For good grounding in the art of handling irate customers, work a bit as a holiday courier. Jonathan Willett did. Today he’s a managing director, a self-assured insurance broker. On graduating in business management and communications from Teesside University, he decided to holiday in Turkey. He had already worked part-time in a Marks & Spencer warehouse – here was something different.
Turkey was only starting to attract British tourists then. Part of his job at Gumber coastal resort was to use his sparse Turkish to deliver the visitors from Bodrum Airport. The journey now takes about 20 minutes, but then it was a four-hour coach journey to be done three or four times a week.
“For confidence and dealing with my social skill set, being a travel courier was a kick start,” Willett muses. “You are 18 or 19, living pretty much on your own in a strange country, and on Friday 13th a plane lands.
“I had to inform the people filling a 60-seat double-decker coach their luggage had been left on the runway at Manchester, with the next flight out four days away. You can imagine they weren’t very pleased. Who would get the stick? Not the coach driver – he couldn’t speak a word of English. It was me. So we had some interesting things to deal with out in Turkey.” Back to England some months later meant landing on both feet in more ways than one. He had to find a career.
“I had always said I wouldn’t go down the insurance route because that was what my dad did,” Willett recalls. However... “My sister Emma had become involved in the family business. An opportunity for a broker existed in London with a firm we had a good long relationship with. The managing director suggested I go to London, stay rent-free in their company flat, take a minimum wage and see what I thought.
“I never looked back. Lloyds market place is something else, a great opportunity to meet key players, key underwriters. Connections and relationships built there remain firm today. It was truly impressive – all the underwriters on different floors. It’s buzzing, lively. A lot of business is done in the wine bars.
“Obviously it was a different marketplace from that of the local economy. The one thing I learned, and have based business practice on, is that it is all about relationships with the suppliers, the customers. If you get relations right with your end customer and your underwriter that really is the key to success in our industry.
“You must get the service right too. At Lloyds, if you went to an underwriter with a proposal and good reasons why they should run with it, eight out of 10 times if you had a really good relationship with the underwriter and it was their type of business they would do it for you.” After three-and-a-half years in London his father phoned him.
Willett & Ross on Yarm Road, Eaglescliffe, established by his father Mike in 1970, was expanding. Did he want to return to the North East? Willett the younger is a Teessider to his bones. Born in Guisborough in 1974 he had been through junior school at Guisborough, then Yarm Grammar School and Sixth Form. “I had to decide whether to buy a flat and lay roots in London,” he says. “But I was commuting every other weekend because, for my football sins, I follow Middlesbrough. All my friends were still here and all my family. Did I want to move away?” Willett returned North.
“I could still deal with the company there and I still do, and I go back once or twice a month to work with contacts I had.” There was advancement on Teesside anyway, for as Willett explains: “We reached a size where, for buying power, we felt need to be part of a bigger group.
The company was sold to Towergate.” That was in 2003. Two years later, Mike Willett retired and the two remaining Willetts got heavily involved in running Towergate Teesside Ltd.
“Towergate was big, turning over more than £3bn,” says Jonathan Willett. “We felt ultimately that certain things made us want to be independent again.” Today he and sister Emma are key players with Henderson Insurance Brokers Ltd which, over 25 years, has become one of the country’s five leading brokers. Joe Henderson of that ilk had been financial director of a big construction firm and dealt with the insurances. He decided in 1986 there was money in brokering. His business at first covered mainly Hull, Humberside, Scunthorpe and Lincolnshire, then it entered the Leeds marketplace and beyond. Today, while the main office is at Tingley, Leeds, head office remains at Kirmington, Humberside Airport. The Willetts’ opportunity came when Henderson wanted a presence between Newcastle and Leeds.
“They wanted into Teesside,” says Willett. “We fitted their model, knowing the area, the people and the owner-managed businesses.
“We had enthusiasm and the time seemed right to take an opportunity to build a good strong business.” Currently, only 26 of Henderson’s entire 330 staff in 10 offices work at Stockton. But a team of 50 is expected to accrue within three years, compared with six at start-up. The firm also expects to be in its own building within a year, beside suites where it presently works.
They belong to a key client, Map Group, which employs more than 1,000 people and has 650 vehicles going out to install and replace cabling for Virgin Media – actual cable contracting too. That gives some idea of weight in Henderson’s support. In a £200m turnover business, work is profuse and varied. Henderson safeguards three of the biggest construction firms in Europe. It spreads through plcs, public sector, academia and small and medium-size businesses.
It provides bonds, be it a performance bond or a travel ABTA bond, and it offers bad debt provision, insures credit risk, and professional indemnity for accountants and solicitors. Teesside’s haulage portfolio includes Preston of Potto and its 200-plus vehicles.
It also features heavy engineering, construction and industrial, and it acts for foreign companies on Teesside that have to place Road Traffic Act insurance and Employers’ Liability within the UK. Willett says: “Though we have the volume in those areas we do anything from a one-man sub-contractor to your plc. We can be involved, one day to the next, in pretty well anything.
“This morning I was with a large construction plant company, this afternoon with a large haulage contractor. Tomorrow I’m with a company that designs and installs orangeries and conservatories. We use expertise available right across the group.” Group schemes in employee health care, pensions and planning are also in the remit.
Willett says: “We have agencies with every insurer. It’s our job to search the marketplace, offer a proposition and relate any risk involved. We then source the best deal, discuss it with the client, the security and background with the company, and place the covers on the client’s behalf, dealing with all documentation and processing.
“Any claims, we handle with the insurers. On bigger corporate business we work on an annual fee for our professional services. With so many insurers outsourcing to call centres and trying to streamline, clients may not have wherewithal and time to deal with that themselves.
Emma, 40 this year, is joint managing director with Jonathan. “We have a good complement of skills sets,” he declares. “She excels in human resources, FSA compliance, internal and day-to-day management.” He is usually out four days a week nurturing clients, dealing with issues or problems and negotiating new business.
Frustrations of the job? “Insurance is about having proven relationships,” he says. “A full day of reporting might be necessary with loss adjusters, insurers, clients and broker. The broker must manage that whole relationship.
“A number of banks are also insurers. We all know the banks’ difficulties, and companies they run are more difficult to deal with too. Sometimes the frustration from the banking side is that things must be black or white. No grey.”