John Haber-Smith talks to Chris Wheal

John Haber-Smith is a director of John Ansell & Partners in the City. Founded in 1981, it has 12 staff. Most of its income comes from four specialist schemes, covering gyms and fitness centres, outdoor activity management, leisure centres, residents’ association buildings and management committees, as well as wine and spirits importers and wholesalers. The firm has a GWP of about £6m.

How did you make it to where you are today?

After my A-levels in 1975, I joined Commercial Union’s training programme. Two years later I went to its north London office but found having to do just house and shop insurance a bit dull. I missed the buzz of the City so after another two years I joined a small firm of Lloyd’s brokers. Within months we were sold to a fringe merchant bank that had a small broking operation.

It was unsatisfactory and all our commercial business was leaving us. My colleague John Ansell realised the only way he could keep his clients was to set up on his own. Four of us then set up John Ansell & Partners. We were a general insurance broker in those days. John Ansell died in 1989, while another partner has retired and the third is effectively a sleeping partner. I have a new shareholder now, too.

What are the key challenges ahead?

Growing the business. Doing what we do but more of it – and more efficiently. Maintaining our independence is important as it is valued by both our clients and insurers. Insurers are sick to death of takeovers and networks while clients are experiencing a lack of service. Expertise in the industry is at an all-time low.

What has changed the most since you started?

The way business has been transacted. It was always about personalities and relationships and it still is but we have taken a lot of the paper processing out of things. IT has chopped out a lot of that, making it more efficient but that in turn means that there are fewer people. You have to have stronger relationships with fewer people.

What advice would you offer someone just starting out?

Get a qualification. I don’t just mean a CII qualification, I mean a portable one that will help you move in business. Strict insurance qualifications are less relevant today. Try something like marketing or business administration or accountancy. You want something that will help you get on in industry or commerce – a broad business understanding.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

Not turning business away earlier. When I started, a broker was the place where you’d try to place every bit of business that turned up, come hell or high water. We ended up with business that was not a natural fit. We’d been forced to sub-broke certain bits on lower margins. We weren’t servicing the client the way we would have liked to because we didn’t know their trade and were not directly involved with the carrier. We weren’t building up relationships with the carrier or the client. Now we politely point them in the direction of another broker.

“There is no real advantage to chopping and changing in hard and soft markets.

John Haber-Smith

What is your biggest success?

Focusing on specific areas. You make a lot more money by focusing on the profitable business and you can do that more efficiently. We re-engineered the business about eight years ago and it really was a transformation.

Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends.

I respect Cobra executive director John Lincoln. The way he supports people has to be admired. If someone has ever helped John in the past and they need his help then he will go out of his way to help them. We need people like John but we don’t need people like Michael Bright [Independent Insurance founder]. If you are ever tempted to do anything dishonest or to take a flyer, just remember what he did and all the people who were hurt and let down by him.

What is your unique selling point?

Being focused, independent, reliable, respectable and solid and having long-term relationships. We’re trying to deliver for the carriers and the clients. One scheme has been with the same carrier since it began, one has stayed with the same underwriter, even though he has moved carrier; one has changed carrier only once; and the other is relatively new and so has only had one carrier. There is no real advantage to chopping and changing in hard and soft markets. You need a relationship with the carrier through all phases of the cycle.

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

I have a place in Florida so I like to get over there several times a year. I spend time with my family. There’s also a gym and pool two doors from the office.

What is your favourite book/film/football team?

Book – I’d like to say Dickens or Shakespeare and sound erudite but the reality is I like John le Carré, John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell.

Film – the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise.

Football team – I don’t know one end of a football from another. I like motor sport. Anything with an engine that makes a lot of noise gets my interest.

Day in the life

7:00am I wake up to breakfast, muesli in the summer and porridge in winter. I leave for work by 8am. Then it is a 23-minute train ride to London Liverpool Street from Shenfield in Essex, followed by a 15-minute walk.

9:00am While my PC boots up I put the coffee on. The first cup of the day is the best. Then I delete all my spam emails.

9:30am I deal with the post, at whatever time Royal Mail decides to deliver it.

10:00am I discuss ongoing problems, with some claims on one of our schemes, with my co-director. We are mulling legal action.

10:30am I brief the business team ahead of its lunch with our wines and spirits schemes marine carrier, rather than just let them down a few bottles!

11:00am My co-director is interviewing for a new business producer, so we sit to discuss what we are looking for.

12:00pm I write up notes on a wine and spirits prospect meeting I have had so that the team has the details before lunch. I speak to a couple of prospects.

1:00pm Usually I have a sandwich at my desk and do Sudoku to keep me sharp.

2:00pm I sign a pile of cheques for our monthly payments to insurers, then sit with my accountant and go through the credit control. All our account execs are responsible for the whole process with their clients, including collection of money, so we look at who owes what. I then speak to account execs to chase up payment or to threaten the client.

3:00pm I speak to the commercial team to see if it has achieved what we wanted. Then check how the interview for the new business guy went, while fielding calls and queries all the time. That is what makes it interesting. No two days are same.

4:00pm There is a conference call to the the US about our broking system, Agency Manager. It was originally a US system and I became involved with the user group about 12 years ago. These days I am more involved with the US group than the UK. The Americans see things differently. I am sure the time I have put in has been repaid by the changes I have made to the business.

5:00pm I catch up with calls and emails.

5:30pm I head home.

6:30pm I have dinner and watch a bit of television. I check my personal emails and cannot help sneaking a look at work emails. If I am not careful I can easily spend an hour working.

10:30pm I will watch the television news and then go to bed and read a book.