Elissa Foster talks to Chris Wheal.
Elissa Foster is chief executive of Fish Insurance, which claims to be the leading provider of ‘independent living’ and disability insurance in the UK. For more than 30 years Fish has provided insurance for people with disabilities, so they can live with as little interference from the state as possible. Last year Foster led a management buy-out with private equity backing and plans to treble in size within the next three years. The firm employs nearly 30 staff at its Preston office and has a GWP of £5m.
How did you make it to where you are today?
I started my career at Sun Alliance as a ‘fast track’ professional trainee in 1978 and two years later Mike Fish asked me to join him. I was young, ambitious with plenty of drive and commitment and was attracted to the idea of building a business. It was difficult to convince underwriters to deviate from conventional underwriting parameters but we never once gave up. We developed successful schemes with clients including the Post Office, Giro Bank and the National Association of Driving Instructors, where we came across a pupil with a physical disability who was experiencing problems finding cover at reasonable terms and cost. This prompted the launch of our motor scheme for disabled drivers and we continued to diversify. By the early 1990s with the appearance of direct writers we realised that the writing was on the wall for small independents and the way forward was to provide niche products and services.
What are the key challenges ahead?
To achieve the tough growth targets we have set ourselves we have already strengthened our management team, recruiting former Carole Nash director Warren Dickson to the board and appointing our first finance director, Phil Carr. With their expertise and the skills, contacts and the funds brought through our backers, we are confident we can increase market share, grow brand awareness and launch new products. It is imperative that we maintain the close relationships we have nurtured with disability groups and local authorities.
What has changed the most since you started in insurance?
IT developments have had a massive impact. The big players have become more dominant and aggregators have changed the way people buy insurance. Aggregators have made it more difficult for the small independent broker.
What advice would you offer someone just starting out?
Ask yourself how truly committed you are and if you’re prepared to potentially sacrifice everything, not just financially, to make your business work? You need the backing of your family, particularly as it will be tough and may be several years before it starts to get better. In the beginning, long hours are required with little return. Personal relationships can suffer and sacrifices have to be made. Always employ the best people you can afford. Never compromise. It may be a cliché but it’s still true that your most important assets are people, whether they are clients or staff.
What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?
I tend not to dwell on mistakes. But to answer the question, probably not spending a little more time at home over the years. Children grow up so fast and you can miss out on such a lot by working long hours.
What was your biggest success?
“You need the backing of your family, particularly as it will be tough and may be several years before it gets better.
Our daughter Kate, who is now 15, is a wonderful child, who is not only bright, but healthy, loving and has the same work ethic as my husband and I.
Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends
I have a great deal of respect for Paul Smith and his team at UK Insurance. They have been totally supportive and have helped us fulfil our aspirations. Mike Sandle and John Padget at Fortis have also been there for us. Then there are my colleagues at Fish, many of whom I have worked closely with for many years.
What is your unique selling point?
We know our market better than anyone else because of our trading pedigree and our relationships with our customers. We design our products in partnership with our clients so we know not just that there is demand, but that we successfully meet that demand.
When you are not working, what do you do to relax?
We have a lovely home that we have been renovating for the past 20 years. It was a big job but we are getting there. We like to do things as a family and particularly enjoy getting away – hotel, caravan, tent, it doesn’t matter. We are keen water sports enthusiasts and have always had our own boat. I love to entertain at home, as I enjoy cooking and throwing a good party.
What is your favourite book/film/football team?
My best read of late was The Pursuit of Happiness by Douglas Kennedy.
I enjoy watching a film, but I prefer the theatre.
Musically my tastes are quite varied and unfortunately are not shared by the rest of my family.
Day in the life
6:30am My husband leaving for work is the signal to get up. I climb over the exercise equipment at the bottom of our bed, which I keep there as a constant reminder that I need to do more exercise. I always eat breakfast â€“ usually porridge and tea, no sugar.
7:40am I drop my daughter at her school coach and then continue the 24-mile journey to work. I use this time to plan the day ahead and make some calls.
9:00am Say hello to everyone and exchange a few words. This is a people business first and foremost. I review my post and emails and then get stuck in.
9:30am I have a catch-up each morning with my operations manager, Jane Brooks, whom I have worked with for 25 years. I am well known for my lists and list of lists. We review the previous days performance and discuss her current work schedule, any new issues that may have arisen and may agree a revised action plan. We are always looking to improve what we do and how we do it and encourage staff to be part of this process.
10:00am I meet Phil, our finance director and Warren, our sales and marketing director, on a weekly basis. We discuss performance to date in line with our marketing strategy, as well as progress of the wider business plan in terms of organic growth and possible acquisitions.
11:00am I catch up on emails and telephone calls.
12:00pm I always have lunch at my desk unless it is someones birthday in the office and then I try to make an effort to join them in the pub. More emails and telephone calls.
1:00pm I have a meeting with our motor underwriters. We are looking to improve the level of cover provided by our existing policy and include additional benefits. Much of my time is spent negotiating with underwriters.
2:00pm I continue to work to and on our strategic action plans. We are focused on were we want to be in the next few years and have a clear vision of how this will be achieved.
5:00pm The majority of the staff leave for home giving me a good two hours of peace in which to think and catch-up on key issues.
7:30pm I arrive home and look forward to dinner with my husband and daughter followed by family time and wife/mother stuff.
10:00pm Time for bed. I always find it difficult to get to sleep as my mind is constantly on the go. I try to leave the problems of the day on the wave behind (a quote by round-the-world yachtsman Conrad Humphreys) but this is easier said than done. I will often wake in the night and add to my list.