Simon Bennett talks to Chris Wheal.
Simon Bennett in the third generation of his family to run J Bennett insurance brokers in High Wycombe. The company, founded by his grandfather in 1908, this year celebrates its centenary. The firm is 90% commercial lines for predominantly local business within a 25-30 mile radius but also has other clients across the UK. It also runs a specialist scheme for hot air balloon operators, and owns its own balloon, as fellow director, Peter Dowlen, is a pilot. The business has a GWP of £4.5m and employs 11 people.
How did you make it to where you are today?
I started out at F Bolton & Co, a Lloyd’s broker, in 1972. It was later bought out by Frizell. I had training in every department, spending three or four months in each and ending up in the room at Lloyd’s for four months. In June 1974 I joined J Bennett and Son, progressing through the ranks. My father, John Bennett, was running the business when I joined, having taken over from his father, my grandfather, Jake Bennett, just after the war. My father retired in 1981 and our finance director at the time, Peter Rump, took over for 10 years until he retired and then I and my colleagues took over in 1991 and I became managing director.
What are the key challenges ahead?
The consolidators certainly present a challenge – but I tend to believe that people still want to talk to an independent insurance broker, where they can get a personal service. I don’t think people like talking to big, faceless conglomerates. If you look at any big organisation, be it BT, the Revenue or Vodafone, these days it is almost impossible to speak to anybody who is able to take responsibility and make decisions. People don’t want that. They want someone to take responsibility. Some of the larger insurance companies don’t have the flexibility that they used to have either. We have been approached by consolidators but we haven’t given in yet.
What has changed the most since you started in insurance?
Computers and the speed at which the insurance industry now works. When I started, we had rating guides for motor insurance and they only changed once, or twice, a year. The work involved in compiling , proofing , printing and binding them, and then distributing them to every broker, meant rates could not be changed any more often than that. Now insurers can change their rates at the touch of a button and we’ve got them on our system the following day. Emails these days demand immediate action – the pace is quicker, but to keep up you have to embrace this technology.
What advice would you offer someone just starting out?
It is a very different world to the one in which I started – but then my dad said the same thing. FSA compliance is time consuming and demanding, but necessary for an industry that obviously needs regulation. And coming up with something innovative is increasingly difficult. I think technology is where innovation will happen, so if you feel comfortable about regulation and the FSA and you feel comfortable with technology then perhaps you will succeed.
What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?
Coming up with a couple of ideas for innovations that I didn’t press as hard as I could with insurers and then three or four years down the line I saw that somebody else had done.
What was your biggest success?
Keeping the company going to make our centenary. Keeping our clients happy and doing such a good job for them that they stay with us. Winning big clients is good but the biggest success is keeping them happy so they stay with you.
Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends
There are quite a few people who use to work for Independent Insurance, some of whom got out before the proverbial hit the fan, and some who didn’t. They are good people. Andy Hawkes, Geoff Crisp and Kevin Pallett, Stuart .All are now running, or working for, successful insurance businesses. You also have to admire Peter Cullum for what he has done, whether you like Towergate or not.
What is your unique selling point?
Longevity and experience. The fact that we have been around such a long time means we must have been doing something right and people do appreciate that. We have done what my grandfather set out to do. We have combined experience, knowledge and personal service. He, and my father, never wanted to run a mega-business with offices around the country. Both Jake, and my father John, wanted to run a successful insurance brokerage and I think we have done, and are still doing, just that.
When you are not working, what do you do to relax?
Anything sporting. I used to play a lot of rugby and cricket, and I still play golf. I also used to play squash.
What is your favourite book/film/football team?
No football team but Wasps for rugby. Book: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, Film: The Magnificent Seven.
Day in the life
6:00am the alarm wakes me up but I probably get up about 6.15. I have cereal and fruit juice for breakfast and leave at 7.30 to arrive in the office between 7.50 and 8.00.
8:00am If I am first in I will make sure the coffee machine is on and that all the other little jobs that need doing for the office to open at 8.30. I am not always the first in and if I have a meeting booked for the morning I might go straight there and not come in at all.
8:30am On the second Thursday of each month we have a management meeting, but other times I will look at my emails and deal with anything that has come in.
9:00am Some time between 9.00 and 10.00 my assistant will show me the post and we will go through that.
10:00am I will often have appointments, probably with an insurer coming in.
11:00am I will have presentations to prepare and renewals to discuss. There are lots of activities that will come up on the computer system that have to be dealt with.
1:00pm I will pop out and get a sandwich and eat it at my desk.
1:45pm It will either be more of the same or I will go out and visit a client. Yesterday, for example, I went out to see a potential new business client at 2pm and I was probably back in the office about 3.45. I will also sometimes work from home.
3:45pm There are always emails to deal with, whatever else needs doing. Things have to be done properly and emails have to attached to the correct client file so that when we receive the inevitable FSA visit, they could tell quickly that everything was being done correctly.
5:00pm The office will close but I seldom leave before 5.30 or 6.00. That is my quiet time when I can make sure that anything that needed to be done does not hang over until the morning.
6:00pm I have about six miles to go home and, depending on whether or not I stop at the pub, which I do maybe once or twice a week, I will be home normally between 6.00 and 6:30.
6:30pm I do a bit of gardening. We grow a lot of vegetables so there is usually some watering or other jobs that need doing. On Tuesday nights I play snooker, but other nights we will have dinner and watch TV possibly. I have just got an iPod so loading that and putting my CD collections on it is occupying a lot of my time at the moment.
10:30pm I go to bed too late according to my wife, so it will be anytime after 10.30 but maybe not until midnight.