When it comes to corporate outings, there are a weird and wonderful array of choices for entrepreneurs – members of staff can be taken raft building or clay-pigeon shooting or even duck herding to learn about working together as a team. For insurance broker Bruce Stevenson’s latest strategy day, chief executive Edward Bruce decided to hit the water.
“We went down to Henley and got into an eight-man racing boat with two Olympic rowers in it – and we didn’t sink it,” he laughs. “It was really good actually because we had to work together as a team. If one person makes a mess of it then the boat doesn’t work.
“Then we went into the British Rowing Centre and learned about what they do – it’s all about small margins and good communication.”
The importance of good communication is a topic that comes up again and again in conversation with Bruce, 52. “I quickly realised that insurance is a ‘people’ business,” he explains. “If you’re good at communicating with staff and customers and the insurance market then you can make a go of it.”
Bruce trained as a chartered surveyor before moving into the insurance industry. “Originally, I didn’t see myself working in an office full-time – I always fancied getting out-and-about to visit properties,” he explains. “Later, I realised that being a chartered surveyor actually involved a lot of time sitting in an office. They were tough times for the property market and insurance seemed to offer more opportunities. I’d already passed my exams and had a good reputation, so I knew I could go back if I wanted to.
“I was working in Fort William at the time and both myself and my fiancée decided the time was right to move to Edinburgh – Lochaber is a lovely part of the world, but we’d had enough of the rain and the midges.”
When he moved back to Edinburgh in 1996, Bruce joined the family firm, Bruce Stevenson, which his father – David Bruce – had co-founded in 1981 with Tony Stevenson, who once owned the luxurious Prestonfield House Hotel in Edinburgh. The brokerage at that time was relatively small, with only about ten members of staff.
“I’m not sure everyone was expecting me,” he remembers. “They’d acquired a small company around the same time, but the board wasn’t a very happy board.
“They had come to an age when most of them were thinking about exit plans. So my father – who was the managing director, but not a controlling shareholder – bringing his son in, wasn’t something that the other directors were necessarily all that keen on.
“It was a challenging two or three years. The company had lost direction and it was losing money and customers. I ended up giving my father an ultimatum – either back me or I’m off. It wasn’t a great place to be at all.
“But thankfully he did back me, for which I’ll always be grateful. Some of the other shareholders left the business and I bought out some of the others.”
Bruce took over as managing director in 2001, with his father becoming non-executive chairman, a role from which he stood down eight years ago. Bruce’s fellow shareholders are all now working in the business.
To turn the company around, Bruce introduced measures to make his firm ‘the broker of choice’ – which is now the business’s strapline – by concentrating on several specialist areas: property; renewable energy; social housing; and private clients. Subsequently, he has continued to add expertise to the business, with current specialisms including: farms and estates; food and drink; heritage property; jewellery and fine art; and tourism. His sectoral focus has also been accompanied by growth in the firm’s geographical footprint.
The company’s headcount has grown to some 85 members of staff, with around 20 in Glasgow, eight at Galashiels in the Borders, a farms and estates specialist operating in Aberdeenshire, and the remainder at its head office in Edinburgh.
Tucked away on Coburg Street in Leith, the head office combines the old and the new,
with a modern reception block sitting next to a traditional brick-built edifice. Blink and you’ll miss it as you bounce along the cobbled road outside.
Bruce’s plan to turn the firm from a general insurance broker into a business with specialisms is clearly paying dividends. Gross written premiums (GWP) – a measure of how much clients spend on insurance – have risen by 18% in the past year to £30 million, with the firm’s own revenues rising by 16% to £6.4m and gross profits before bonuses, dividends and tax surging to £1.5m from £1m.
Its performance in the past year has been boosted by a flurry of renewable energy projects racing to get off the ground before changes in UK Government subsidies came into effect, with other areas including social housing also doing well. Bruce Stevenson is currently in year four of a five-year plan, leaving it well-placed to hit its targets of growing GWP to £33m, revenues to £7m and gross profit to £1.75m.
“Over the past five years we’ve managed to grow while the overall market has been flat,” Bruce explains. “What’s been especially encouraging is that we’d planned for most of our growth to come through acquisitions, but we’ve actually only taken over one firm during the past four years, so this growth has been organic.” Back in 1997, Bruce Stevenson was one of the founding members of UNITAS, an alliance of regional insurance brokers throughout the UK. The organisation is now known as UNA and Bruce is one of its directors.
“Early on, I realised that our business would need added buying power if it was going to compete with the larger brokers,” he says. “That’s what UNA gives us.”
As well as being a member of UNA, Bruce Stevenson is one of only around 100 firms in the UK to hold the designation of being a ‘Chartered Insurance Broker’. One of the reasons the company has achieved the accreditation is Bruce’s insistence on staffing passing their professional examinations before they can progress up the career ladder at the firm.
When he asked his friend, Mark Richards, to give up his role as managing director of Bonhams’ Scottish auction house to become private clients’ director, that rule applied to him too. “It meant Mark was sitting exams again in his forties, which I don’t think he’ll thank me for,” Bruce smiles. “He passed all his exams with distinction.”
As the company continued to grow, Bruce knew that he needed to maintain the quality of the service that it offered to its clients. “If you go onto any insurance broker’s website then they’ll talk about being ‘client-focused’ but I wanted us to be able to prove it,” he says.
To access the quality of the firm’s service, Bruce turned to the ‘Investor in Customers’ scheme, with the company receiving a three-star ‘exceptional’ rating, which less than 15% of candidates achieve on their first attempt. The firm secured one of the highest overall scores recorded by a financial services business.
Bruce thinks that part of the firm’s success has been building up its own in-house claims management team, instead of outsourcing the work, which is the route down which some of his rivals have gone. “Our customers buy insurance and hope that they never have to make a claim – but if they do then our claims department is our shop window,” he says. “If they’ve had a good experience then they will recommend us to other people.”
Although his father may have left the business eight years ago, there’s still one memento from his old man sitting in Bruce’s office – a curling trophy. “My father used to organise a ‘bonspiel’, which is a curling tournament,” Bruce explains as he reaches around and picks up the oblong wooden prize with its two model curling stones on top.
“He used to invite players from all of the other firms in Scotland’s insurance market. There are so few left now.”
Curling may have been his father’s sport, but tennis is Bruce’s preferred option. “Instead of buying a flash car for my fiftieth birthday, I built a tennis court instead,” he laughs. “It sounds extravagant, but myself, my wife and our two children play, so I’m hoping to get a good 25 year’s use out of it.”
The sporting theme is continuing with the appointment of Mark Beaumont – the Scottish cyclist who pedalled around the world – as the firm’s new corporate ambassador. “Mark will help to represent the firm, both digitally and offline,” Bruce says. “It’s quite different to what we’ve done before and will help to get our name out there and promote the firm.”