Gavin Higgins is chief executive of both Higgins Insurance & Investments (HII) in Belfast and LawtonAsia in Bangkok. HII was established in 1969 as an SME broker, and independent financial adviser to professional and high net worth clients. Corporate clients range from small firms to group pension schemes. Higgins has 50 staff in the Belfast office, which offers commercial broking and employee benefits, such as private medical insurance. The firm also owns Surequote, an online personal lines broker. Higgins has a GWP of £15m. In 2002, Higgins set up a joint venture in Bangkok to form LawtonAsia to offer broking services to corporate bodies and medical insurance to expats. The company now employs 35, with a GWP of £8m.
How did you make it to where you are today?
I started in the business, which my father founded, straight from school and my job then was mainly tidying the office and putting files away. In the early 1980s, I moved to London and worked with a Lloyd’s broker for a short time, before moving to Eagle Star in Sutton. I returned to Belfast in the mid 80s and rejoined the family business as an account handler, before becoming a shareholder director in the early 90s. In the late 90s, I became managing director and started implementing a growth plan to further enhance the overall HII business.
What are the key challenges ahead?
It will always be a challenge to retain clients in an increasingly soft and competitive market. It is also of paramount importance to a growing business to attract good people, and to motivate and coach them. In doing so, providing a working environment that allows them to contribute to your goal is key. As a people business, investing in our employees’ skills – ongoing training, IT and so on – is a basic requirement in today’s market.
What has changed the most since you started in insurance?
The pace of change itself, together with client expectations – and, of course, IT. As a service industry, brokers are underselling the solutions we can and should provide to clients – and maybe even to insurers. We need to be more professional and to demonstrate to our clients the value of the advice we give and the help we can provide if they need to claim. This is difficult in a price-driven market. Everyone who is client facing should work towards their professional qualifications and we want to be seen as a chartered insurance broker, but when clients come, that professionalism is sometimes wasted. Getting buyers to buy only from a chartered insurance broker is a huge challenge, but I would support it.
What advice would you offer someone just starting out?
Find a niche area that gives you a buzz and work for a company where you can align your goals. Insurance is bought and sold around the world, so there is a huge market in which to work.
What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?
Luckily, no big ones – yet. I have managed to learn that the most cost-effective way to learn is from someone else’s mistake.
What was your biggest success?
Moving HII into its next corporate lifecycle and continuing its expansion. Relocating to Asia for two years to set up a brokerage in the region has been a rewarding experience. With my contacts there we did a quick feasibility study and then set up a joint venture with a Thai financial services company. The big area for us is employee benefits and we have one of only two private medical schemes available in the local currency.
Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends
Many of my contemporaries are no longer in the market – they have either left or been acquired – and nearly everyone I mixed with in the market has gone. There just aren’t as many people you would have a drink with anymore. But I am mixing with more people in Asia these days. I go there every three months and I can see more expansion there.
What is your unique selling point?
Listening to the problem and providing a solution. None of our clients found themselves in trouble over missing luggage following the T5 fiasco. We identified their needs, provided expert advice and arranged cover with reputable insurers.
When you are not working, what do you do to relax?
Since my daughters are only two years and 10 months old, finding any free time is a challenge. I go to the gym two or three times a week and have played five-a-side football every Friday for nearly 20 years. I also enjoy a round of golf at the Royal Portrush links.
What is your favourite book/film/football team?
Book: Just wish I had the time. Film: 12 Angry Men/Witness for the Prosecution. Music: Anything from The Smiths to Matt Monro. Football: I don’t support anyone, but I love watching the Premier League. IT
Gavin Higgin was talking to Chris Wheal.
Day in the life
6:30am I get up to give my youngest daughter, Alana, her bottle, followed by some breakfast for myself.
7:30am I check and reply to overnight emails from Asia. It is also an ideal time of the day to speak to the managing director in Bangkok to get an update on new existing developments and to hear of any progress on new markets
9:00am I arrive at my Belfast office, check and reply to incoming emails and review my meetings for the day and week ahead. I meet the managing director to review any operational or development issues.
11:00am A meeting with the development team to get an update regarding the digital marketing strategy or with the operational team to discuss client and market issues.
12:00pm The chief executive role in the Belfast office demands a largely coaching or mentor approach compared to Asia, where the work is much more client-facing and often involves tackling broking issues
1:00pm Lunch with existing or potential new client or with key suppliers or key personnel.
2:30pm I allocate 90 minutes daily to review progress on current activities and to plan, prepare strategies for improvements in our performance across each section of business.
4:00pm Keeping in touch with staff issues is also vital, and on a daily basis. I also make time for one-to-one sessions with key staff members to listen to their problems in order to provide mentoring and direct positive feedback, and to maintain focus on our purpose.
5:00pm I check and update emails and telephone calls that have accumulated later in the day from both the Belfast and Asia offices.
6:00pm I take an hour or so to review the days events, make plans that further address our main priorities, and assess our achievements for the day.
7:00pm I drive home after rush-hour traffic just in the nick of time for bath-time and to read my eldest daughter Holly a bedtime story. My wife, Tara, and I catch up with each other and, if energy levels are high, I visit the gym which, luckily, is only two minutes away. Then I unwind.