Chris Wheal talks to Jerry Clayton of LFC Insurance about his life and career.
Jerry Clayton runs LFC Insurance Group from its head office in South Woodham Ferrers, Essex. The firm is a classic commercial broker that also provides personal lines facilities as an associated service. It has three other offices, one near Colchester, one in Eastbourne and one in Westcliff-on-sea, giving it national coverage with a concentration south of a line between the Wash and Southampton. The firm has a GWP of £30m, 100 staff and is currently finalising acquisition number 15.
How did you make it to where you are today?
I was lucky enough to get a job at 16 at New Zealand Insurance as a clerk. I was there for three years before moving into broking with a firm called Raytel in Rayleigh, Essex. I started as assistant to the commercial broking team. I started LFC in 1988 on my own. I built my whole business through cold calling potential clients. In March 1989 I bought my first business. The owner had sadly passed away and I bought the business off the chap’s widow. I bought the second business in May that year. Both were less than £1m, GWP. We were involved with a finance firm at the time so I asked them to fund the acquisitions and they lent me the money. We’ve grown from there.
What are the key challenges ahead?
Keeping staff happy, keeping insurers happy and keeping clients happy. Each of those has differing demands that sometimes conflict and compete. The trick is to get the balance between each of them right. We’re no different from any other broker, no matter how large or small. The major consolidators and brokers will have the same problems that we have.
What has changed the most since you started in insurance?
The lack of personalities. In the old days there were always people to go and see. Branch managers, insurance inspectors and underwriters came out and were able to make most of the decisions. It is much harder to build up a good relationship now. Email is a fantastic development and makes everything so much more efficient but it does make everything less personal and inevitably, the less one speaks to a human being, the less likely you are able to build a relationship.
What advice would you offer someone just starting out?
Be pushy and don’t take second best. If you are good enough, push your manager. Ask to be stretched. In my first job I asked the underwriters if I could have a go and they watched over me while I did it, helping me learn. Strive to get as much experience as you can early. Then, when you do get to meet clients spoil them rotten. I don’t mean suck up to them but give them a service they cannot get anywhere else – represent them at surveys, loss adjusters’ meetings, present yourself professionally and generally go that extra mile.
What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?
I was stitched up in 1991 by my old company secretary. He ran off with client monies, at the time equating to our annual turnover. Because I was out all the time, I took my eye of the ball and let someone else deal with the money. He had another business that was failing and used the money to prop it up. When that other business finally went bust I got nothing. I had to go to insurers and explain and ask if they were prepared to wait. They all agreed and I didn’t let any of them down. It was hard at the time, but it would never happen again.
What was your biggest success?
I have a board of directors to die for and appointing them has been my biggest success. I made my first appointment in 1995 and – I hope he won’t read this – it really changed the company for the better. Subsequent appointments have been fantastic and we all seem to share the same work ethos and desire to do things the right way.
Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends
Anybody who has had the courage to start a business and go out there and do it on their own I admire.
What is your unique selling point?
We’re quite well known for having a high technical knowledge of insurance products. We are also a bit old fashioned in our views on service. We earn commissions not just for placing our clients’ insurances but also for the follow up service, surveys, loss adjusting, contractual discussions, risk management and so on.
When you are not working, what do you do to relax?
I play racquet ball. I used to play squash but my knees are shot. I also like cooking and I like my holidays. I have a house in Majorca so I go there a lot. It is all wired up so I can work from there so I zoom over from time to time.
What is your favourite book/film/football team?
Book: I am into autobiographies of people I respect. I am currently reading Laurence Dallaglio’s.
Film: That depends on the mood. I like Braveheart or something like Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Football team: Arsenal
Day in the life
6:45am I wake up, not by choice. I have a hideous 13-year-old daughter who has to catch a bus to school and we have recently moved so I have to drive her to the bus stop. I leave by 7.20, drop off my daughter and the office is about a minute away.
7:30am Check emails, read about a Nigerian investment opportunity and cheap Viagra. Eat a low-fat yogurt and a piece of fruit. Make a coffee.
8:00am People start to arrive so I will chat with some of them, Find out about activities of last night and just be sociable before work starts properly.
10:00am I try never to have meetings before 10 because I hate commuting, either by car or by train, in the rush hour. Last week, mind you, a client had a fire at his factory so I was there holding his hand while his business burnt down.
11:00am Back to the office for more emails and messages and then I will talk to the account execs about business and who is doing what. I might also talk to insurers about schemes or claims.
12:00pm I always have lunch at midday because after just a yogurt and an apple, by then I am starving.
1:00pm I will check with the other directors and the other offices to see if they need my help.
2:00pm I will take up issues with Sirius
2:30pm I review the management information targets and budgets, or as we are in the middle of an acquisition I will be proofreading a contract and sending that off.
3:00pm I talk to my claims director to see if there are any problems.
3:30pm I still have my own clients so I will go and see one or look into the ongoing review of their insurance.
4:30pm I like to do a little bit of admin, so I will process an endorsement, for example. It means I know how the system is working if someone has an issue with it. I will also look at Broker Assist. I will do my bit and make sure everyone is doing their training.
5:00pm I prefer life to working so will rarely stay beyond 5pm. I will generally pop over the road for an hour of racquet ball and then go home to cook the tea.
7:00pm We will eat about 7.00, then, as I have just built a new house, I will have things to do. I have to install a new computer system so I can work from home.
9:00pm If there is some sport or a cooking programme on I might watch that.
10:00pm I will either go to bed early or my wife and I might stay up playing cards.