Barry O’Neill talks to Chris Wheal

Barry O’Neill is managing director of Home and Legacy, a mid and high net worth specialist. The company acts as a underwriting agency – it writes its own policy wording and has a panel of insurers competing for business on those terms. The panel includes Norwich Union, RSA, Allianz, Legal & General and NIG. The company has offices in London and Milton Keynes and has 60 staff. Its gross written premium is about £29m. The company was founded in 1995 and was bought by Allianz in 2006.

How did you make it to where you are today?

I started at Co-operative Insurance Services in my home city of Manchester after doing my A-levels. It was a great training ground. I wanted to get qualified so I really worked, and got my CII diploma on my 22nd birthday. In 1986 I joined high-street broker Keywest as branch manager, eventually becoming regional manager. In 1990 I joined Dominion Insurance as regional sales manager and in 1994 I joined Independent Insurance. I was there for seven years, until the bitter end. I then went to Marsh Private Clients for six years. I joined Home and Legacy a year ago.

What are the key challenges ahead?

We have made a huge investment this year in technology and in people. We have a new management team. The challenge is to build on that, turning it into better service for our brokers and enabling them and us to expand. There are huge opportunities for growth in this group of customers. It’s not just winning business from other insurers, but getting the message out to people who need specialist home insurance.

What has changed the most since you started in insurance?

Technology and the impact of direct distribution. It started with Direct Line on the telephone and now involves the internet. Everything is much faster, it keeps everyone on their toes. Going direct has been good for many clients and has made buying insurance much easier. The downside is that clients do not always get the advice they need. Years ago, those who needed a specialist policy would be advised by a broker. Now, if they go direct, they may not get that advice.

What advice would you offer someone just starting out?

Invest the time and effort in decent qualifications. I think the ACII is still a relevant qualification. You learn about the business and it enables you to get on. And don’t blag it. If you don’t know, find someone who does. In insurance you can’t wing it. It’s not about taking unnecessary risks. It’s about taking calculated risks.

What is the biggest mistake you have ever made?

Not getting out of Independent soon enough. I’d stopped enjoying it well before the company folded. I got fed up with the macho culture and I’d grown up a bit from when I started, but I didn’t acknowledge that to myself so I stayed there too long.

What was your biggest success?

Re-engineering Marsh Private Clients to be the success it is today and working with such a great bunch of people. But I don’t like looking back. I’d like to think my greatest success is still to come. Getting this year under my belt has been the start.

Talk about some of your contemporaries and friends

After 25 years you make a lot of friends and meet a lot of people, so it is difficult to single individuals out. You see lots of ex-Indie guys who are doing well and I think that says more about that organisation than the bits people remember. In fact, the vast majority of people I have met in the industry have been decent, honourable people who have been a pleasure to work with.

What is your unique selling point?

We have our own policy wording and our panel insurers quote against each other. It’s dynamic, so we can be really competitive. We are constantly reviewing and refreshing the wording – it is about to be improved again. If you look at the other insurers out there, they each have their own wording so quotes are not like-for-like.

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

I have a son of 11 and a daughter of seven. I am not sure they help me relax, but they do help keep me young. If I am not doing something with them I relax with friends and family. I am a season-ticket holder at MK Dons. We moved to Milton Keynes about the same time as Wimbledon (MK Dons), so we have grown with the club.

What is your favourite book/film/football team?

Book: The Hobbit, I first read it at school and I probably re-read it every couple of years.

Film: The Magnificent Seven. I sat with my son to watch it the other day.

Football: MK Dons.

Day in the life

6:30am Every morning I am up at the same time. I get ready and then drive 15 minutes to the station to get the 6.55 train to London.

8am Depending on whether or not public transport lets me – the train and Tube can scupper that – I get to the office at about 8am. I will check emails and the post and find out what is in and what is happening.

9am I catch up with department heads – not formal meetings, just conversations that may be face-to-face or on the phone.

10am I may be off to see a broker, just to catch up with them. We have many on our panel so there are lots to meet. Or I’ll be in the office looking at new opportunities or at our business development initiatives. There has been a lot of internal stuff, with the new technology and new staff, including the new management team. And we have had office moves.

1pm I usually grab a sandwich on the go. Occasionally I go out for lunch with a broker or an insurer, but mostly I eat a sandwich at my desk, checking through emails and responding.

2pm Again I catch up with people about what they are working on and what is new.

3pm I meet a broker or an insurer or some people from Acturis, our software provider. They are building our new operating system in phases, so we have to meet to discuss where they are, compared with the plan. If it is a meeting with an insurer it might be about how its business is performing and whether it feels it is winning enough of the business.

5:15pm Whenever possible I try to leave so that I can get home in time to see my kids before they go to bed. If I leave at 5.15pm I can get the 6pm train. That means I will get home in time to say goodnight to my daughter.

7:30pm I arrive home and kiss my daughter goodnight.

8pm I then become the “taxi dad”, taking or collecting my son to or from whatever he has been doing that evening and getting him home for bed.

8:30pm I will get a chance to eat something and finally some time to talk to my wife for the first time.

9:30pm I might read a bit or watch a bit of television and then it’s off to bed by 11pm.