Q&A: Joe Thelwell, Towergate

Joe Thelwell, CEO Towergate Insurance Brokers

Joe Thelwell, CEO of Towergate Insurance Brokers, talks about organic growth, acquisitions and responding to the Covid-19 crisis as well as sharing how he started in insurance and what comes next for him and the business.

Ardonagh’s advisory division achieved 2.6% of organic growth in Q1, did Towergate Insurance Brokers contribute?

Yes. We are doing well in general commercial. We are not churning out people, we are keeping them and putting a lot of investment into learning and development. It is no coincidence that we keep more of our clients than ever before.

Our retention rate, based on last year’s income, is the highest it has ever been in the history of Towergate Insurance Brokers and is well into the nineties.

We want to be in more towns and counties across the UK. We see no reason why not.

Our headcount is 1900 people and we want to expand the producer base. We have 55 sites and want to be in more towns and counties across the UK. We see no reason why not especially in the new environment of working from home.

Also, close to 40% of our income comes from sales over the phone into niche sectors and we want to expand this area too.

I don’t believe in forced distribution. We give the client options, they choose how they want to buy from us be it face-to-face, on video, by phone or quote and buy. We do the full spectrum of distribution.

As revealed by Post you have returned to buying with two deals this year, are there more on the horizon?

I am interested in buying niche businesses and where we sell face-to-face, the traditional mid-market account executive led [firms]. I’ve been at Towergate since 2005 and involved with 80 acquisitions. We are responsible for building our own pipeline in different ways.

As mentioned, we have 55 sites. We have opened in Burnley and Swindon in the last year or so. I would love to do more.

Why not have people join us where they are not close to an office and can work from home or have sales-only offices? We have 450 account executives and I see that growing.

And internationally?

We have a lot of international clients and are the biggest broker in the UK part of Worldwide Broker Network. It is absolutely the ambition in my world to expand into Europe and globally. The Commonwealth countries are quite interesting but there’s no timeline.

Joe Thelwell, CEO Towergate Insurance Brokers

The business has been vocal about Ardonagh Portfolio Solutions in recent months and culling carrier relationships, what has happened in your world?

We are very much involved in APS. We had 800 insurer agencies and it is now down to 150. There are 15 to 20 strategic insurer partners, some 26 markets do 80% of all our premium. We aren’t doing APS for leveraging, we are doing it to get better client outcomes and closer to underwriting capacity.

I am interested in clients and working with insurers as a partnership long term.

How did you react to the Covid-19 lockdown?

Everybody is working from home and we were ready to go before we were told to go. It is about us demonstrating how good we are during this time. Our online Covid hub has had 300,000 opens from commercial clients on articles and advice about unoccupied properties, vehicles, working from home, health and safety, mental health and more.

We also do webinars, as an industry we have a choice about whether to make our clients proud of us or not.

But there have been numerous action groups set up by customers frustrated by insurers not paying what they believe are valid business interruption claims. Do you think brokers are also in the firing line?

That has always been the case. If you don’t give the client adequate advice you are in the firing line for it. Yes there has been a little bit of a hit to the reputation of the [insurance] industry.

I am going to be fashionably late to the party of going back to the offices.

 

 

The lockdown has just started to ease so what are your thoughts on returning to the office?

I am going to be fashionably late to the party of going back to the offices. That is deliberate. Health and safety is paramount for our people.

Don’t expect to see us going back into offices very, very quickly however [eventually] I want to give people the option.

In the new way of working there are definitely good things. My business will change for the better because of this crisis. I want to make sure I am more flexible with my workforce.

Ardonagh revealed a low coronavirus related impact in its Q1 and April figures. What about Towergate and also what shape of recovery do you predict for the economy?

Our results have not shrunk year-on-year in March or April. For us education, leisure and licensed trade are single digits of our income. There will be a bounce back, it is not lost income it is delayed income.

Some niche sectors have been growing like fleet and for manufacturers diversifying to help the NHS.

Everyone spoke about a V shape recovery, but it will be more gradual.

How did you come into insurance and how have you progressed?

Straight from school. I am the only person I know that ever wanted to be an insurance broker.

My dad was at NFU for a long time then started a farm insurance specialist brokerage selling face-to-face.

It – Thelwell’s – was sold to Towergate in 2005 and I have moved through the ranks. I joined the Poole office [in January 2007] and won the British Insurance Awards Young Achiever Award in 2009 when I was MD there.

[His CV includes becoming central area MD in 2011, national trading director in 2014 and his present role in 2015, the title of which has changed during various rebrands and restructures.]

As CEO I report to Rob Worrell, CEO of Ardonagh Advisory, which also looks after Footman James and the health division.

And 10 years [after the first BIA win] I got to collect the Commercial Lines Broker of the Year - SME/Mid-Corporate award for Towergate at the BIA.

I’ve also been on the British Insurance Broker’s Association’s larger brokers’ advisory board for many years.

Joe Thelwell towergate

Not everyone is a fan of consolidation. The founders of recently launched Partners& say it has gone too far, what’s your view?

Just because you are seen as a consolidator doesn’t mean you have to act like one. I got opportunities here and I’m passionate about giving people with the right attitude and skill set opportunities.

I know the shareholders personally. We’re a massive broker but small enough to have local entrepreneurial spirit and local freedom to make decisions.

I know everyone in Towergate and visit every office every year. This is the first year I haven’t and it is a little bit strange for me.

I want to make this business even bigger and better than it is now. My future is bringing people through the ranks.

What do you do outside broking?

I have a nine-year-old son who is mad on Taekwondo and football, a daughter mad on ballet and swimming, and a one-year-old.

I do try and keep myself fit and healthy but other than that it is family, family, family.

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