Work, rest and play

With an ethos of keeping its employees happy, and providing a good environment for them to work in, it is no surprise that Thomas, Carroll keeps winning awards. Guy Anker talks to John Moore, pictured, and Stuart Love about the strategies behind the company

Thomas, Carroll was recently named as one of the UK's top 100 employers, in The Sunday Times 100 Best SME Companies to Work For. So how has the insurance broker, which provides insurance advice to other small to medium-sized enterprises, built an award-winning working environment for its employees, and how far has this translated into success on the business front?

"Our ethos is to treat people fairly - how you would want to be treated yourself - which contributes to success, as we have a happy workforce," according to chief executive John Moore.

The intermediary - which has doubled income since 2001, when it consolidated its array of South Wales bases into one site - reported a 19% increase in gross written premium to £19m in 2004 and has announced plans to increase its 85-strong workforce by up to 30, by building an extension to its single base.

Managing director Stuart Love adds that employees have to give something back for the pleasant environment they are afforded: "We expect high-quality work and commitment and, to be fair, that happens. Our strategy creates a peer pressure that rubs off on people."

It is not just its employees that are made to feel at home. The broker, founded in 1972, gave Post Magazine the red-carpet treatment and, although cynics might put this down to savvy PR tactics, the recent array of awards Thomas, Carroll has scooped are testament to a firm that knows how to please.

It was in March this year that it achieved 16th place in The Sunday Times listing. It has also received awards for 'best for well-being' and 'best for work and home balance' in the SME employer market.

"My colleagues are proud that we have won awards, as it gives us a good name," Mr Moore beams.

While the vast majority of Thomas, Carroll's office environment is no different to most broker interiors, and its caring words about its approach to employees are similar to sentiments articulated by any considerate employer, there are small examples of why it has been honoured. These are the baskets of fruit available throughout the office and the news that the office extension could provide room for a small gym.

Employee involvement

For all the niceties, however, it is not a fresh strawberry or an extra treadmill in the gym that keeps employees happy - it is having a constant challenge and feeling wanted in an organisation. "The fundamental thing is that we involve employees in the decision-making," explains Mr Love.

"They were involved in the five-year plan in 1998. In fact, we asked employees where they wanted the company to be in five years and they matched exactly what we thought, with the exception of a couple of minor aspects. They all have a stake in the company so there is an added incentive to produce."

The company adds that one of the results of its charm offensive on its workforce is that it has had no staff turnover in the past 18 months. During that time, some employees have gone on maternity leave but no one has handed in their notice and moved on to alternative employment.

The broker is keen on maintaining the personal touch with its clients. It is vehemently against call centre environments, as it makes clear in its corporate brochures. The broker believes that in call centres consumers are treated as policy numbers, which has an adverse impact on customer service.

"When we give a client our number we give them a direct dial number and the name of the staff member they are dealing with to ensure they always speak to the same person and a relationship is built."

Client volume

Yet, given Thomas, Carroll's recent growth and obvious ambitions for future expansion, the question is, can such a service can be maintained with the sheer volume of potential clients?

At present, it has 5000 commercial lines policyholders and 15,000 personal customers, many of whom are sourced on the back of commercial relationships, and these figures will grow if things go as planned. The company boasts it has already generated an additional 700 commercial policies in the past six months.

"It is clearly a challenge," concedes Mr Moore. "However, the culture here has not changed so far. It was the same when there were three or four of us - when we first started."

Mr Love adds that even though the company has made significant progress during the past few years, it is still a long way off having the size of customer base where call centres are necessary.

Speaking of future growth targets, Thomas, Carroll will not be drawn on precise premium income goals but reveals it has, currently, a three-year plan. One reason for the company's decision to expand its office space is to provide capacity for growth via a proposed internet proposition where it hopes to generate further business.

Acquisition appetite

Mr Love also believes the space could be utilised by employees from a rival firm if it resurrects its acquisition appetite. It is nearly three years since the intermediary's last buy - Bland Blankart Wales.

For now, any acquisitions, which the broker says are not imminent, are likely to mean another South Wales player being snapped-up, as opposed to one from across the River Severn - a move likely to be a few more years down the line.

"We do consider other businesses beyond South Wales but our focus is still in and around our local area. However, we are never saying never about going beyond Wales," points out Mr Love.

"We are talking to several companies but have turned down four or five acquisitions in the past few months as they were not quality fits. There is no great rush to blow bad money on acquisitions."

Despite it not expecting any purchases in the near future, it is coming under pressure from employees to begin a spree. "Employees expect us to change and improve," Mr Love reveals. "They want us to acquire."

The company is not just hoping to acquire companies but teams. Mr Love explains that he has been talking to one potential employee from a national brokerage, although stresses his firm's office is "just about full in Caerphilly with 85 people". This, of course, further explains the need to build.

Mr Moore says: "We have got the planning permission and are now finalising the funds to get going with the construction. We will start building in early 2006, although that could be sooner if we acquired before then or the internet proposition really took off. Building will take four months and could lead to up to 30 extra desks."

Mr Love insists he would have been surprised had someone told him in 2001 that the broker would require extra space. "I thought this was enough but we have doubled in income since then when all the high-street branches were closed. There are huge communication benefits of being in one unit here in South Wales, however."

While Wales is a target area for acquisitions, it is also the target area for Thomas, Carroll to win business. Even where customers have property or liability insured outside Wales, it is likely the insurance buyer is based within the principality, or in the nearby M4 corridor in England.

Vibrant climate

It is not as though the broker needs to look beyond its home territory to generate further business, it claims. It says that in a growing South Wales economic climate, there is no better place for it to do business.

Mr Moore says it is an added bonus that insurers are either maintaining their presence in the area or setting up new offices locally, which he claims helps business by allowing more personal relationships between insurer and broker to develop.

"The Wales insurance market reflects the economy. We are pleased Royal and Sun Alliance, Norwich Union and NIG kept their presence, and that Allianz Cornhill is coming into town. This illustrates that the area is being treated seriously. It is important, because Welsh clients enjoy working with Welsh brokers and insurers."

What is more, given its Welsh target market is rich in SME talent, it is a perfect fit for the SME-specialist intermediary.

Mr Love adds: "We cover everything from £100 to £500,000. We think having a small business speciality is like running the youth team, as the firms you sell to are next year's first team when the prizes are greater."

However, given Thomas, Carroll is so focused on the local market there is a danger it is missing out on some revenue: "Here, you take a zero off figures you would earn in London," concedes Mr Moore, although he adds that the broker is quite happy with the way it is running, nevertheless.

"We have businesses outside South Wales but our core business is here. We feel there is still capacity in South Wales and there are quality businesses. If there is quality business elsewhere then we will consider it but we are a big player in this market."

That buoyancy just about sums up the company's feelings after a period where it has enjoyed considerable success since picking up The Sunday Times awards in March.

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