Chris Wheal talks to Ian Mantel

Ian Mantel runs Manor Insurance Services in Hastings, a high street personal lines and small business broker with a turnover of £1.3m and a staff of six. The company has clients across the UK and recently celebrated its 18th birthday.

How did you make it to where you are today?

I used to be a milkman and a lot of those guys used to move on to being door-to-door insurance salesman and I followed suit. I worked for Refuge in the days before regulation.

After about six months I answered an ad for a trainee broker with Key West. Brian Lambert interviewed me and offered me a trainee manager post in the Hastings office. Within 12 months I was the branch manager.

In 1990, after just three years’ service, I left to set up Manor Insurance. I had no business plan, no bank loan, nowt. I remortgaged my house to a silly level, at a time when interest rates were at 15%, and basically maxed the credit cards.

The initial premises were uncompleted offices, which I left after six months, moving the business into my mother’s back bedroom for a month. During this month I got married and managed a honeymoon. I took proper shop-front premises nine months after opening.

What are the key challenges ahead?

To embrace the varying distribution channels – to ensure a workable internet presence. Our new website, targeting niche markets, is currently in sign-off. We cannot compete with Tesco and the like for the mass market so we are focusing on products that are harder to come by, or areas where people use the web to research a risk, such as PI, D&O and short-term motor cover.

What has changed the most since you started in insurance?

The lack of trust. Now, even people with whom you’ve spoken a hundred times are required to “positively identify” you: name, address, agency code, inside leg measurement and what you had for breakfast. Or so it seems. You may say it’s a sign of the times, but we don’t have to deal this way.

What advice would you offer someone just starting out?

Go for it. If you’ve got the attitude, you can do it. It will be hard, but it was hard in 1990 too. The hoops you have to jump through have got smaller but you can do it. Know your destination so you can plan how you are going to get there and research your market.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

When I was still relatively new to business I tried to expand but didn’t get the hang of delegating, so I had to be in two places at the same time, almost literally. I should have recognised earlier my limitation as regards running the business. I have since used Biba’s training programmes, among others. Continuing professional development is a vital part of life.

What was your biggest success?

My business is my success. Just being here after 18 years of direct writers, interactive TV, internet and whatever else the doom merchants saw as the end of the broker is my success. If I had listened to them I’d be a milkman again. Instead I have a thriving business and a good work-life balance meaning I eat with my family daily and have a sensible social life, which is important to me. Success is not just about buying your first Rolls-Royce or owning a yacht.

Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends

I have never met this guy, but a bloke called Peter Wood had the really amazing idea of having a silly red telephone and, well, you have to admire what he did. Andrew Paddick and I had our very public spats, but I had a lot respect for him and we’re all going to miss him. Simon Bolam should have at least a gong, if not a K by now, for all his services to our profession. And Ian Ritchie, now with RWA Compliance, is a great person. There is no better chap to be stuck in the bar with at a Biba conference. He’s got a great repertoire of jokes and can get the whole bar singing.

What is your unique selling point?

Me. I have been told this on many occasions. It is often the way with a small business that it is all about the person who is in charge. Our ethos is that the client is a person, not a number. Treat the client better than you would expect to be treated yourself.

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

“I’m a laydeee,” as David Walliams would say. In fact I’m the resident dame in the local panto. I am second vice-president and social secretary of Hastings Lions Club – I will be president in 18-months (we have succession planning here, you know). I enjoy gardening and landscaping, and walking my dog.

What is your favourite book/film/football team?

Football: Arsenal. I’ve been a Gooner since 1971. Film: The Italian Job. I have taken part in the Italian Job marathon twice, my Mini sponsored by London & Edinburgh was the centre spread on Mini World magazine in February 1996. Book: I like reading inspirational autobiographies. John Ridgeway’s memoirs are a great read. IT

Ian Mantel was talking to Chris Wheal

Day in the life

7:00am I get up and walk the dog for two or three miles over Hastings Country Park. You can do some serious thinking in the fresh air.

8:00am My breakfast is cereal and Ryvita. Then off to the office, which is just 2.2 miles away. In the summer I often go by bicycle, but in the winter I drive or go on the motorbike.

8:45am I arrive at the office and go through my emails and any important post.

9:30am I start a series of meetings. Most recently it has been about the new website, but it might be about training or some other staff development matter. Once a week on a Thursday all the staff get together. Then there is always some vitally important document that needs to be reviewed. It might make interesting reading to the industry, but to me it just seems to get in the way. Insurance accounts are getting easier to manage with EDI. On other days I might have a visit from an insurer.

11:00am. I will probably walk into town to visit a client.

12:20pm Today I got back to the office and had to deal with a complex PI proposal from a large client, and had to answer mind-boggling questions from another client by email.

1:00pm I grab about a quarter of an hour for lunch. It will be a salad which my wife made for me.

1:45pm Today I tried to contact a BBC reporter as he had been in touch with Biba about coming into a broker office.

3:15pm I will spend at least an hour and half on a clients commercial combined policy. It is up for renewal on 1 April and we have been negotiating for some time. I am dealing with a finance director who does not understand the risks the company actually faces. I feel I have to hold the clients hand through everything. This is a new finance director so it is like starting all over again. It is that level of personal service that we provide. At times it appears that he is asking me how to run his business.

5:30pm. I finish and go straight home most evenings.

6:00pm I always have dinner with the family – the timing depends on what the children are doing. I have two daughters and my wife and I foster our teenage nephew. On a Friday we all go swimming together as a family. Once a week I have a Lions Club meeting. Currently I am visiting a girl who has leukaemia and I have just heard that I have managed to get her VIP tickets to Hickstead as guests of her heroes, the Whittaker family. I have a school governors meetings once a month, but other than that I might watch the footy or Grand Designs and then go to bed.