Insurance boss Neil Forrest talks to BQ about non-standard SMEs, personal evolution and working with numbers.
What is it the company does?
We are an insurance broker with a difference. We specialise in what the industry would describe as ‘non-standard SME’. Our customers tend to start the journey of purchasing insurance either online or with a large contact centre and end up being passed to us when the profile doesn’t fit the contact centre model.
We are part of a larger insurance, financial and health and safety services group, also focussing on a variety of niche insurance products and offering a local service here in Newcastle and from five other group offices in Leeds, York, Scarborough, Sheffield and Birmingham.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words
My primary focus is in leading the team and driving the strategic direction of the business.
As the business has grown and we have built a management team, I have gradually moved away from dealing with the technical aspects of the role and now spend a lot more time working on recruitment and managing relationships with the contact centres who supply opportunities for us.
I also like to think I’m the ‘ideas man’ in the business, although the team do worry when I come back from holiday after ‘thinking time’!
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I have spent most of my career working in ‘corporate world’; originally training in accountancy with Ernst & Young before moving to Allianz where I spent 17 years in a variety of roles across various UK locations.
I moved back to Newcastle in 2005 to work for Towergate who, at the time, was a relatively small, but fast growing and ambitious company. I thoroughly enjoyed the freedom that came from working in an entrepreneurial organisation.
However, in the eight years I was there we bought over 100 companies and I felt I was drifting back into working for a large company. That was the impetus to get out and build my own business using all the knowledge and skills I had picked up working for some great people in Towergate.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
The ability to adapt to the circumstances you find yourself in - especially when talking to people, be it employees, customers or suppliers. I have seen on too many occasions very senior leaders turn up at a business to address the team and fail to inspire them as they are talking almost a different language.
I also don’t believe leaders should be in their ivory tower. I choose not to have my own office as I’ve done that before and I was too distant from what was happening day to day in the business. I get so many ideas, just from hearing what’s going around me.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
When we first started the business I went from a role managing 300 people to being a team of two. That was an enormous change and I had to adapt very fast to different responsibilities. As the business has my grown, my role has had to continually evolve and I’m always challenging myself as to whether I’m focussing my time and attention on the most important priorities.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
I really don’t suffer with stress at all, in fact, I have often been told that I’m so laid back I’m almost horizontal. The only times that I really take my work home is when I’m struggling to make a big decision. I find that sharing thoughts with my wife works really well, she is always very supportive and seems to find a way to make me think very logically and get to the right decision.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an accountant as I loved working with numbers. Without wishing to offend a very professional trade, it wasn’t exactly an exciting ambition! I achieved that goal when I started my first job at Ernst & Young, but I quickly learned it wasn’t for me.
I still love working with numbers, but prefer to be doing it on the front line and getting a buzz from what we have achieved rather than just measuring it.
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
Meetings that go on for too long or that weren’t needed in the first place. We get so many suppliers that want to come and see us when they don’t really have anything new to say and a quick 10 minute phone call would suffice.
I’m also a bit of a tidy freak. I’m determined to find out who it is that keeps leaving the tea towel on the kitchen bench instead of hanging it on the hook!
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
We have grown really well over the last five years and my aim is to see us at least double in size again in the next five.
I also want to make sure we maintain the culture we have worked very hard to nurture from day one. We decided right from the start that we wanted a culture more akin to the tech sector than a traditional industry, such as insurance. I think we have achieved that, and being able to maintain it as we grow will be a constant challenge.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
It’s really important to get a strong knowledge base in your area of business and to build a close network of contacts who can support you.
But if you decide you want to set up your own business, don’t let that delay you for too long. I was quite late to the party in setting up my own business and I wish I had done it many years earlier.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
It will take you longer to get a business into profit than you think, so make sure you have access to more capital than you think will need.
It can be especially frustrating in the early years when an unexpected opportunity comes your way and capital is a barrier to you moving it forward.
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