and we have developed a training programme that we hope provides a platform for success."
Ward also believes that the company set up at just the right time, as anyone setting up a brokerage in today's market would discover it was a difficult enterprise.
"A new company would need serious capital to create the right IT and it would find it hard to develop a strong agency base. It has become more difficult as the years have gone by and the number of brokers has reduced substantially.
"There has been rapid change on the technology front coupled with many changes to the company market. The coming together of insurance companies has put pressure on the marketplace and there isn't a massive agency base anymore. Ultimately we will see more overseas interest in the UK, especially from the East, which will create further change to the marketplace."
Against this backdrop, the group's aim is to reach commission income status of £30m by 2004, and it plans to be at the cutting edge of all the changes.
"I am feeling a combination of apprehension and excitement at the moment," says Ward.
"You can't be over-confident in this market, and you need the ability to respond to the changes. We are entering a new age. The speed in which the market has changed so far has been immense – so no-one quite knows where the market will be in five years' time."