Neil Harmson talks to Chris Wheal about his career
Neil Harmson is managing director of Towergate Risk Solutions Didcot, whose clients include charities, trade associations and technology companies. The company also offers solutions to financial services networks. It runs schemes for Triumph TR cars and wedding insurance. The firm has gross written premium of £14m and employs 55 staff. It was formed in March 2007 out of the merger of five Towergate businesses.
How did you make it to where you are today?
I worked for Eagle Star/Zurich for 13 years before joining Towergate. I started in Eagle Star Life providing sales support for IFAs. This gave me a great understanding of distribution and dealing with intermediaries.
In 1998 I moved into Zurich’s general business, which was exciting due to the changes resulting from the merger. The role was a fast track into senior management and included working with consultants who were carrying out an analysis of the effectiveness of call centres across the UK. I led many change programmes across the business. This gave me a thorough understanding of commercial and personal insurances, and the opportunity to work with brokers and partnerships, and understand their needs.
I used this experience to lead several call centres across the UK, before being asked to lead the UK innovation programme. I started the operation from scratch, developing project teams working on business opportunities that led to the launch of several products and services.
In 2004, I headed the general insurance and commercial lending proposition for the Zurich Advice Network, which then became Openwork. I increased GI sales from 16,000 in 2004 to over 100,000 in 2006. My experience in sales and distribution and my operational and strategic skills were valuable in leading the Towergate Didcot business, which I started in 2007.
What are the key challenges ahead?
With the economic climate looking less rosy and with competition increasing all the time, it is vital that brokers offer the best solutions to clients and give the best service to them. It is also vital that businesses have the best people who are great at spotting opportunities to deliver growth, and good at keeping customers. Brokers need scale, they need to move quickly and be able to adapt to change.
What has changed the most since you started in insurance?
Brokers have become more professional and customer-focused and regulation has helped with that. Brokers now move faster, spot opportunities quicker and execute strategy more effectively. Companies such as Towergate have successfully changed the model and that was exactly right.
What advice would you offer someone just starting out?
Insurance is an exciting business. Be confident, create opportunities and make things happen. Be focused on the customer and have a clear vision of what you want to achieve. Always strive to perform better and embrace change. Make sure you work for a company that delivers these values. Be professional at all times, work well with people and collaborate and use the opportunities from gaining CII qualifications.
What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?
I stay positive and keep a clear vision of what I want to achieve, which usually means that what might have felt like a mistake at the time usually works out to be an opportunity. I never dwell on the past, I am definitely a “glass half full” person.
What was your biggest success?
Merging five businesses/cultures/systems into one to create the new TRS Didcot, which has gone very well and is delivering great results.
Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends
I like people who are passionate about business and have the confidence to do things others may say won’t work. For me, the exec team at Towergate sums this up and is one of the reasons I joined Towergate. Peter Cullum and the team had a vision and made it work phenomenally well.
What is your unique selling point?
I’ve got unlimited energy (as some colleagues at Towergate would testify) and use this to lead people to deliver more, quicker. I always put myself in the customers’ shoes and have high expectations of the service I, and others, must deliver. I’m tough but with a smile.
When you are not working what do you do to relax?
At weekends I try to pack in as much as I can with my wife and two young children, including walking, seeing friends and eating out. I enjoy live sport, such as football and rugby.
What is your favourite book/film/football team?
Book – Panic, Passion and Power by Paul Dyer and Brian Thomas of course!
Film – Pulp Fiction
Football team – Liverpool
Day in the life