Chris Caunces talks to Chris Wheal

Chris Caunce runs Caunce O’Hara in Manchester with Martin O’Hara. The firm has a GWP of £25m with a mix of commercial combined and professional indemnity clients. It also runs a schemes business that includes schemes for metal finishing firms and rugby players. It was one of the first brokers to trade on the internet in 1996 with cover for micro-businesses and freelancers – a line still successful today. The company has 40 staff.

How did you make it to where you are today?

I was offered a job at Swinton in Sale before I even had my O’level results. That was a time of high unemployment, so I started two weeks before I was 16 on a salary of £1,750 a year. Basically I was given a phone. There was no training or CPD points in those days. After a year I became a trainee marine insurance clerk with Gibb Hartley Copper and doubled my salary. My ultimate boss was blind, I drove him to meetings and helped by reading documents for him. I learned so much from that experience. In 1987 I joined Cunliffe and first met Martin O’Hara. I was approached in 1990 by a firm of accountants who wanted me to set up an insurance broker. That was then bought by Bradstock three years later. I set up with O’Hara in 1995. We remortgaged our homes.

What are the key challenges ahead?

The challenge is to stay ahead. We hope that within all these mergers there might be a fall-out of good staff and we might pick them up, rather than paying a high price for a firm and then finding skeletons in the cupboard. Keeping our values will be a challenge too. We have fantastic modern technology and systems, but we have old firm values.

What has changed the most since you started in insurance?

It is good to focus on what has not changed. It is wonderful that Lloyd’s is still an institution. It is still great to deal face to face with insurers. We insist on being in the centre of Manchester so we can still do that. But there are fewer quality underwriters who can make decisions. They have been displaced by “the computer says no”. The real change has been in the attitude to paying claims. In the old days insurers found ways to pay claims and now they find ways not to pay them. There are more lawyers and accountants than there are underwriters, and they rely on innocent non-disclosure or they shoehorn wordings to fit circumstances to which it was never envisaged they would apply.

What advice would you offer someone just starting out?

Make sure you have wool on your back. If you borrow, the bank will want to go through your books and that will be a distraction. And don’t go into business to make money because you may well earn less than in your previous job for several years. Do it as a lifestyle choice. If you make money then that is a welcome addition.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

I can’t help myself, but make a joke. If I am in a client meeting and I see something funny I just say it. Then, when we haven’t won the business, I’ll be thinking why did I say that. But if you lose a piece of business, being bitter about will cut your chances of ever winning it back. Smile through gritted teeth, let the new broker make its own mistakes and you’ll get it back.

What was your biggest success?

All my biggest successes have been the phone calls I didn’t want to make. If you have an idea, push yourself to do something with it. I have met people at airports or rugby matches and their cards are sitting on my desk. I think how embarrassing it would be to phone them. It is too easy to make excuses for not doing things. .

Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends

I met Paul Donaldson of RSA and have to admire him. He has worked his way up in a big organisation. He has a skillset that I haven’t got. I also admire Alan Guest of Mitsui. Brokers scowl at each other or avoid eye contact, but through Brokerbility we have met some like-minded brokers and I‘ve been very impressed – and it gives us a voice with insurers and the FSA.

What is your unique selling point?

We care about what we do and that breeds itself in the office. Don’t change your values. As a firm we like to be innovative. We identify what is driving the prices and try to resolve that, rather than just asking for 10% off – that is the lazy man’s way of doing things.

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

I own a sailing boat and used to go sailing and play golf. But we have a three-year-old and a two-year-old, so these days it’s all nappies and trying to keep an eye on them.

What is your favourite book/film/football team?

Book: Strip of Gold, by Gary Kinder – it is about a man who builds submarine to recover lost gold but meets the insurers that paid out originally.

Film: The Dambusters, since I was impressed by a group of bomber pilots I met at a reunion.

Football. My father was a season ticket holder at Manchester United for 40 years so I support them too. I also support Sale Sharks at rugby

Day in the life

7:15am I wake up, depending on how the children have been during the night. I am a big fan of honey and yogurt to get me going in the morning. I have stopped getting in early to work. You are always thinking about work when you run your own business so there is no need to be there all time. We live in Altrincham, which is about eight miles from work, but I have recently bought a fold-away bicycle and sometimes I will cycle about 12 miles along the canal towpath into work. That takes about an hour but sets me up for the day.

9:00am Every morning is a battle between what is waiting for me when I arrive and the things I want to do. I make a list. Unfortunately it always seems to run to 13 things, so I have to find something else to do each day just to make it 14. I will have a look at the emails and then the diary. Some weeks I am in a lot, and other weeks I will be out three days.

10:00am On Mondays I have a renewals meeting so I will get the whole team in and discuss where we are at and have we organised cover. There is a different meeting every day. It will be management or the board, or a marketing meeting where we discuss new business and leads. We have a big white board showing the progress of all new leads, so that everyone in the office can see how we’re doing. After that it will be keeping up with cases and whatever else is on my list.

1:00pm Martin buys me a sandwich every day. The downside of that is that it means I often eat it at my desk working through lunch. I have taken to going out for a walk if I can. I have even started going to the bank to pay cheques in just to get me out.

2:00pm I prefer to have meetings in the afternoon because in theory it gives me the morning to prepare. These may be with clients or insurers and may be here or out. Next week I have a meeting with a client in Shropshire I have known for years. There is a fly-fishing spot nearby, so I will change into my fishing gear after the meeting and spend a couple of hours fly-fishing. I will turn my mind to anything in the office that needs sorting.

6:00pm If I am in the office I will come out and tell anyone who is still there to go home. People can get into the habit of staying late when really they have finished their work.

7:00pm These days we will sit and vegetate and find out what ready-meal it will be tonight. We spent the winter evenings thinking what we were going to do in the summer evenings, but it has been such horrible weather we’ve stayed in anyway. I will go out if Coronation Street is on, and play nine holes of golf.

11:00pm Even if I am really tired I will keep myself up to 11. I go to bed earlier earlier now than I used to. You never know what sort of night the kids are going to give you.