Sue Bull talks to Chris Wheal
Farmer’s daughter Sue Bull set up Redstone Insurance Brokers in May last year and started trading in September. She set out to act as a general broker to the local community around North Baddesley, near Southampton, where she lives, and targeted SMEs. She has since found that many individuals still value advice for personal lines, or fall outside the narrow scope of many internet-based insurance offerings. She initially took on staff but is working alone again and has decided to specialise more on farm and rural insurance.
How did you make it where you are today?
I got into insurance straight from school. The Eagle Star inspector who insured my father’s farm used to sit with him having a cup of tea. We got to know him and, once I’d finished my A-levels, he offered me a job. I was 10 years at Eagle Star and passed my ACII exams there. You can’t beat working in an insurance company for learning the technical knowledge.
I went to Bonus, which became GA, CGU and eventually NU. I was 10 years there too. I got to work closely with the brokers as well as learning how to manage fairly large units. I ended up doing property claims, which I loved, but they moved it to Norwich. I’m a Southampton girl and had my family there, so I took redundancy.
I then worked at Keelan Westall. I was there for six years and did everything from compliance to HR to managing departments. When it was bought by Erinaceous, I decided to set up on my own before I was the wrong side of 45.
What are the key challenges ahead?
To develop the farm side of my business and to become profitable. I want to be profitable enough to take on staff again.
What has changed the most since you started in insurance?
My old memories of an inspector having a cuppa with my dad. That is what I want to bring back. I want people not to worry because they know they can trust me. People want personal service and they want to deal with someone who has the technical knowledge – all brokers should have that knowledge but it is so often missing. Giving the right advice is the most important part of providing a service.
What advice would you offer someone just starting out?
Allow for not taking any salary for a year or two. Whatever you expect a start-up to cost, double it. Raise the capital in advance because when you have no salary, it is hard to get loans.
I used to feel frustrated if I made a sideways career move, but the breadth of knowledge gained from those moves has been the biggest help. Get the broadest experience possible.
What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?
Taking on staff before the business could support them was one mistake. Because I am passionate about giving staff the right training and support, I was distracted from developing my business. Instead of taking on someone and doubling the income, I had more staff but the income stayed the same. So my advice would be to have procedures in place so they can carry on doing the business while you develop it.
Not remortgaging before I started was another mistake. When I had a job, I could have remortgaged but I didn’t. I have had to manage on personal loans since then. I am only now sorting out a remortgage.
What was your biggest success?
People say I am brave to have set up my own business – I take that to mean they think I am stupid to have done so. But I have all the agencies I wanted and I have my FSA compliance and I have procedures in place.
What is your unique selling point?
Providing proper advice. I see lots of clients who have the wrong insurance for their needs. They are paying for things they don’t need or paying for cover twice.
Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends in the insurance market?
One of my earlier bosses was Chris Coates at Bonus. He said there was no such thing as a problem, just see it as a stepping stone. I’d like to think I learned a lot from him about managing people.
When you are not working what do you do to relax?
I have always had horses. Eventing was my sport for a long time but it’s just for fun now. I also enjoy gardening although I’m not very good at it.
What is your favourite book/film/football team etc?
Book: I read Mills and Boon when I am on holiday as I can never put a book down and they are the only ones I can read in a day.
Film: I guess An Officer and a Gentleman – I’m a bit of a romantic at heart
Football: I’m a bit of an anti-football fan. When the conversation turns to football, I glaze over.
Day in the life
6.30-7.00 One day a week I go to a business networking breakfast meeting so I get up earlier for that. At home I will get up, throw some food to the horses and the dogs and eat a quick breakfast myself watching the news and weather. My family are all now pretty self-sufficient so I can start work as soon as I am ready.
8.00 I am usually in my office turning on my computer. There are emails to go through and I have a system of trays for prioritising, so I go through everything and get my work sorted for the day. I will then start working through that and deal with whatever interruptions happen.
10.00 I will have a client visit. I always go to them so, with travel, these visits take an hour and a half or two hours.
12.00 I will write up the client visit and contact insurers for any quotes I need.
1.00 I stop and get some lunch, but I usually bring it back and carry on working.
2.00 I will be getting quotes in and sending quotes out. Insurers, clients or people trying to sell me something will ring.
3.00 There is always a rush to get things done in time for the post. My son comes home from school at 4.00 and he will take the post to the post office for me by 4.30.
4.30 I use the post deadline as an excuse to get stuff done that needs doing that day. After that I can concentrate on non-urgent stuff, such as the accounts and marketing. I really enjoy that sort of thing so I will often be doing that until 7.00. Once the phone stops ringing you can really concentrate, so I can review the business plan and things like that.
7.00 My husband does most of the cooking so when I finish work I will go out and ride a horse or work on one of my projects. I am building a trap for my two little Shetland ponies at the moment.
8.00 Dinner will be on the table and I might watch a bit of TV then, but normally I will go out with the horses again, or in the garden or I might go out with a friend. I do not usually sit in front of the TV and do nothing. I do not think anyone would describe me as a couch potato.
10.30 I will be off to bed