Lee Cohen talks to Chris Wheal

Lee Cohen is the major shareholder of Hamilton Leigh, a commercial broker based in Hertfordshire. Lee established the business in 1987 together with Jill Hamilton. Their focus is on technology, media, medical products, general manufacturing and motor trade sectors for companies with a premium spend above £50,000. Lee’s clients include Northern & Shell, which owns The Daily Express, Daily Star and OK! Magazine and KIA Motors, the Korean vehicle manufacturer that is the fastest growing in Europe. Hamilton Leigh has a gross written premium of approximately £8m and employs 15 staff.

How did you make it to where you are today?

I always thought I would become a footballer but unfortunately, that was not to be. Following stints with Spurs, Watford, Orient, Brentford and Barnet, I realised that I wasn’t good enough to play at the top level. In 1981, the first company to offer me a job was a small private hire broker called Talasan. I left Talasan in 1984 to help set up another small private hire broker. In December 1987, I left to set up my own commercial broker, Regal Cover. This was a bold move as I had just turned 23, had a wife, a mortgage to pay and no money. These were difficult times as I didn’t have the luxury of client referrals, but I had to put food on the table. The business grew fairly rapidly but following several not so successful acquisitions, I sold it in 1998 to the now defunct Greatminster Group. That whole Greatminster period was a time I would like to forget, except it led me to secure a management buy-out of the general broking business we had sold 18 months earlier, which is when Jill and I set up Hamilton Leigh.

What are the key challenges ahead?

Client retention, attracting quality staff, retaining independence and most importantly, managing my time. My approach is to always consider the opposition to be as determined as me, and therefore whatever the outcome, I should never be disappointed. Being a small regional broker, we can find it difficult to attract quality staff. We are fortunate to have an excellent team but are always looking to boost our skill set. While consolidation may be considered as a challenge to some, I prefer to focus on maximising new business opportunities that directly arise from consolidation, such as their disgruntled clients.

What has changed the most since you started?

Technology and entrepreneurialism. When I started the business in 1987, it was hard work but on most occasions I was warmly greeted by the companies that I cold called as they felt privileged to be approached. Today, brokers have sophisticated CRM systems resulting in most prospects receiving multi-approaches prior to their renewal dates. Entrepreneurialism has played a massive part in this market of consolidation. The unwavering determination of today’s entrepreneurs is unprecedented and has completely reshaped the distribution model that we thought was cast in stone.

What advice would you offer someone just starting out?

Make sure you choose an employer with a comprehensive training programme. Learn not just from its good points but also its mistakes. This will help you make the right decisions in the future. Set your goals and targets and go for them. Too many people claim never to have had opportunities in life. The truth is everyone has opportunities, but only certain people know how to recognise them.

What is the biggest mistake you ever made?

Some very poor acquisitions in the early days.

What was your biggest success?

Completing two London marathons.

Talk about your contemporaries and friends

I’m very fortunate to have many friends within the industry, many of whom I’m constantly learning from. I very much admire the entrepreneurial flair of Peter Cullum, Stuart Reid and Chris Giles.

What is your unique selling point?

Identifying quality prospects, devising a plan to get in front of them and turning them into long-term clients and friends.

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

I go to the gym and I still play Sunday morning football to a reasonable standard, although these days, it takes until Friday to recover. When the football season comes to an end, I play golf on Sunday mornings at Potters Bar Golf Club. Other than that, I try to spend as much time as I can at my villa in the Algarve.

What is your favourite book/film/football team?

Book: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Film: The Godfather parts 1 & 2. Music: Queen and Barry White. My favourite football team is the mighty Spurs, although having endured many years of suffering, I’m sure all Spurs supporters must have committed some terrible sin in a previous life (this year excluded of course).

Day in the life

6:00am My telemarketing team regularly arranges early morning appointments for me and so diary permitting, I get up at six and attempt to wake my two girls up for school. This normally takes at least two attempts with raised voices (none of them mine).

7:15am I normally drop my girls at the coach stop in Hadley Wood, Hertfordshire (where I live) and then make my way to client or prospect meetings or to the office, a journey of 15 minutes. Yesterday, however, I left home at 5.30 to catch the 6.19 train from Stevenage to Chesterfield as I had a new prospect meeting to attend. As it happens, this was a prospect I have been cultivating for a few years (150,000 pounds premium spend) and I am confident I will secure the business this year. If the quality of the prospect is good, I will travel almost anywhere and move heaven and earth to win the business.

3:30pm When I returned from Chesterfield, I interviewed a new account handler.

6:00pm Every day is different. I spend most of my week seeing new prospects or carrying out renewal meetings with our larger clients. I average approximately three client/prospect meetings per day. I employ a telemarketing company to make appointments, although I only focus on the larger cases. Office time is taken up with meetings with our broking and sales team. We discuss forthcoming renewals and new business prospects to ensure that we agree a strategy for each case. I try to teach my team not to become complacent as broker complacency is the main reason we win most of our new business.

7:30pm Depending on client meetings, I normally arrive home at 7.30, to be greeted by my teenage daughters because they want something, money or a lift somewhere.

7:45pm Dinner with my family, which always starts off in a cordial manner but rarely ends that way. A glass of Pinot Grigio or two is most welcome.

9:00pm My wife and I really know how to enjoy quality of life. After dinner, we sit at our kitchen table, each working on our laptops, answering emails and allocating work for the next day. Although I have a study in my house I choose to work in the kitchen so I can spend some time with my wife actually, the truth is I do not have Sky Sports in the study.

11:00pm Either the football on TV has finished, I have completed my work, or fallen asleep on my laptop, so I go to bed in anticipation of what delights tomorrow will bring.