Chris Wheal talks to managing director of Hayes Parsons, Sharon Watts about her life and career

Sharon Watts is managing director of Bristol broker Hayes Parsons. The company was founded in 1964 and has three divisions. Hayes Parsons Marine covers tall ships, historic yachts such as the Lively Lady currently circumnavigating the world, maritime museums, marinas and boat businesses. Educational Insurance Services deals with schools and colleges, including several at Oxford. And there is a general commercial business. The company employs 28 staff, some part-time, and has a GWP of £10m.

How did you make it to where you are today?

I started work with a company that builds huge steel warehouses. I worked with the management team, handling wages, timesheets, accounts and orders. Then I went to work for Scottish Life in Bristol in 1983 and stayed for 22 years. I managed a team with responsibility for training, human resources, compliance and sales administration. I did three major projects at the company’s head office that meant moving up to Scotland. While there, I qualified as an FCII and APFS (the life and pensions equivalent). I had the opportunity to join Hayes Parsons as managing director in July 2005.

What are the key challenges ahead?

Bristol is a major centre for insurance so companies are constantly on the lookout for good people. You have to keep your staff interested and well-trained. You need to make sure your staff enjoy working with you otherwise they will leave. When it comes to clients, there are often several brokers vying for their business, as competition is fierce. It is even harder with consolidation because the larger brokers appear to get better rates and higher commission due to the size of their accounts. That is why we are part of the Westinsure Alliance.

What has changed the most since you started?

From memory, competition was never so fierce. A website is a key tool these days as it needs to be all singing and all dancing. Regulation has had a huge impact. It has brought about more professionalism in the marketplace, but has also created a great deal of paperwork and expense.

What advice would you offer someone just starting out?

Sit down and think about what you want as a goal. There are some good companies out there, so choosing which one to work for is key. Study and get qualified. Learning on the job can be useful, but you miss out on information, whereas doing exams forces you to go right through from A to Z. Learn from your mistakes – we all make them – and don’t be afraid to ask questions. And when you stop enjoying it, take stock and review why, then make adjustments.

What is the biggest mistake you ever made?

I agreed to run a training project and didn’t realise the size of the project until I was in the midst of it. I should have asked for support earlier than I did as the pressure on me personally was too much.

What was your biggest success?

Landing this job with Hayes Parsons. I have met some great people and developed hugely as a result. Scottish Life had just announced some redundancies and I took the opportunity to make a career change. It is better to be born lucky than rich. I was also really honoured to be invited to be president of the Insurance Institute of Bristol.

Talk about your contemporaries and friends

I chair the local Biba region and through Biba I have met some great people. Regional executive Barry Blakley and past chairman Ian Dickinson of the Brunsdon Group have been very supportive. Through the Insurance Institute of Bristol, I met Richard Smith of Zurich and Marion Ware of Canada Life. Denis Morgan and Tricia Buick of the Westinsure Alliance have become good friends through our membership.

What is your unique selling point?

Our staff have more than 500 years of experience of commercial and marine insurance between them. We give our clients the right advice at the start and look after their interests and support them through any claims they have – we have our own claims handling department.

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

I spend time with my family which is pretty large. I have three stepchildren who are all married. They have eight children. I also have two children of my own. We have big parties, everyone will come round for a barbecue or we will all go out for a meal together. I used to be very sporty, playing squash, swimming and aerobics. I also trained as an Olympic gymnast up to 14, but sadly didn’t make the grade.

What is your favourite book/film/football team?

Book: Wilbur Smith’s Blue Horizon. Film: Love Actually. Football team: England, although what I really love is watching the gymnastics and the diving during the Olympics.

Day in the life

5:30am Every Tuesday I get up half an hour earlier than usual and go to a Business Networking International meeting at Bristol Golf Club. It includes a mix of businesses with only one person from each line of business. We act as introducers of each others businesses to people we know or meet who need their services. Givers gain is the phrase we use.

8:30am I usually meet one of the other members after the breakfast to learn more about his or her business, and to find out how we can help each other.

10:00am I arrive in the office. Other days I am usually up at 6am and in the office by 7am. I look at generating referrals from the variety of networking events that I attend. About 20% of my time is spent on generating new business. I take sales staff with me to client meetings or attend networking events in the evening, make follow-up contact and then hand over to the sales staff.

11:00am I catch up on emails and respond

11:30am I have a short meeting with the accounts department and then chase up any bad payers. I have learned to be quite persuasive at getting money from people.

12:00pm Some time between 12 and 2 I have lunch. I might have a sandwich in the office, but more often than not I am out to lunch meeting clients or businesses we are working with.

2:00pm I have meetings with insurers, looking at our claims ratios and talking about future plans.

3:00pm I catch up on emails and respond

4:00pm I occasionally have to deal with HR issues that crop up.

4:30pm Right now we have two people on maternity leave, so I have taken over the whole compliance role and that is a big task. I spend about half an hour a day keeping on top of the paperwork.

5:30pm If I am in the office I may leave as early as 5.30 but if I am out I will get back in and catch up with emails and other things that need sorting. If we have an event organised with Biba, the insurance institute or the Bristol Marine Insurance Association, then I might have a lot of emails to go through.

7:00pm I help the children with their homework and maybe give my daughter a driving lesson. Thats interesting. I might read the periodicals and watch an hour of television I love The Apprentice, or I will do the sudoku in the evening paper with a glass of wine. I usually go to bed around 10.30.