Duncan Woodcock talks to Chris Wheal

Duncan Woodcock is managing director of Reid Hamilton in Lancaster. The 25-year-old business has a GWP of £3.5m and employs 12 staff. About 80% of its business is local commercial insurance, ranging from small companies to firms with a turnover as high as £60m. It has a separate personal lines department with many family clients – providing cover to several generations of the same families.

How did you make it to where you are today?

I started at Legal & General straight from school in 1972 in Manchester. I worked as a motor and liability underwriter, then in claims and finally as a company inspector. In 1985 I moved to the Liverpool office. While I was there, I met the person who owned Reid Hamilton. Through ill-health and bad luck the firm was about to go bust. I was offered it. In September 1987 I bought out some of the investors and took it over. I was married, my wife wasn’t working, the company had debts of £27,000 on a turnover of £46,000 and it couldn’t afford to pay me. I borrowed a mini from my sister. We had one and a half staff (one person working part–time). We turned it around by servicing our customers really well and then getting recommendations and referrals from those clients to win new ones.

What are the key challenges ahead?

Developing a team of talented people who will take the business forward. At 55 I want the business to have a future, but at some point I will be departing and I want it to remain as an independent broker.

What has changed the most since you started in insurance?

The trust and the distribution channels. We now have direct this and online that, special schemes and consolidators, and even insurers owning brokers. We are continually competing against our suppliers. I am hoping the independent broker has a future because I believe our clients want that. FSA regulation frightened some people out of the market earlier than they might have gone and that led to consolidation which means less choice for customers.

What advice would you offer someone just starting out?

If you are going to go into insurance then I’d say be a specialist – get into a niche – don’t be a generalist like me. As a specialist you can add value and that means you can make money.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

I missed a couple of opportunities by being overcautious. Because we started out in such difficulties I never wanted to get into that kind of debt again, so probably did not borrow when I could have done. We had a chance in the late 1980s to develop a big hotel client base locally. We were the first with a scheme for them, but we didn’t have the money to market it.

What was your biggest success?

Being brave enough to take the plunge and take over Reid Hamilton. I wanted to work for myself and it was a great opportunity. I like the fact that broking is about addressing other people’s needs and protecting people’s businesses. Joining the Broker Network has been the other big success for us. It has opened us to insurers who had not taken us seriously before. That allows us to market more widely and it makes us more efficient.

Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends

My old sales manager at Legal & General was called Stan Judkins and he said to me: “You make your own luck.” And I have. From my days in Manchester I admire Alex Finch, who is an extremely able individual. And I admire Peter Browne of Fylde Insurance Brokers – he proves that nice guys can do well. I think Grant Ellis was far-sighted in launching Broker Network.

What is your unique selling point?

Customer care, it is at the centre of everything we do and our clients appreciate it. Most of our new business comes from referrals from clients. We are on call 24 hours a day. If we have an emergency – and it is normally a claim – then I have a list of all the insurers’ numbers with me. I can access the office computer from anywhere in the world. We also produce our own in-house newsletter twice a year.

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

I go to Puerto Pollensa in Majorca three or four times a year. My family is very important to me, so for a fortnight every summer, my two married sons and their partners come with us there. I am learning Spanish now too. I also love motor sport, so I never miss watching a Grand Prix on the television.

What is your favourite book/film/football team?

Book: Early one Morning by Robert Ryan. It is about the second world war and how a famous racing driver and winner at Monaco became a spy. Football: I suppose I should say Blackburn Rovers as they are our closest Premier League club, but I have been to see Morecambe in their first season in Division Two. We also sponsor Lancaster City football club. They are in the Unibond 1st division north. Their attendance last Saturday was 84, so clearly need some help.

Day in the life

7:45am I wake up, shower and have a light breakfast. I live a 10-minute drive away from the office.

8:50am Over tea I check my emails, chat with my PA and consult my fellow director, Mark, about the day ahead.

10:30am I have a renewal meeting with an aerospace component maker to present our proposals and get them agreed.

11:30am It is back to the office where I have a meeting with someone from AXA.

1:00pm I tend to mid-air refuel as I call it. I eat at my desk while doing stuff. But I always try to get out of the office for half an hour, just to walk round the town. Lancaster is a lovely town and it’ i almost a networking opportunity. You’d be amazed at how many clients I meet about town.

2:00pm I have a meeting with my co-director about our focus group. These are groups of about five people from across the company who address particular challenges. This one is to check that our ISO 9001 quality system can provide management information to meet the FSAs Treating Customers Fairly demands. Some of the group have been on Biba courses and some have attended Broker Network seminars. This helps maintain a compliant culture.

3:00pm I have an email from the FSA. About 18 months ago we had someone from the FSA here on a placement and they have emailed to ask if we can do it again. I think this is a brilliant idea, so I reply immediately. The FSA will send someone here for three days to experience how a broker works, look at our systems and see how we treat customers fairly.

3:30pm I am working on some products with the Broker Network, so I exchange a few emails. That was time well spent. The network is really useful for things like this.

4:30pm I always have a little walk around the office and talk to all the staff. That’s the benefit of being a small business and being able to deal with issues as they arise.

5:00pm We close the office at 5pm but I admit I am not always the last to leave. We close at 4pm on a Friday. Although I come in most Saturday mornings to get a few hours of uninterrupted work done. I am pretty brain dead by 5pm most days so there is no point in me working late.

5:20pm I am usually home by 5.20. My wife, Jane, and I will have something to eat and a glass of wine. I might do some Spanish practise or in the summer, if it is nice, we’ll sit outside. On Fridays we play snooker together. We are evenly matched and have been playing in the same club for 20 years. I’ll probably go to bed after 11.30.