Shona Robertson talks to Chris Wheal

Shona Robertson runs H&R Insurance with offices in Aberdeen and Elgin. It is a mainly personal lines broker but is growing its commercial lines for small local businesses. It specialises in motorcycle insurance, operating a number of specialist schemes. It spends little on marketing, instead passing on the savings as lower prices, enabling it to win much of its business through aggregators. It also has a popular taxi business product. The company has a GWP of £15m and a staff of 63.

How did you make it to where you are today?

My father founded Hanson & Robertson (H&R) in 1972 so I literally grew up in the insurance industry. I loved visiting him at work and would do anything to go there after school. I left school at 16 to accept a position in the British Alpine ski team, and skied full time for six years. During this time I was ranked number two in the UK and in the top 100 in the world. I also worked part time at H&R as an office junior. The other half of the year was spent travelling. Once I decided to hang up my skis my focus turned to university. I studied business computing. On graduation I returned to H&R and worked as a customer adviser. This gave me a great insight into the business and our client base. Time spent on the phones helped me to come up with ideas to evolve the business. At this time my father, Hugh, was still running the company. However, with regulation fast approaching we took the decision for me to take a year out and study insurance and risk management to broaden my skills. On my return my father retired and left me in charge. That was in 2004 and I haven’t looked back since.

What are the key challenges ahead?

Staying independent.

What has changed the most since you started?

I haven’t been round long enough to see that many changes. But what I have noticed is the way the public treat insurance. Ten years ago a client was reluctant to give you their most competitive premium, just in case you loaded your price, now clients are more than happy to give details of their cheapest quote in the hope you will believe them and price match it. I challenge my staff to hold fast and not budge, clients soon come back with their tail between their legs because that cheaper quote wasn’t actually cheaper than ours. The industry only has itself to blame for this mess – where’s the underwriting discipline in price matching?

What advice would you offer someone just starting out?

Set realistic targets and ensure you meet them. Also, keep a close eye on the figures. Spend time getting to grips with technology and set up reporting systems at the beginning. Analyse statistics yourself, it’s time very well spent. I produce my own statistical figures, some queries I run are very complex and it takes a day to work out the logic to get the results I’m after. It also opens up opportunities that I wouldn’t have thought of. Finally, believe in what you want to achieve and don’t let anyone put you down.

What is the biggest mistake you ever made?

Taking on too much myself and not delegating enough, but I am getting better.

What was your biggest success?

Restructuring the whole business to bring it up to date and making it more profitable. This ensures I can still invest heavily in the future of the company to make it even better.

Talk about your contemporaries and friends

I’ve met some great people in the industry; fellow brokers and insurers are all very friendly and accommodating. I have a lot of respect for Group Direct, and in particular, Arron Banks, he has built a large company through drive, enthusiasm and a strong team and not through acquisitions. I respect that.

What is your unique selling point?

Giving good advice and doing what you say your going to do. My advisers listen to clients’ needs and we get a lot of client recommendations. No amount of money can buy that.

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

I tend to keep busy. I find running gives me time to think. One of my staff challenged me to a 10k race and he beat me, but he won’t win next year. I’m getting good at DIY. I’ve renovated one property and am just about to start on another one. I also enjoy spending time with my family. However, my dad and I tend to talk shop, which drives my mum and partner mad.

What is your favourite book/film/football team?

I’m reading Lord of the Rings at the moment, not JRR Tolkien’s. This one’s about corruption in the Olympics. I generally like biographies or anything business related. Sad, I know.

Day in the life

6:15am I go to the gym in the mornings and like to do this three days a week. I generally spend about one hour 15 minutes doing a mixture of aerobic work and weights I try to leave the gym by 8:30am at the latest, but sometimes get a bit carried away and lose track of time.

9:00am Arrive at work and have breakfast at my desk. I usually check my emails, review the previous days performance and have a quick look at how much business we did online when I was asleep. In the morning I will liaise with my customer services manager to see if we can move staff around to help out in areas that have backlogs. At the moment every department is running at 110 per cent so there is not much scope. I try to respond to emails and call people back that have left messages for me.

10:00am I have been preparing figures to send to my accounts department so it can prepare the first quarter accounts.

11:00am We are on a continual recruitment drive at the moment so I spend time reviewing CVs and interviewing. My office manager, Sandra, and I have four people to interview today. I generally make my mind up after about one minute and Sandra knows my signals when I am not interested in someone – we have got it down to a fine art now.

12:30pm I am usually hungry by now, especially if I have been to the gym. I tend to make a sandwich and eat this at my desk while reading emails.

2:00pm I have a conference call today with an insurer. I have been doing more and more of these lately.

3:00pm I have a meeting planned with a potential new provider for our phone system. Progress is getting hindered by legacy software and hardware issues, so I have decided to review our current provider and look for an alternative supplier.

5:00pm I read more emails and review the call statistics and decide if my help is required on the phones.

7:00pm I leave the office after helping out the night staff, it has been so busy lately that they have been working until 9pm some nights to clear the callbacks.

7:45pm After dinner I try to organise my life, which includes washing, cleaning and dealing with my post, which has a tendency to remain unopened for a few days.

10:00pm I like to watch a bit of TV to unwind. I particularly like The Apprentice. I will make an effort to watch the 10pm news then go straight to bed.