SEIB chief Barry Fehler talks to Chris Wheal

Barry Fehler is in the process of selling South Essex Insurance Brokers (SEIB) to Ecclesiastical Insurance. SEIB turns over about £30m a year and employs 70 people. It specialises in schemes and has been the British Horse Society’s broker for seven years. Fehler and his family are keen equestrians and won the Horse of Year Show major championships four times in the 1980s and 1990s. The British Horse Society gave him an award for assistance to the society and he was awarded a lifetime achievement award for innovation by the British Equestrian Trade Association.

How did you make it to where you are today?

I started at aged 16 working for a Lloyd’s broker – Lambert Brothers in those days – as a trainee broker. I took the plunge when I was 17 and set up on my own from my parent’s front room. That would have been about 1964. My first customers were my friends and neighbours and then I advertised in local papers. After a couple of years I had enough clients for an office in South Ockenden, paying £5 a week rent for me and one part time employee. Things really took off when we got into schemes business. I bought an expensive horse and realised there was very little insurance on offer so I put together a horse policy with extras in it, such as loss of use and higher veterinary fees and then I went round insurers until I found one that would underwrite it, and then I marketed it to other horse owners.

What are the key challenges ahead?

Regulation is still a challenge. It’s not difficult to be compliant, but compliance is often an excuse for not doing things instead of trying to find a way round and understanding what the regulator is trying to achieve.

What has changed the most since you started in insurance?

The trust has gone. When we started some of our schemes we had nothing to base it on. There had never been policies for undertakers, for example, or horse boxes. The underwriters weren’t so tightly controlled in those days. They really had to underwrite. The first deal we ever did was signed on the back of a fag packet, but nobody was ever ripped off, nobody was swindled and nobody was let down.

What advice would you offer someone just starting out?

Go to work for a small to medium-sized broker – someone with innovation and vision – and learn from them. If you work for a larger broker you just become a small cog in a big machine.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

Not getting into schemes business early enough. Schemes business was almost unheard of when we started doing it but if we had done it before we might be even bigger today than we are.

What was your biggest success?

Getting into schemes. The horses policy was the huge business for us, but we have several other schemes, such as those for funeral directors, rural taxis and overseas vehicles. We can operate a good schemes business much more efficiently that other lines of business. Because they have a high degree of uniqueness we get a high retention rate. We also do not have to go out to the market for every quote.

Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends

Andrew Paddick will be sorely missed. He had tenacity – if he felt it was right he was prepared to stand up to the regulator and the insurance companies. I am a non-executive director of the IIB and he is a very difficult man to replace. Roy Cox, who is now with Brit, is an underwriter I have admired. He is from the old school – we hope to be able to do some serious business with Brit now he is there.

What is your unique selling point?

Trying to find unique policies. You also have to keep updating them because you cannot patent them like a product, so someone will copy you as soon as you are successful. And you have to offer good service, especially if you are running a sub-broker system. We always make sure we can get back to the broker that day if we do not have an answer ready when they call.

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

I love the Spanish lifestyle. I have an apartment in Spain on the Costa del Sol, between Malaga and Gibraltar and I spend one in every four weeks there. When in the UK I enjoy walking in the fields with the dogs and looking at the horses. We still have about 30 horses – our ex-competition horses and those we have bred.

What is your favourite book/film/football team?

I don’t really follow football and famous horse riders come and go. I read trashy books – anything exciting and escaping. I just want to relax when I am reading. I am the same with films. Indiana Jones is right up my street. IT

Day in the life

6:00am I wake up and have a coffee

6:30am I leave for work – I have about an hours drive. Of course, if I am in Spain, I can get up at 8 and it is still 7 in the UK.

7:30am Before the phones get active, I plan the day and deal with anything outstanding.

9:00am There will be internal meetings and I will look at the statistics from the previous days sales figures. We can monitor everything on a daily basis and compare how we did with last week or the same day last year, or the year before that. Even when I am in Spain I have the computer set up so that whatever is on the screen in the office is on the screen in Spain and I will look every day.

11:00am I will usually have appointments with insurers. We are only 25 minutes from the City so two or three days a week I will go to London and the other days the insurers come to me.

1:00pm Normally I lunch with my sales director. We try to go out of the office for an hour, we might have a glass of wine and a sandwich, but we will discuss who is performing well and who is not and any other issues that crop up. When I am in Spain I will call my sales director at least once a day.

2:00pm We have five full-time IT staff so I will pop in to make sure everything is OK and that I know about any problems before they are too serious.

3:00pm There will probably be another meeting, either internal or with an insurer.

4:30pm I normally try to leave by this time. As the day goes on you have less and less energy. I will still have the hands-free mobile in the car so people can call me right up until the office closes about 5.15.

7:30pm My wife and I try to eat out a lot so we will go out to a restaurant but fairly early in the evening. There are about 15 good restaurants within a 10 minute drive of our house. Preferably one where I don’t have to wear a tie.

9:30pm We will get home, watch a bit of telly and then it is off to bed