Guy Cliffin talks to Chris Wheal

Guy Cliffin is deputy managing director of HW Wood, a privately owned independent broker that has grown from £2.8m to £7m brokerage since becoming a Lloyd’s broker in 2003. Its main areas of business are property owners, fine art and collectibles, marine (hull and cargo), international wholesale and commercial. It has recently started making inroads into the professional liability arena. Growth has come from finding key producers in each division as well as using Lloyd’s status to place risks from the group’s overseas offices in Europe and North America. It employs 73 staff.

How did you make it to where you are today?

I have never yet met anyone who went into insurance through choice, unless via a family connection and I am no exception. On leaving Royal Grammar School in Guildford at 16 I was offered jobs at ICI, Midland Bank and Alexander Howden Insurance Brokers. I accepted Alexander Howden as they paid according to ability not age. I stayed five years and then went to a very small independent broker for two years before working at Minet for 13 years where I handled clients such as Tesco, Chloride and the British Racing Drivers Club. I joined HW Wood in 1997 and was their first City recruit.

What are the key challenges ahead?

The challenges are the same as they always have been: trying to provide excellent client service; beat your competitors so that you retain business for many years; and keeping a lid on expenses whenever possible. The endless talks and seminars about ‘coping in a soft market’ and the ‘threat from internet’ seem to miss the point. The soft market really is the norm (how long did the last hard market actually last? – answers on a postcard please) and commercial clients will never buy corporate insurance through the internet. They will always want and need advice from a person that they trust about a subject that they do not fully understand. Our philosophy is to get our clients to treat us as if we were their in-house insurance department. They simply have to ratify our recommendations. Pro-active help in getting their claims settled seems to help!

What has changed the most since you started in insurance?

Emails have transformed the amount of business each one of us can handle as we can respond so quickly. I regularly get over 50 emails a day but can you possibly imagine replying to over 50 letters a day? I often ask myself just how we can stop this continual increase of email traffic.

What advice would you offer someone just starting out?

Whatever job you go into make sure it is the core activity of that company. So, if you want to work in accounts then work for an accountant and that also applies to insurance. It might seem like strange advice and obviously not everyone can follow it but the most highly successful people did just that.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

I have two regrets. Allowing my boss at a small broker to convince me that my account exec job was more important than finishing my ACII. I had passed five (out of nine) in the two previous years but the exam dates clashed with my largest renewal, so I took a year out and never went back. The other is not being able to transfer my domestic tidiness at home to my office desk.

What was your biggest success?

Convincing the other members of the board at HW Wood that we were good enough and professional enough to become a Lloyd’s broker and then making sure it happened, with the help of hard work by my colleagues –and this despite me never having been a Lloyd’s broker.

Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends

I admire brokers like Stuart Reid, Tom Allen, Paul Meehan, Paul Anscombe and Paul Maynard. I also feel that insurers deserve a mention, such as Neil Clutterbuck of Allianz, Chris Giles of Chubb, Steve Hargreaves of Norwich Union, Stephen French of Ace and Mark Hadfield of Endurance. I recently met Felix Schachter of AXA who has a brain the size of a planet and made me realise how little I know about this industry.

What is your unique selling point?

Honesty ranks very high as this gains trust from clients and insurers alike.

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

As I largely live alone during the week, I often seem to do nothing but work and cook. At weekends though I love being outside and spend time walking and eating in the wilds of Hertfordshire or the Norfolk coast, where my partner Angie owns an idyllic cottage by the sea.

What is your favourite book/film/football team?

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – written as if narrated by Death. I cannot recommend highly enough the film The Kite Runner – it was even better than the book. The only team that I follow can on a good day beat anyone four-nil, but equally, on a bad day, lose four-nil. The only North London silverware winners this year. IT

Day in the life

5:45am I am woken up by my phone alarm and look at texts, as my eldest daughter keeps nocturnal hours at uni in Southampton. It is either healthy cereal with blueberries (or strawberries this month) or I adopt the go to work on an egg philosophy. Epsom station car park has 25 spaces and I need to get there before 6.45 to get one, instead I take the 15 minute walk.

8:00am I arrive at the office and plan what I am going to do today. Then I open up emails and forget what I was going to do. A new producer in Australia deluges me with updates about 20 new prospects he is talking to today (bearing in mind he has just finished his day).

9:00am I speed read all the incoming post. This helps me get a handle on what is happening around the company and can be invaluable. I distribute it personally, as it is good to have a reason to talk to all the key people on a daily basis.

11:00am I conduct a second interview for an account executive position.

11:30am I sign and send out our introducer agreement to a new contact in Dubai who promises to inundate us with business.

13:00pm There is an informal chat over a pint with a prospective new employee and a colleague.

15:30pm There are loads of email attachments to read about some new Greek business we have just won. I promise to respond formally tomorrow. A prospect confirms a meeting later this month for some UK business following a presentation they attended back in February.

16:30pm I prepare end of May stats for income production with reasons for variances.

17:45pm There are loads more emails to go through. I respond where possible.

17:45pm I speak to the Toronto office about their PI policy, and let them know we are thinking about their insurances, so they do not need to. After all, they are just another client to us.

18:00pm There are more P&C financial figures to prepare.

21:00pm I arrive home and watch a little of the football on TV.

21:30pm I cook a small meal as I had eaten earlier, but find cooking relaxes me.

21:30pm I look at personal emails to see if anyone out there wants to buy my fathers wonderful collection of plates or his vinyl, but no joy.