Paul Anscombe talks to Chris Wheal
Paul Anscombe is managing director of James Hallam Insurance Brokers, a privately-owned firm with offices in London, Watford and South Woodford. The broker specialises in providing insurance and risk management to commercial and not-for-profit organisations. It also owns specialist travel broker Arnold Fisher, and has a private client division covering personal lines and financial services. The company employs 80 staff and controls £35m of premium income.
How did you make it to where you are today?
By accident – like most of us. A small degree of intelligence and a high degree of luck can go a long way. That said I guess I have always had ambition and took my exams up to and including FCII when most of my mates were seeing their girlfriends and having a great time. I decided against going to university, having met my wife-to-be. When I finished A levels I became a trainee stockbroker, but found it a very cold environment. I joined Norwich Union in Fenchurch Street and was completely surprised to make a great bunch of friends and find interesting work.
What are the key challenges ahead?
In five years’ time we will look back and say that this was the time when we decided what type of industry we wanted. If it is only about price and consolidation, financed by insurers, then we are in a pretty sorry state. I believe there is life beyond this for some brokers and that independence, professionalism, service and choice will come back into vogue. I suspect that many of the empires dominating today will not exist in five years’ time and that their break-up will create new opportunities. Insurers have a major role to play and I am often surprised they haven’t flexed their muscles before now. If a vibrant independent broker market is good for the consumer then let’s work to achieve it. If we want a European tied-agency structure then carry on. It worries me that so few new broking firms are emerging.
What has changed the most since you started in insurance?
The biggest change has been our ability to produce, via the internet and other uses of technology, incredible amounts of underwriting and management data. The saddest thing is that we then ignore it and maintain the herd mentality of the past.
What advice would you offer someone just starting out?
Despite my concerns, I am passionate about the good things in our market and I believe that there are huge opportunities ahead. My son, Ben, has recently come into the industry and I gave him just three pieces of advice – take your exams, specialise and don’t make enemies.
What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?
Not following my instincts. When I have been presented with difficult decisions I previously tried to make logical decisions and not follow my heart. Going forward, I am not doing that.
What was your biggest success?
I get the biggest kick out of helping others achieve their objectives. For me personally, it was hugely satisfying to complete my FCII and when I became managing director of a business at 29, it was a thrill to see the pride on my parents’ faces.
Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends
I respect entrepreneurial individuals who give clear leadership and vision. The big consolidators have done an incredible job and, while it is extremely unfashionable to say so, many of us have been influenced by Michael Bright and the Independent team. They really made a change in insurer/broker relationships. I also respect the independent brokers who are making a go of it to grow and prosper – such as Neil Walton at Centor, Bob Pybus and Cliff Nott at Nott Pybus, Guy Cliffin at HW Wood, and many others who believe in independence.
What is your unique selling point?
I believe I am good at building trust. That doesn’t mean to say I can’t make tough decisions, or have never made mistakes. I do try to deliver whatever I promise and create a supportive but challenging work environment.
When you are not working what do you do to relax?
I have four children in two families and so that keeps me busy, but I have wide interests. I love travel and always get my leg pulled about never being in the country. I am a big music and film buff and get through a book a week on the train from Woking. Other than that, I support Saracens, play golf badly and lose money horseracing. I try running three times per week, but am not a contender for the Olympics (unless darts makes a late entry as an official sport).
What is your favourite book/film/football team?
I love books. My favourite would have to be something by Wilbur Smith. My favourite films are Jaws and One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. Football – north London’s finest – come on you Spurs!
A day in the life
5:00am We do not sleep much in our house â€“ either Natasha or I are wandering around at goodness knows what time, but I do get up early and wait for GMTV to see Penny Smith and then eventually leave home at 6.45. Letâ€™s not talk about the train from Waterloo to Bankâ€¦
8:00am In the office. I have one hour all to myself to read mail and do other things.
9:00am This week I have been meeting each of the divisional heads to review monthly figures and other issues. I take these meetings very seriously and it is the one time in the month when I have quality time with each head of department. It is amazing how much is going on at any one time, and so it is a vital discipline to discuss and record all key points.
11:00am We do a regular slot with new starters where I meet with them to chat and see how they are settling in. It is good to hear how newcomers find James Hallam â€“ good points and bad.
12:00pm A client was in from Scotland so quick hellos and then lunch with an insurer. We spend a good amount of time with our major insurer partners and find this really helps our business.
2:00pm Appraisals. Like the team meetings, this is a vital part of our employee care. All staff get appraised twice a year and I really make time to prepare for the discussions with my direct reports. The discussions are very open and I get a lot out of them â€“ as I believe the individuals do.
4:00pm I like to have a tidy-up time at the end of each day, deal with calls and emails, and plan for the following day. I am out of the office a lot and so value my time at my desk to keep up to date.
6:00pm Home or beer with friends or colleagues. It would be easy to be out every night, but my youngest is four and so I try to get home at a reasonable time two or three nights a week.
7:30pm Collapse on sofa. I watch Sky Sports or a film, and try to stay away from the phone or email to switch off. I will look at the internet if I am planning a holiday.