Graham Barr talks to Chris Wheal.
Graham Barr is managing director of Heath Lambert’s retail national division. The firm has 10 regional offices, from Aberdeen in the north to Southampton in the south, and employs more than 300 people. It has recently combined with Heath Lambert’s specialities division, which includes transport, construction, the private finance initiative, terrorism, marine, personal accident, real estate and entertainment. Most customers are small and medium-sized enterprises, but bigger clients include Vauxhall, Peel Group and FKI. One of the division’s most significant recent wins was the London Crossrail project. The group’s gross written premium is more than £600m and Barr’s division has an income of more than £30m.
How did you make it to where you are today?
I studied risk management at Glasgow College of Technology (now Caledonian University). I started with Sedgwick in Glasgow in 1988 and transferred in 1989 to its London office, where I became a casualty broker. I did my ACII exams there. After four years I joined Johnson & Higgins, which had just started in the UK.
I joined Lowndes Lambert in 1995 to head the casualty broking team. Halfway through my time there, we merged with Fenchurch and I headed the UK broking team. In 1998
I was asked to go to Aon to work with our European broker network. I was there for three years.
Then in 2002, just after the acquisition of Heath, I rejoined Heath Lambert as UK managing director for broking. From the moment I joined it was a roller-coaster. We went through a major capital restructuring in 2004, which meant we are better prepared than most for what is happening now.
What are the key challenges ahead?
Not to be distracted by the maelstrom outside our front door. We know what we’re good at and we get the basics right. That is what clients want and they’re not getting it from all brokers. If we’re not good at it, then we’re not going to do it.
What has changed the most since you started in insurance?
The pace of everything. You have to be more efficient and the competition is faster and harder. There was a time when you could predict what you would be doing in a year’s time. You can’t now.
Also, you are on call the whole time. If a client wants you, you are there for him. Technology and integrated systems have enabled this and FSA regulation is making it more efficient.
What advice would you offer to someone just starting out?
If you don’t know, ask. The industry is populated by good, professional people who want to do a good job for their clients. They will respond to requests for assistance. Never sweep matters under the carpet. Share it. And there’s no substitute for hard work.
What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?
“In a people business it is remarkable how many people do not have good people skills.
Trying to make money out of the dotcom bubble. I invested some money and I got burnt. But you live and learn.
What was your biggest success?
Developing the business unit and working with the team that won the Crossrail project. I took on our project risks group – an international construction-focused group – and fused it with our UK construction, transport and PFI team.
What is your unique selling point?
Good people skills. In a people business it’s remarkable how many people don’t have good people skills. I also have integrity. If there is a problem I never let it fester. And I make decisions. Businesses that prosper just do it, rather than sit around talking about what they are going to do.
Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends
You have to take your hat off to Peter Cullum and what he has done with Towergate. A lot of the guys I used to work with have gone on to do well. Rob Brown has done well at Aon. Among insurers, I think Chris Hanks has done a good job at Allianz. The re-engineering of RSA’s business has come a long way. Zurich commercial is a successful, joined-up business and even relatively new players, such as Mitsui, have come on in leaps and bounds.
When you are not working, what do you do to relax?
I have two young boys, so mostly it is taking them to football and making the most of what London has to offer. I love Borough market on a Saturday morning and I love good food and wine. But we start the day with a fry-up at Maggie’s café, by Lewisham station.
What is your favourite book/film/football team?
Book: Anything by Conn Iggulden – his series on Genghis Khan.
Film: The last James Bond movie was fantastic.
Day in the life
6am I get up and have breakfast with my family and try to get my boys into their school uniforms. I live in Brockley, south-east London, so I take the train two stops to London Bridge and then walk. Its great to walk to the City. You can decide on the days priorities while walking.
7.45am I aim to be in the office, unless I am out visiting the regions, which I do every seven to 10 days. I make some calls, catch up with people and go though the inbox. We always have three or four major discussions going on by email, perhaps among several people.
8.30am I have my first meeting of the day. It might be with the guy who runs our new business. We talk about any problems, what is happening to the various workstreams and where we are trying to get to. I want to know where I can make the biggest impact and how to do it.
9.30am I have a series of one-to-ones with business unit heads, not only to see how they are getting on but to deal with the nitty-gritty of budgets and targets and how people are performing. We are not into long meetings so each will last about 40 minutes.
11am I get in touch with my own contacts and write letters of introduction. We have also been doing our business planning recently, so a lot of time has been taken up on what our expectations are for growth.
12.30pm I try to get out for lunch with a client or an insurer. We will go somewhere where we can sit down and get a decent plate of food.
2.30pm We have a chairmans briefing that might take a while to prepare and we have AIG coming in to give an update.
4pm We have a session from a Latvian-based broker network.
5pm We lost a bit of business recently so we have a debriefing to make sure we learn why, and that we are not likely to have a repeat. I want to know what we did well and what we can do better.
6.30pm I generally leave the office and it is either dinner with a client or insurers, or I go home.
7.30pm I get home and ask the boys what they have done at school, which they usually cannot remember, and I will read them a story before they go to bed. If I am lucky I will go to the gym. I go to spinning classes and then usually have a couple of pints of Stella.
9pm I will have dinner with my wife when I get back and then flop in front of the telly.
11pm Bed, but I always read before I go to sleep.