Up against the massive consolidators and with a fall in the motor cycle insurance market, times could be tough for H&R Insurance. But this brother and sister combo knows that the key to staying strong is to keep it in the family

Shona Robertson

My father set up H&R Insurance in 1972. Back then we sold predominantly motor products. Now we do more general insurance, but the majority of our products are motor cycle insurance and taxi insurance.

I grew up around the business. From a very early age, I was often seen in the office, probably pestering people. I think I always knew that I would go into it. When I left school, I was a full-time athlete in the British ski team for six years and competed in the World Championships in Nevada in Spain. After I stopped skiing, I went on to do a degree in business computing, which was a good grounding for the business.

My father retired five years ago and I took over. There are three family members working here: me, my brother Matthew and my sister Lesley. We all have very different roles so it doesn’t cause any conflict. I’m the owner so I’m basically in charge.

My brother is responsible for IT, marketing and the day-to-day running of the business. My sister is just newly into the business after having a family.

What is it like working with family? I suppose you are always going to get the real story from them. They are not going to pull the wool over your eyes. With your family, it is much easier to be blunt and say: ‘Quick, we need to get this done. Come on.’

But then again, it can be hard to get away from the day job. When we are at family get-togethers and we all start talking about work, I’m sure our partners think ‘oh my god, will you all shut up’. But we do enjoy it. Matt and I get on very well. He was the one who initially wanted us to go into the motor cycle market because he was a keen biker.

I do see it remaining a family business. I’m certainly not looking to sell, retire or get out. I don’t know what I would do if that were the case. I’ve got lots of ideas for the future to try to make things better and to get an edge. It has been a tough year, though.

The price comparison sites can be good but in certain respects they are not so good. From the point of view of a small broker like ourselves, it gives us access to a lot of customers. But you have to be careful. There are an awful lot of people not telling the truth at point of sale, so that is a huge issue for the industry to tackle.

We verify all the documentation from clients when they start a new policy with us. But I know that a lot of brokers don’t do that and customers are used to getting away with it. Brokers have to take responsibility for that because if they don’t, it will only get worse.

I also worry about the size of the companies that are now emerging and the bully boy tactics they use to get insurers on side. I do get a bit annoyed when an insurer just looks at size rather than the value you are adding. We are smaller but I see that as a positive. The big consolidators are writing large volumes but it is not profitable because the insurers are writing huge commissions. People are dazzled by the big numbers.

I would like to achieve 10% growth over the next five years. I don’t want us to become enormous. We are a nice size at the moment and there is a fine line between profitability and size.

Matthew Chalk

I’ve worked in the company for about 20 years; all my working life. Once I left school, I started working here, back in the days of writing manual cover notes out.

From the start, I knew I would be in the business. My father set up the business and obviously you don’t want to walk away from that. I deal with the day-to-day running of the place, looking after IT, billing and purchasing and office maintenance – not so much the insurance side. That’s Shona’s thing.

The company is very friendly. Everybody gets along extremely well. My job is very varied; I can never tell from one day to the next what is going to happen.

One of the things I do is trouble shooting. I am the person who gets to the bottom of problems. We have just invested in a new phone service, which has been a big learning curve for me. It is a challenge to learn how it works, how to program it and how to get the best out of it.

My favourite part of the job is the IT side. You have a laugh from time to time when someone will come over and say the scanner isn’t working and it’s not actually switched on.

On the marketing side, I talk to contacts in all the bike magazines, looking after advertising in those magazines as well as our online advertising.

I thought for a while the the credit crunch wouldn’t affect us. But personally, I do think there has been a slight knock-on effect because we do a large amount of motor cycle insurance and I think bike sales have gone down – a bike is often seen as a luxury, not a necessity. But I am sure things will recover. It just takes time.

I think Shona is looking out for other niche markets to go into. We can’t be going for the things that everybody is after. You have to pick your bits of the market.

Shona has a totally different angle on the business and she does things that I could never do. But there are probably things I do that Shona could never do.

The good thing is that we are a team. There are no issues at all. I’m fairly easy going, which helps. Then again, a lot of the time we don’t see each other. Shona is often away meeting insurers.

I have two young kids that are still in primary school. I don’t know whether they will go into the business. They are way too young at this stage to show an interest. It isn’t something I have really thought about but it would be good to have somebody to carry it on.

I wouldn’t force them into it but if that is what they wanted to do, why not? IT