James Hall talks to Chris Wheal.
James Hall is managing director of Marshall Wooldridge (MW), a Leeds broker with three offices in Yeadon, West Yorkshire. The firm employs 50 staff with a further 20 in financial services. It controls about £20m of premium income. It is the official broker to the England & Wales Cricket Board Extra Cover scheme. The broker specialises in haulage and distribution, and the food and drink industries. The firm was recently awarded chartered status and joined Brokerbility in 2007.
How did you make it to where you are today?
I joined MW as a trainee straight from school in 1987 when the firm had five staff. I shared a desk with Roger Ashby, who acted as a mentor for a number of years. I was promoted to an outside role in my early twenties and, following a successful period of new business development and acquisition, appointed as director in 1998. After a successful management buy-out in 2004 I became joint managing director.
What are the key challenges ahead?
To continue to grow the business – particularly organically. We also need to maintain personal relationships with our clients – not to lose sight of how important they are to us. In the face of such fierce consolidation activity, we need to maintain a strong independent market. That means recognising the importance of recruiting and retaining good staff. We also need to move to a harder market, which will benefit insurers and brokers alike. Dealing with the credit crunch and its effect on business confidence is also going to be a challenge.
What has changed the most since you started in insurance?
The onset of FSA regulation has created huge time demands and pressures on our business, although we wholeheartedly support the professionalism that this will ultimately bring. The market, particularly in Leeds, is very competitive – much more than ever before. There is also the reduction in markets that are now available to us. And there is no clear distinction between insurers and brokers with lots of hybrid models out there.
What advice would you offer someone just starting out?
Just go for it. Broking is the future and there are fantastic possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead. Don’t be frightened to move around, gain experience and find your true value.
What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?
With a rapidly expanding business and with pressures on space for 70 staff whom we now need to rehouse, failing to acquire suitable premises when these became available in Yeadon for £70,000 was, I now realise, a howler. My more general mistake is trying to do too many jobs, particularly on the operational side.
What was your biggest success?
“I am proud of the acquisition of Kay Hardman, with all staff remaining to this day, and the vast majority of the business being retained.
The management buy-out and the continuing growth since 2004 must be up there, but I am also proud of the acquisition of Kay Hardman two years later, with all staff remaining to this day, and the vast majority of the business being retained. That is something special. Also persuading someone of the calibre of Ray Geary to join us has been a big success. Ray has raised the bar for us and has made us realise the importance of professionalism.
Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends
I am close to our chairman, Howard Marshall, who is still involved with our business. He is a fount of knowledge. Howard had the foresight and good judgment to put a succession plan in place and pass the business on to the younger generation. Ashwin Mistry, from Brokerbility, who had the vision to create a model that I believe was the major success story in 2007. And local brokers Paul Glendinning and Andrew Holmes are two of my closest pals.
What is your unique selling point?
Relationship management has been pivotal to our success. We tend to build up personal relationships with our clients and not just visit once a year. We provide a one-stop holistic service to our clients with an in-house risk management facility and our aim is to provide our clients with balance sheet protection. Our staff have been an important part of our success and our turnover of staff is extremely low. We work very hard in ensuring that they have the right work/life balance and enjoy coming to work. My own USP seems to be an ability to close a deal with clients and to negotiate and secure a good deal with insurers.
When you are not working, what do you do to relax?
At weekends I like to play golf and play off a handicap of 10. I also enjoy socialising with family and friends and a day at the races.
What is your favourite book/film/football team?
Book: Managing My Life by Alex Ferguson. He would have been a success in whatever career he chose.
Film: Usual Suspects.
Football team: The Mighty Reds – Man Utd, which can sometimes be quite hard in a hot bed of football such as Leeds. And of course Harrogate Town.
Day in the life
6:30am A typical start to the day is dependent on when my two lovely daughters wake up. We breakfast together as a family in what I call quality time. The office is about 30 minutes away, from Harrogate to Yeadon. There are breathtaking views of Gods own County that you sometimes take for granted. I usually receive some client calls on the way through.
8:00am I catch up with emails and general correspondence, then touch base with my operations manager and discuss any pressing staff issues and weekly progress with our budgets. I speak to my co-directors, in particular Ric Marshall who runs our financial services operation. I generally, take a walk on the shop floor to catch up with the staff. This is a part of the job I enjoy and I am never disappointed. I look through the final draft of our 35th anniversary brochure, which looks good.
10:00am The first client meeting of the day is with a prospective new client, an advertising agency on the outskirts of Leeds with 200 staff. The meeting with the finance director and managing director goes particularly well, but we have some keen rates and wide covers to compete with.
12:00pm There is an internal meeting with our new telesales unit, which is working really well and has given another string to our bow. We discuss current prospecting activities and review tactics and strategy.
1:15pm I snatch a sandwich at my desk and endeavour to return client calls and deal with the never ending stream of emails. I read the business section of the Yorkshire Post, which I find extremely topical and an excellent source of information on the Yorkshire business community.
2:00pm I run through forthcoming renewals with my team of account handlers, where we will review tactics and strategy.
3:30pm I have a new business meeting with a local transport company following a referral from an existing client. I run through the fact-find. The meeting goes well and I am optimistic that we will pick up this case.
4:45pm I go back to the office and check emails and return calls to clients.
5:15pm I am homeward bound, but via a fundraising meeting for a sponsored dragon boat charity race at Roundhay Park on the Bank Holiday for Martin House ChildrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Hospice. We successfully completed the challenge and raised 2,500 pounds for a very deserving and worthwhile cause.
6:30pm Generally, I like to get home at this time and spend some time with the girls before bedtime, hearing about what sort of day they have had.
7:30pm It is time to relax with a meal and a glass of wine, and watch some TV: The Apprentice or something to do with sport are my particular favourites.