Paul Dickson in the spotlight

Paul Dickson runs Watford-based Dickson Insurance Brokers, a broker and independent financial adviser, established in 1986, covering personal and commercial clients.

Dickson numbers UK listed companies in the technology, telecoms, manufacturing and online grocery sectors among his clients. These include: software and services group Anite; one of the UK’s largest toy distributors, Character Group; the business class airline Silverjet; and the internet and communications group Pipex.

The firm has a gross written premium of about £8m and employs 17 staff. It specialises in technology, telecoms, leisure and sports parks.

How did you make it to where you are today?

I started in record shop management at 16, when vinyl mattered. I then had a stint at CIN Properties – the Coal Board’s pension fund management arm – followed by the best part of 10 years at Lloyd’s broker Towry Law. My route from retail to finance is perhaps not entirely linear, but had something to do with my parents feeling that I should contribute a little more to the household budget and possibly my own career path.

Certainly the rigours of working for a highly ambitious mid-sized firm in my early 20s reshaped my entire outlook on work. I doubt this path could be easily followed today. It’s probably better to have a degree these days.

What are the key challenges ahead?

Retention and differentiation. Mix in the likely deferral of any immediate upturn in rates and the uncertain impact of the credit crunch and the outlook becomes decidedly interesting.

Client retention is key. Keeping top quality staff on board is becoming more costly. Recently we’ve seen examples of high profile individuals and specialist teams switching firms for a greater share of the action. Very capable individuals have begun to realise that the customer is where the value exists and they’re increasingly trading these assets. This is a real threat to the corporate broker model, which, in contrast, has tended to exploit the aggregated value of account placings, rather than loving the customer.

What has changed the most since you started in insurance?

It’s a much faster moving business. It is more entrepreneurial, fiercely competitive and more efficient. Brokers know the value of niche. They invest in marketing at a level unheard of 10 years ago. Regulation has changed too, but this has stimulated these other changes, almost as an unintended consequence, by separating the professional brokers from the rest and defining market opportunities for consolidators and network operators.

What advice would you offer someone just starting out?

Choose your employer with care. Take the CII exams. I studied via a correspondence course with Metropolitan College, London. All costs were paid by my employer. We do the same at Dicksons, and we certainly recommend the CII qualifications to everyone in the business, including the accounts staff and secretaries. Become an expert in a given subject, but gain a working knowledge of the market as a whole. Most importantly, enjoy what you do.

“Regrets -
Ive had a few.
I tend to be
a bit of a
control freak.
Is that bad?

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

Regrets – I’ve had a few. I tend to be a bit of a control freak. Is that bad?

What was your biggest success?

Starting my own business in the mid 1980s.

What is your unique selling point?

Forging grown-up relationships with clients on the back of solid service delivery. Reliability at the forefront. Projecting a culture of old fashioned customer-facing service but overlaid with intelligence. And humour.

Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends in the insurance market?

I take my hat off to the modern breed of insurance brokers. The likes of Stuart Reid, Chris Giles, Andy Homer, Peter Cullum, Phillip Hodson, the Bollington guys. They’ve re-engineered things and made themselves stupendously wealthy. Envious? Me?

When you are not working what do you do to relax?

I own a Princess 42 yacht, still begrudgingly berthed in the UK and not in the Mediterranean as I would wish, due to work pressures. I am a huge music fan so a regular concert-goer. Travel, guitar playing, golf, a bottle of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc. Working on our 16th century house near Windsor.

What is your favourite book/film/football team?

Book: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Film: Perhaps A Fistful of Dollars. Music: Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here. Favourite football team: Arsenal. To say anything else would cause a mutiny in the office.

Day in the life

07:30 Get up, make a cup of coffee, go online, check new emails and reply where I can. This usually takes around 30 minutes.

09:30 Office. About half of the working week will be office based. The other half of the week will mainly involve visiting existing or prospective clients nationwide, so there is a fair amount of driving. I regard myself as an insurance broker rather than a managing director or chief executive. My day seems a lot less structured than I might wish. While the routine of renewal dates, client reviews and new business meetings provide some sort of framework, the complexity and unpredictability of the demands from clients can dominate large parts of the day.
Today starts with a client request, via a staff member, for a copy of a high net worth (HNW) template for baby boomers we said we had designed in a recent article. It was not actually finished as we didn't think anybody would ask for one. Another HNW client emails to ask if we can cover his 75ft super yacht, for cruising to Cuba. A major software company emails us the "indemnity and insurance clauses" that one of its customers wants signed today. Our comments needed.

11.00 Director of adjoining office arrives to show me round the place, as we might be interested in buying the building. Return to the office and email bank manager asking for a million pounds. Client rings. We don't look after his fab house in Harrow on the Hill anymore just the business but he's had a major flood and the loss adjuster seems not to be taking it seriously can we help? Might get the home policy back.

14:00 Allocate two hours or so to dictation and correspondence. Checking policies and routine client correspondence. Constructing renewal manuals and registers for clients, which always takes longer than you expect. Reviewing problem claims and matters such as insurer account queries. You can't ever get away from those.

15:00 Bank confirms I can have the money. New client. Not sure I should mention this but here goes: Al Jazeera, via introducers I might add, wants us to look at some additional risks.

14:00 Meet Julia, head of commercial, to go through the pile of larger cases with their unique issues. What have we promised this time? What are we expected to do? Prepare for tomorrow's new business presentation.

17.00 Meet with financial services manager. Spend an hour looking at resources, pipeline (trying to find it), money-in, money-out. All that highly complex raw material of business life.

18.00 Sit in the Mini Cooper I've been lent for the day, for 30 minutes, trying to start it (foot on the clutch). Go home. Glass of chardonnay, Arsenal v Spurs on high definition screen.