Cousins Graham and Stephen Lark run Lark Insurance. Founded by their grandfather in 1948, the company has grown to become the UK’s 42nd largest broker, according to this year’s Top 50 Brokers list. In 2007, the family sold the business to Groupama Insurances, though the management team has remained in place. In the first of a new monthly series on family businesses, Ellen Bennett asked them about their working relationship and their plans for the future
Our grandfather had been in the industry for years when he founded the business by buying out a retiring partner. He carried on until the early 1960s, running it with his two sons, who spent their entire working lives in the business. John, Stephen’s father, retired in 1987, and Robert, my father, in 1993, handing on to another generation.
I came in as a trainee, with a view to getting into management. I had trained as an accountant and spent three years in different parts of the business until our accountant retired and I took over.
I don’t think there was anyone in the business with aspirations to run it – to be frank, there was no one with the skills or background. Managing a business is different from servicing and looking after clients. Plenty of people were very good at that but there was no one yearning for the top job.
The world was different then, not just in insurance but in business generally. Far more businesses passed down through generations. Now, there are many more capable people around and I wouldn’t even contemplate trying to accelerate my own children through. It just wouldn’t be right. Whether they’re interested is a different issue – that’s something for the future.
Stephen and I are seven years apart in age. As you can see, he’s a lot younger than me! Because our fathers worked together they were quite close, and still are, so we did see quite a lot of each other, but because of the age gap we weren’t that close. We get together socially occasionally but business is rarely on the agenda. Work is for work time.
Several factors persuaded us to sell the business. The shareholders liked the idea of taking cash out of the business, but primarily it was to create an environment for the future. We looked into all sorts of scenarios, but Groupama suited us best – not least because it allowed for the management team to continue to run the business without it being merged with anything and without any visible change to staff or clients.
The plan is to continue as before, to expand through organic growth and acquisitions in London and the South East, building on our high net worth commercial business. Our market share is still relatively tiny so there is a massive opportunity to grow in areas we know.
You can look back 20 years with fondness, but working life then was pretty dull and repetitive. Now, a lot of the boring stuff has been eliminated by technology. The business has changed, but you’ve got to move with the times.
I never worked with my dad because I started to work for the business in 1988 after he had retired. It was probably lucky for both of us!
I came in straight from university on a similar arrangement to Graham: a semi-structured training programme that had been put into place to give us experience of different areas of the business. Generally we spent a year in different trading areas, learning the technical side. I did my insurance exams at the same time.
I didn’t detect any hostility from colleagues.
It was a much smaller business then, and very much a family business – far more so than now. Twenty years ago, it was just accepted that businesses were handed down through families; it was just the way it was.
I recall at the time that people within the business were quite pleased that there was going to be continuity, and that provided some sort of stability going forward. People had begun to think about the retirement of our respective fathers and if there hadn’t been another generation coming into the business, the question would have been: “What happens next?” Our arrival provided an answer.
I think our fathers were quite clever in terms of how they dealt with the transfer of power, which was a long time ago now. From speaking to other people involved in family businesses, it seems their approach was quite unusual.
They stayed on in a consultancy capacity for a few years, but not very long. They came to monthly board meetings but that was it – to their credit. Once they decided that their time had come to retire, that’s what they did. My father is still interested. He asks how things are going, but that’s all.
In practical terms, Graham is the chairman and I’m the managing director. It’s fair to say Graham concentrates on the strategic issues and more on the finance side. He’s focused on the process of looking for potential acquisitions and dealing with those, while I tend to concentrate on the trading side.
I think it might be easier that we’re cousins rather than brothers. I suspect the chance of bickering would be increased if you’d grown up arguing over who’s had the last biscuit.
The business has changed markedly over the years, both in terms of size and location and in terms of the strategy, which has evolved.
I believe that, in many ways, the business has changed for the better.