Maverick Thinking

Transforming Minds: Maintaining company culture while growing at scale

30 March 2021
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Written by

Robin Bryant

In the first episode of Season 2, Mobas' Founder Robin Bryant speaks to Peter Blanc, Group CEO of Aston Lark, one of the UK’s largest Insurance Brokers and Employee Benefits advisors.

In a wide-ranging discussion, we hear how Peter turned down a place at medical school to build his career in insurance. Peter speaks frankly about his personal learnings from scaling his business, through MBOs and acquisitions. 

You can also listen to the podcast and access each new episode in the series on Spotify.

Full Transcript: 

Robin:

It would be great, Peter, if you could just introduce who you are and just a whistle stop tour of Peter and his experience, that would be wonderful.

Peter:

Okay. I was supposed to be a doctor so I left school at 18 and had a place to study medicine at Southampton. And then I got a summer job with Legal & General. And so they gave me a phone and a desk and they paid me, more importantly they paid me. And within a month or so I decided, "You know what. This actually is quite fun." I was enjoying it. And I broke my mother's heart by going home and saying, "You know what, I'm not going to be a doctor anymore. I'm going to be an insurance man." So you can imagine her delight. 30 odd years later she still hasn't forgiven me, I don't think.

Robin:

Because I was sure she's forgiven you now, but obviously not.

Peter:

The funny thing is, it's incredible just how many people I meet in insurance that just fell into it just completely by accident. And then still got the most terrible name as a business and yet it's brilliant. It's absolutely, as a job it's been incredible to me. Talk about traveling the world, going to interesting places, meeting all sorts of people, buying companies, selling companies, making money. What's not to love?

Robin:

And those pieces around growth, buying, acquiring, merging are hugely exciting. And we work with some private equity firms and work alongside them to help when they buy multiple businesses. And we work with them to blend those businesses together or blend the cultures together. It's exciting.

Peter:

And that's fundamentally in my history. I led a management buyout of the first broker I joined. So when I was 29 we bought that business with five colleagues and built it up for seven years. And then we sold it to one of the consolidators of the day, a firm called Oval in 2007. And I honestly was thinking about, "Well that's almost like retirement."

Robin:

It's done.

Peter:

37, job done.

Robin:

And look at you know, you're still in the game.

Peter:

But then of course the real world kicks in and you send your kids to private school and you buy a different house and then before you know it, you haven't got your money anymore and you need to carry on. So I cracked on and I ended up becoming the CEO of the business that had bought us in 2007. And that was great fun. So that was inheriting a business that had already been built. And that was really interesting because from a cultural perspective, the business I inherited they had one thing they had done really well, which was actually to get a great culture. It was a really good collegiate feel. This was a business called Oval.

Peter:

And there was a great sense of belonging with that business. We had conferences and get togethers and parties. And it was a big firm, over a thousand staff but it felt like one business and people were proud to work for it. So when that business was sold to Gallagher's and I decided to leave and do another private equity backed journey. I bought Aston Scott in 2015, which at the time was a five million profit business. It had done really well. I had about 14 branches and it had a very solid culture. But then I knew that the plan was to take that business, which was five million pounds profit, and then multiply it by five. And you're only going to do that through acquisition as well as some organic growth. But what we had to do was make sure that we kept and created a really strong culture along the way.

Robin:

Yeah, critical. Critical, especially during that process of people understanding that we're going for growth and the acquisition strategy is going to come into play and it's going to be new people that we might be aware of in the marketplace coming in as well.

Peter:

Absolutely. And we were very, very fortunate. The most significant acquisition that we did was in 2017 when we merged with Lark Group. And that was when we formed Aston Lark as a business. And Lark established in the 40s, fantastic culture, incredibly high quality, renowned for client service, excellent retention. And Aston Scott and Lark came together and it was a fantastic merger. It was the perfect merger because all of the strengths of Aston Lark came about because of strengths in Lark and strengths in Aston Scott. And they were complementary. Literally, there was no clash. There was no two people vying for the same job. There was none of that because it actually just meshed together.

Robin:

That is superb, because typically, through our experience working with organizations that are merging together, there is always a certain level of toxicity that comes into play and you can't help it. And there's a process of natural filtration of people that are actually quite valuable to the business. But there is that clash. Now that's no, it was amazing.

Peter:

Well, I knew we'd got it right because I remember distinctly in early 2018, I had a couple of complaints from a couple of members of staff, somebody from the X Lark business said, "Peter, I'm just a bit worried that actually too many jobs are going to the Aston Scott guys and their culture is taking over." And in the same week I got a couple of people from Aston Scott's side saying, "A bit worried that the Lark culture is taking over." I thought, "Bang, I've nailed it. We've got it right. I've upset everyone." But it was genuinely a fantastic merger. And we've created, with our leadership team, led by Stuart Root and the group MD in particular have created a real culture in the business.

Peter:

And we sat down early doors and said, "Ron, what are we going to stand for as a business? What are the most important facets of what we do?" And we landed on care as a word. And that care in all its respects, caring for clients, making sure that we genuinely care about clients, get great result for clients and caring for staff, genuinely caring for staff, making sure that we're actually helping staff to build a career. And also caring for our insurers. We have no business if we don't have a load of insurance companies wanting to trade with us. And that culture of care is what we decided, "Right. That's how we're going to set ourselves apart. If there's a decision that we need to make on any topic, what would the caring thing to do be? What would the right answer be?" And then just try and do that.

Robin:

Yeah. And that's the right philosophy. And we see so many businesses that either don't understand what their pillars are that they should always call back against as a sanity check and they simply don't know or they put pillars in place for which they can't deliver upon from a promise perspective. And that's, you can imagine, the consequences to that are huge both internally and externally. Because we're all emotional creatures and if you tell us that we're going to be buying into a way of being, then we expect that. When it doesn't arrive, what we do is we leave, we disconnect. Okay. So, Peter, tell me, Aston Lark naturally operates within the insurance sector, but is there specific areas of the insurance sector for which you work within?

Peter:

Absolutely. We're quite unique. We've got a really strong commercial business. And the commercial business looks after various specialisms. So in particular professional indemnity, financial institutions. And we've got lots of clients in the construction space, property, transportation. And then we've got some really strong niches in motor trade. We're the biggest insurance broker in the UK for the motor trade, we insure the very biggest motor traders in the UK all the way down to... We've got over 10000 small motor traders that deal with us through our Roadrunner brand. So we've got a really strong commercial business. And then sitting alongside that, we have a very strong private client business, so that's primarily brought out of what was the Lark business. Lark was a very strong private client broker. And by private clients, I'm talking about looking after people's household and cars but the higher end of the spectrum. We're not insuring two bed semis. These are large properties all the way up to stately homes and very [crosstalk 00:09:27] portfolios.

Peter:

And so we've got big private clients business. And of course, there's a massive crossover between those two businesses. A lot of people that make money in business and choose to buy expensive houses and cars and we can look after them both in their private capacity and in their commercial capacity. And then uniquely, we also have a big employee benefits business. And employee benefits is fundamentally private medical insurance and pensions. So they're the two main areas, but also we do group risk and critical illness and so on. But private medical insurance is the mainstay.

Peter:

And again, there's lots of crossover because business people, when they get to a certain scale they often buy private medical for their senior team. Wealthy individuals with large houses often buy private medical insurance for themselves. And so, again, one of our main marketing drives over the next few years is we talk a lot about joining the dots, about making sure that every one of our commercial customers knows that we have a great private clients team and knows that we have a great employee benefits team. Not to ram it down their throats but hey, if they like what we do for them in the commercial, why wouldn't they give our private client team a try?

Robin:

And that comes back again to the care piece. If you're a team that live and breathe care, if they have the relationship with somebody that's buying a commercial product and they will look at and seize the opportunity to build a relationship that then spans across all areas of life, so different life stages. And you can just see how that unravels into that family structure, per se. [inaudible 00:11:01] generations.

Peter:

I regularly talk to clients who place their commercial with us and place their private clients business with us. And we look after them on their employee benefits. And yet they become incredibly loyal, sticky clients because it's much more than just a mono-line relationship on one product. We're dealing with them across the spectrum.

Robin:

Well, they trust you. And trust and certainty actually is what I'm taking from that. And if you think about the world that we live in now, but also the world that we lived in before, there were certain experiences of uncertainty. So from our experience of business in our areas, people are hunting, constantly searching for certainty and trust with organizations, but also people. Something that we're seeing and it'd be interesting to get your view on it is our people, once again, because of where we exist currently with COVID... And I promise we won't make this about COVID, but our people, once again, buying from people.

Peter:

Absolutely. Oh, definitely. I don't know if they've ever stopped buying from people. And one of the things I talk about with our staff all the time is treat every client as if it was your mother. And that's an incredibly simple thing to say but actually it's remarkably difficult. But it means lots of things to me. It means that I don't want to send something to my mum that I know she's not going to have a clue what it means. Why would I write her in jargon that she's not going to understand? That's not being a good broker. So explain things in a way that your clients can understand what you're saying. Demonstrate integrity. You wouldn't sell your mother an unsuitable product that she doesn't need. So why would you sell one of your clients an unsuitable product that they don't need?

Robin:

And I think it's lovely because it comes back to care.

Peter:

But also, it's not an anti-sales message. This is the thing that it is absolutely not an anti-sales message, quite the opposite. It's sometimes having the guts to say to somebody, "Look, I know you don't currently buy cyber insurance, but believe me, you really should be buying cyber insurance because I don't want to be on the phone to you when you've just lost tens of thousands of pounds and have you say to me, Why, Peter? Why didn't you make sure I bought cyber insurance?" So it's a sales message as well as being a care message. It's caring enough about your clients to make sure they buy the right cover and they buy all the cover that they need and that they're properly insured. It's as simple as that.

Robin:

I suppose they see you or whoever operates on behalf of you in that relationship with the customer, it's a real relationship. We do a lot of work in the legal system with law firms and we're always talking about how we are a partner, we have a relationship. And the relationship extends beyond that partner that might be dealing with the family now or the business. It might be two or three partners ago also from different generation perspective. And it sounds incredibly aligned to you as well.

Peter:

Absolutely. I mean, I'm very proud of the fact that in my Colchester branch... I live in Colchester so I spend a lot of time in my Colchester branch. And I've got a team of people there, a lot of whom worked with me for many, many years. And I've got lots of clients that I brought into the business years ago and they're now handed down to other accountants. And I'm delighted that they probably give clients an even better service than I was able to give them. And that's brilliant. And the clients don't want to come back to me, they want to carry on dealing with Kevin or Duncan or whoever is actually looking after them.

Robin:

Absolutely. But they know that you're always there. So that's amazing, it's wonderful. And with that in mind and looking at the growth that you've experienced over the last 24 months, I guess, what's the growth plans ambitions looking forward? And has the effects of what we've lived for the last 12 months slowed that or has it accelerated it?

Peter:

Well, I can answer that quite quickly because actually last year in 2020, we completed 10 acquisitions. And by the end of February 2021, we would have completed 10 acquisitions. So it's accelerated quite dramatically. To be fair, some of that is because lots of business owners were a bit worried in case the government decided to increase capital gains tax in March. They still may well do that and if they did... So some of the discussions that we were having with people around possibly buying their business during the summer, for example, everything's accelerated. So we've had to get everything done in February. So our M&A team have been working like absolute dogs trying to get everything over the line before the end of the month.

Robin:

Well, amazing.

Peter:

So it's accelerated. And will it carry on accelerating? I'm hoping that actually we get... Our sensible rhythm is one acquisition a month, is a really sensible rhythm for us and we'd like to get back to that. So over the course of the rest of this year, if we can complete another 10 acquisitions over the rest of the year, that would be fantastic. And the long term aim now with our next big target is hitting a billion pound of premium. We are now somewhere with all the acquisitions we've done this month, we'll be approaching 600 million of premium. So the next big target is to hit a billion premium, which is ludicrous. When I sold my first business in 2007, we were really proud of the fact that we had hit 25 million pound premium. So that's quite funny.

Robin:

But isn't it amazing that as a leader back when you were 37, you thought, "Hey, that might be time now. I've done pretty well." But you've continued and you've continued as a leader, so that's something that makes you a leader and there is something that gives you that drive. What is that something because if somebody started saying, "Hey we could hit one billion pounds worth of premium by the end of this year," or whatever the case would be, some leaders would go, "Oh." But to have the drive and the ambition and the conviction to go, "This is what we're doing. And guys, come with me on this journey." And what is it that you have? What's the style that you deploy as a leader?

Peter:

Oh, dear me. I don't know. I have always been ambitious and I think from having children, I think, made me a lot more ambitious than I probably was before. And trying to always do something to make your children proud, make your wife proud, make your parents proud and also make your... One of the things we've done with Aston Lark, we've now got 150, 160 employees who are shareholders. So I've got a lot of people who rely on me to make sure that this business grows and become successful because that's making them money and I think some of... So it's a combination of all of that.

Peter:

I'm a great believer in service and duty and looking after people and doing the right thing. And so it's all connected. It's kind of, "I want to make sure that my kids have a fantastic life." And so the harder I work, the better life they can have. I want to make sure my employees have a fantastic life to the harder I work, the better life they can all have. And I want to make sure my clients do well. I just think I don't want to scuttle through life and then get to sort of 80 and off the mortal coil and let no one notice. That's not what life's supposed to be about. It's supposed to be about sticking your head above the parapet and trying to achieve something.

Robin:

Go out and take the opportunity that lies in front of you. Can I ask, because it's really interesting from a leader perspective. And I had a conversation this morning. Are you a leader that is nose to the grindstone, 9:00 to 5:00, five days a week, and we all know leaders never switch off. Or are you a leader that can accept the ability to take time out to think about the bigger piece?

Peter:

I'm definitely I'm a very sporadic, I'm random and sporadic. When I bought Aston Scott, the private equity owners, Bowmark, who were fantastic, they did a sort of a personality profile of myself. And it turned out I was 99% less structured than the general population, which is probably about right. I think, if anything, it's an underestimate. So some people call it chaos merchant. I absolutely like to do things in my own time, in my own way and random. I'll work just as hard the weekends I do during the week. But then sometimes it will be, "Right. I'm going out for a bike ride this afternoon because actually I want to go out for a bike ride." So I can definitely switch off. I think about work all the time, but actually I like doing it in my own way. I hate structure. I would abhor a situation where it was like you are at your desk at 8:00 a.m. and at you desk at 6:00 p.m.

Robin:

That's an incredibly... And I'll say this with obviously best intentions, that's an incredibly creative mindset as a leader. And forgive me, but the insurance company sector isn't necessarily seen as a creative sector. But clearly, you and yours, by Aston Lark, are doing something different because you're seeing good growth, good acquisitions. And let's be honest, people obviously when we go through an acquisition process, people want to sell to gain the financial impetus but they also want to sell to somebody that's going to care about them or do something different. So that creativity, is that something that you as a leader embraces down through your business?

Peter:

I absolutely embrace it. If I'm honest, I probably get frustrated that we don't embrace it enough. I would far rather we were more creative. But equally, I'm aware that it is a regulated industry that we're in and it's all very well me being creative and spontaneous and everything else. But actually, I'm also sensible enough to know that I've got to have a fantastic CFO and a fantastic MD that worry about the details and make sure that, "Oh, Blanc has gone off on 1:00. That's fine. Let's just ignore him. We know we have to do this because actually that's what we have to do for the regulator." So I'm aware enough of my shortcomings in that regard to make sure that I've got good people to actually to worry about the details.

Robin:

Okay, that fine. You mentioned a moment ago that there's a collective group of individuals, employees within your business that are shareholders?

Peter:

Yeah.

Robin:

Now, that's quite unusual. Can you just talk to me a bit about that?

Peter:

It's one of the things I discovered when I took over the helm at Oval back in 2012. It was in a very bad way. The private equity owners were really unhappy with the investment and they asked me what I would do to change it. And all I did really simply was I picked seven leaders around the business, seven regional managing directors and persuaded the private equity investors to say, "Look, let's give these guys a meaningful share incentive so that actually if they can turn it around and sort out, then they will do well out of it." And of course, that was a brave thing for the PE firm to do because it cost them quite a lot of money but turned out to be absolutely the right thing to do.

Peter:

And it just brought home to me that if you get the right people and incentivize them in the right way... And I'm not talking here about an extra £10,000 bonus here or there, I'm talking about a meaningful incentive. I just think it's incredibly powerful. So I took that with me into Aston Scott. And when I bought Aston Scott, we created a sweet equity pot where we looked after the top 40 or so individuals in the business. And then when we merged with Lark, we then doubled the size of that pot and brought another. And then when Goldman Sachs invested in us in 2019, we increased the size of the pot again.

Peter:

And we're still continually finding individuals to say, "Okay, Robin, you've done a great job. We want to make you a shareholder in the business." And of course, it's only a stepping stone and they're not going to make enough money to sail off into the sunset, but it's a stepping stone. When the next investor comes along to replace Goldman Sachs and there's some money to be made, it's not just me making money, it's 160, all the shareholders. They all feel good about it. They tell their colleagues about it and it becomes a virtuous thing.

Robin:

And there are many businesses that don't do that, the majority of them. And they do it because, I don't know. 100% shareholding in something is really valuable if it's valuable. But if it's not, then it's worthless as we know. But it's something quite emotional.

Peter:

I've lost count the number of account executives I've spoken to and actually... For lots of people, being called a director is a lot more important than the pay rise and being a shareholder and being able to look your clients in the eye and say, "Look, I'm a shareholder in this business I really care about this," is really important. And actually it shouldn't be a small group at the top of greedy bastards taking all the pie. Our business would not be successful were it not for the thousand employees all working really hard. And actually the 150 or so leaders and senior account execs throughout the business. If they feel it and are emotionally invested and actually wanting the company to be successful, we will all do a lot better than if we just have a small group of greedy people at the top taking everything.

Robin:

And I suppose if you look at the breadth of people that you have, a thousand, there are people that are starting the journey with Aston Lark, that see that there is an opportunity and Aston Lark will give the graduate who's just joining us the opportunity to also become a shareholder. But it's all about contribution, performance, dedication and going back to your care piece. We behave like one another that's why you have the opportunity to wind up. So, I think that is amazing. And so, would you suggest that from a business leader's perspective, those that don't have that set up, do you think that it's something that is worthy of investigating, show some curiosity and investigate that opportunity?

Peter:

Absolutely. I think getting people's incentives aligned it's a really... There is no perfect bonus structure. There is no perfect solution to all of this. But I just believe that, actually, sharing that mutual aim and mutual desire, making sure that all of your staff are aligned with you and that you've got shareholders, all of whom want the company to do well, I think it's incredibly powerful. We all love John Lewis, don't we, as a business. We all love that. Why wouldn't we? I love mutuals. I like collective progress. It shouldn't be about and I think that a lot of that, I know it sounds quite grand to say, but a lot of the world's ills could be solved if there was a bit more redistribution of wealth. And actually, "I'm doing very, very well. Thank you very much but I want a 150 shareholders to do very well as well."

Robin:

Yeah, exactly. So it goes back to that pace that we are seeing an ever growing volume on, which is about the purpose as opposed to the profit. And that is something that we are all seeing as leaders or people within business. We're seeing that there is great attraction coming into play on that. And I hope, I do genuinely hope that as we look further down that the train lines and we're looking a few years down the road, that more businesses start to understand the benefit that can come through doing that. Can we move on to the... Because there's going to be a lot of people that listen to this that are really interested in the management buy-in that you went through with Aston Scott and then the merger with Lark. Can you just talk me through two aspects of that, if you would? One is, how did you find the process? And the second one as a leader, how did that impact you? And what did you learn from that?

Peter:

Okay. The process helped enormously because the people, both the leaders in Aston Scott and in Lark are just nice people. We're very lucky that there were no egos involved, we're all nice, relatively normal people. No giant egos or hussy fits or tantrums. So that's helped enormously. Stephen Lark, who was the managing director and became the chairman is a super nice guy. And it taken on people over the years in his own style. It was more important to Stephen for people to be nice and decent than to necessarily be the highest flying exec in the world. So we were lucky to have a good base of people that are nice people that wanted to do the right thing. That makes life incredibly helpful.

Peter:

We took on a really good project manager to oversee the integration to actually make it happen which was, again, incredibly important. And at every step of the way, we were focusing on this care as part of the journey. So, we did some of the things which sound really simple but we did, we called them merger style rewards. Just little cash bonuses and cash prizes and awards for individuals that were displaying the right behaviors. So anything whether, it was reaching out to somebody in another part of the business to actually help them with something, jointly doing something, arranging a joint function, whatever it might be.

Peter:

We were dishing out lots and lots and lots of little thank you's all over the place. And we've carried on with that. We call it our incentive hamper things where actually all the managers in the business, they are absolutely encouraged and able to, just because they want to, they can just say, "You know what team, you've done a great job this week. Here's £50, let's all get a pizza. Let's do this. Let's do that." Obviously, a lot less of it at the moment than there was. But it's little things, recognition, recognizing people that are going the extra mile doing the right thing and then making that the sort of the cornerstone of the business. Making sure that everyone is talking the same talk.

Robin:

Well, the reward and recognition is something that a lot of organizations forget about. It always falls to the bottom of the pile. But it's very much at the forefront of every team member's mindset. We went through many experiences, but I'll talk about one of our own where we deployed some brilliant employee benefits. But they're typically employee benefits that really come into play when there is a problem.

Peter:

Yeah, it's fantastic to tell people that get four times debt in service so if it all becomes too much and they decide to end it, great.

Robin:

Exactly. I said that we're giving people these things that they will never experience or they'd experience when they're no longer with us. So, we completely shifted our mindset to start deploying things that were immediate and that people could actually see, experience and respond to at that moment in time and it had a huge positive effects on the team. Huge. And then like you've done which is brilliant, although it's much harder with the number of people that you have, but that it just spreads and the positivity spreads. The alternative is the negativity that can spread.

Peter:

It's been really difficult. And look, we're a long way from perfect but we try really hard. We've got myself and Stuart Root and the group and we do a video for all the staff every week without fail, we add that video just giving them an update on what's going on and what's happened. Acquisitions we've made, new things that coming up, any socials that we're organizing. And we're doing that, that's been one of the great advantages of COVID. So we're talking to the team a hell of a lot more now than we were beforehand. We used to do this sort of once a year roadshow at the offices, but now we do a once a week video. So we're talking to everyone a lot more.

Robin:

That's perfect, Peter, because that leads me next onto my question, which is businesses have had to really adapt to the world in which we're living at the moment. And that's both from a cultural perspective, so our team in the business, but also our customers. So how have you managed that? Because naturally you've got, did you say a thousand employees?

Peter:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin:

Which in itself is one huge challenge, but also you have many, many customers. So if we could start with the team, how have you managed that? So, of course, as business updates, video business updates, how else would have you kept up the constant engagement?

Peter:

It's a real cascade. We require all of the... Myself and Stewart, we engage with the senior leadership team all the time. They're then tasked with making sure they engage with their leadership teams below them. And all the way down to team leaders have to have... We use Webex or Teams, have to have video call with their team every day without fail to make sure that we're talking to people all the time. Because one of the big worries that is obvious through it is actually that we know we're going to have a lot of staff and we can see it from the surveys that we undertake with staff. We have got, even us that are doing work, trying really hard, we have still got staff who are struggling.

Peter:

There are people that we've got that live at home on their own and are now not leaving the house. And their only engagement is through media like this. And if they're not talking to somebody every day, then that's a problem. And so we are up to insisting that if you haven't had a call from your manager today, there is something wrong. "Why have you not had a call your manager today? What's going on?" Touch base with people, encouraging people to reach out to each other, talk. That's all we could do, really. It's just make sure that everyone is properly engaging with their teams on a constant basis.

Robin:

It's amazing and I love the fact that you've beautifully illustrated that it's very easy in the world in which we individually live to think that everybody else lives in that way, and they don't. Like you said, quite wisely, there are people that live in a one bedroom apartment by themselves. There are people that live in a two bedroom apartment with their partner, but with no garden. And there are people that do live with their families and it's very difficult because of home schooling and what have you. And there were people that live in cities, there are people that live in the countryside. So everybody has to be treated on their own individual circumstances, which from our perspective, where there's 30+ of us, that's relatively straightforward to do. But I guess your only strategy, which is what you've highlighted, is to rely heavily upon your managers. You then have the responsibility and the care which we will go back to and to look after their people, their team.

Peter:

And that's where I want to empower them all to actually make those right calls. And we've got some fantastic managers through the business. And yet I will always be the one sort of pushing the envelope to encourage them to just... I'd far rather they did something and apologized than not do anything and waited to ask permission. Just get on with it. Just look after people. If it's the right thing to do, do it. And then I'll promise not to shoot you afterwards so [inaudible 00:35:52] and done it.

Robin:

And your philosophy of going back to treat the customer exactly how you would treat your mum, your mother. It's the same philosophy again. Treat that coworker or somebody within the team as somebody that is in your family.

Peter:

Absolutely.

Robin:

That is a brilliant philosophy.

Peter:

My oldest is 21. He starts with AIG in June as a trainee cyber underwriter. I want him to work. I want them to look after him. And it makes me want to look after our 21 year olds in the same way because I look at any of our 21 year olds and I think of my kids. And I think, "Well, how would I like their boss to be treating them?"

Robin:

Well, I think it really is quite phenomenal, that mindset of a business of such a size. Dealing with customers during the 12 months, has it changed? Talk to me.

Peter:

It has. Customers used to mostly at the big end, at the big commercial end, customers would expect and demand a visit to actually to go through all their insurances in detail. And it would normally be a lot of larger customers, it's more than one visit. So it's a pre-renewal meeting to go through everything they need and then a renewal meeting to present the agreed terms and agreed way forward. So, of course, all of that has now shifted online. And in lots of ways, it's freed up loads of time. I've got a lovely client of mine who loves a good chat. And it's an hour's drive to get there. And I'd never get out of there in less than three hours and then an hour's drive to get back. So for half a day. Well, now it's an hour on a Zoom call.

Peter:

Actually, he's fine with it. It helps keep the meeting a bit more focused. So there have been loads of upsides. It gives us the opportunity to talk to more clients in a more meaningful way. So, we're now finding it so much better to talk to people where you can actually see them rather than just on the phone. So now we're saying to all of our SME teams and people looking after small businesses, "Well, even if they're only paying a couple of thousand pounds a year, jump on a 10 minute team call with them and show them who you are. Let them see your face. Let them see that you care." Oh, my God. That's so much more powerful than just receiving a turgid insurance email on a machine saying, "Oh, would you send us some money?"

Robin:

It's a phenomenal mindset that I've experienced, having worked alongside a law firm. And it was a mindset shift from allowing the customer to be in control. And so, typically what will happen is if you're going through an emotional process of buying a house, you'll be anticipating the next piece of communication around what's happening. And typically, if you don't hear from the lawyer for a day or two, you make a phone call and that phone call then turns into half an hour and another bit of work that you need to do as a lawyer. So we simply took the customer standpoint and changed our entire mindset of the law firm to say, "Hey, look, the support team..." So what we bracketed then as the non fee earners, but really important people, if there is no news, just ring the customer and just say, "Hey, I'm just ringing to let you know that there's currently no news to tell you."

Robin:

And so we've deployed that strategy and the feedback was absolutely phenomenal because the customer just knew exactly where they stood, it illustrated a mindset of you understand how I'm feeling as a customer, etc. And it has been superb for them and it's something they've continued to deploy. So it's lovely to hear that. Do you think the digital mindset therefore then will continue into 2022?

Peter:

Absolutely. It definitely will. And the companies that will be successful are the ones that embrace it and do it properly because the ones who will fail will be the ones who hide behind email and just churn stuff out to get it off their desk. The biggest killer for insurance brokers is complacency. It's just expecting clients to renew, send stuff out by postal, via email and just expect the direct debit to stroll on in. That's not the way. And absolutely be proactive. Use Webex, offer Teams call, jump on a video conference with them. It's still a relative novelty, particularly for a lot of small businesses that aren't... We're in the financial services sector so, of course, all of our suppliers, all are on video conference so this is all perfectly normal. But when you're dealing with a small merch trader or an engineering firm, actually it's still a relative novelty to them and actually they appreciate making it easy for them. Send them a link, they just click on it, bang, they're talking to you. That's great. It can be fantastic.

Robin:

It's wonderful. And I think it's something that people can learn in certain sectors within the financial market for mortgages, mortgage brokers and their customers and the lender. And I think it's a phenomenal mindset to have. And I do hope it's one that people embrace. What I want to do now, Peter, is just pull it back to leadership. So you're man that has had many, many years of business experience as a leader. I'm sure there has been many successes and I'm sure there's been some failures. What I want to talk about, if I may again is, do business leaders talk about failure enough? And if so, do you think that they should spin it into talking more about failure and that the failure has driven them to greater levels of success? And failure shouldn't be seen as a negative. What are your thoughts?

Peter:

Failure in the UK is definitely seen as a negative, isn't it? We love a bit of schadenfreude in the UK. There's nothing we like better, let's be honest than seeing one of our peers go through the wringer and do, "Oh, dear me. That didn't go well for him, did it?" And we love a bit of gossip and a bit of, "Oh, they're having a terrible time. Oh, goody goody." We love that, don't we? We shouldn't do what we do. It's a very English trait.

Robin:

It is.

Peter:

An American, the best way of saying it, Americans see somebody, a successful guy driving past in a Rolls-Royce, "Good on you buddy. Well done." An Englishman, we'd love a beer can at him. We don't do failure particularly well. And as leaders, I think that does follow through. I think most CEOs and I hope I'm not one of them, I think most CEOs have lots and lots of hubris and they're always right even when they're dead wrong, they're always right. And they never, ever accept anything other than... It's almost like the sort of Donald Trump mentality of, "I just absolutely have no rear view mirror at all. I can walk over, trample bodies of people up, destroyed. And it's not a problem because I'm going forward." That's kind of the way. I think if you're a slightly more enlightened then you realize, actually there are things that you have done wrong that you think, "You know what, I shouldn't do that again."

Peter:

One of the best examples I have was my first chairman at Oval, a guy called Philip Watsons, lovely guy. And he noticed something. He noticed a trait in me which I was... If I thought that something wasn't going right I'd launch into email. "That's rubbish. That's rubbish. Terrible." And he said to me, which stuck with me ever since, he said "Peter, why don't you try this as an alternative approach." He said, "Whenever you've got anything negative to say, do it face to face in front of people or at the very worst case scenario, on the phone. Absolutely all negative stuff by voice. And then conversely, every single positive thing you want to say, absolutely make sure that's committed to writing."

Peter:

So all the writing stuff, all the stuff that you want your employees or staff to look back on with a little glow of pride that they got a well done or a thank you, absolutely commit all that stuff to writing. Any time when an employee has been a bit of a wally, talk to them. Because you can say, "Look, Robin. You're normally a great guy but in this instance, you were a Wally. You're still a great guy. Just don't do that silly thing again." And actually, they go away from the conversation at least feeling that they feel loved and cared for.

Robin:

I think that is brilliant advice because as we all know, emails can be read in two different ways. And even if it's written in a positive way by the author, depending upon the mood upon the recipient, can be read in very many ways. I think that is a wonderful piece of advice. I think it's superb. From a well-being perspective, as a leader, do you think as we move forwards into whatever June onwards is going to look like, do you think leaders are doing enough? Before COVID from a well being, wellbeing related to performance perspective. And do you think they're doing enough now as we start to creep slowly towards the easing of lockdown and that what will be an even in this in the timeframe of six months in terms of the transition back, it's going to feel like a clicking of fingers. Do you think leaders are doing enough to help the employees' well-being and the mindset of going back to some form of what normal looks like?

Peter:

I think perhaps employers are doing a hell of a lot more now. When I was growing up, it was pull your socks up and sort yourself out. And a smack around the head if you're not performing. I was joking with my wife the other day. Genuinely, at school we had a thick table. You were ridiculed and harassed if you didn't perform. It was a much harder culture. And I think there's a danger that there's a lot of wellbeing stuff that's fantastic that we absolutely should support, I think there's also quite a lot of virtue signaling that goes on that actually I question. Because I do think that people get really important bits of advice like making sure people exercise and get out there and go for a walk and move. "Don't just sit at home and eat junk food."

Peter:

We should still be saying that stuff, saying in a nice caring way, but we should still be saying that stuff, not be so frightened to upset anyone's feelings that we don't mention the fact that, "Hey you're not living a great, healthy life here and it's going to affect you." We should be brave enough to say, to call out something's not right.

Robin:

I completely agree. And I hope that those people that would be being told that would be more accepting of that now as well, given the period that we've been through. And in terms of, and you may or may not have the answers for this, Peter. Aston Lark, what does the return look like for you?

Peter:

I haven't got the answer to that. And I think it will actually change over time because right now, when we're surveying staff, we're getting an overwhelming response of people saying, "I want to carry on working from home." Now people's reasons for answering like that are many and varied. With some people, there are lots of people who are genuinely petrified. They are genuinely scared. They don't want to risk going back to work because they're worried and whether it's for them or for a loved one, whatever. We've got to accept that, that's how people are feeling. We may not agree with it, but we have to accept that, that's how some people are feeling.

Peter:

For other people, it genuinely has been a revelation. They're getting back three hours of their day every day. And for a lot of them, they're actually probably investing an hour and a half of that doing more work for Aston Lark and enjoying an hour and a half extra at the beginning and end of the day. So actually, for some of those people it's great. But also I'm very worried about youngsters coming into the... I don't want my 21 year old to spend the next 10 years of his life in his bedroom. That is not healthy. And as a society, we've got to be keen to get back out there. And so, I think the answer is we're going to be a lot more flexible. We're definitely going to be more flexible. But equally, we've got to make sure that we don't become hermits out of fear and we don't just stay at home because we're worried.

Robin:

Yeah, it's a really delicate point. And I appreciate that there isn't a fixed answer. Nobody does have that. And agility probably is everybody's best policy as business leaders. But it's an important one, I think, for everybody to understand that working, living, eating, sleeping, etc, at home on a permanent basis doesn't give you a separation between work and sanctuary. It's a really important point. I think we're starting to come around, but it's like you and many other leaders, it's going to be one that I think we will watch unravel and we will adapt as and when it happens.

Peter:

There have been some massive upsides from COVID in all sorts of ways. Got some of the communication and I'm certainly not going to drift back into just automatically getting on a taxi at 6:30 in the morning and being up to London by 8:00 and working there until... I couldn't imagine what an incredible waste of time that's been. But equally, I also don't want to spend the next five years at home. I want to be out meeting people and socializing. So it's kind of getting that balance and getting to a rhythm that works for individuals. I think if it's two or three days a week in the office and two or three a week at home, great. We've got to get a balance.

Robin:

It's interesting, isn't it? It's the best utilization of people's performance at certain times of the day and how that relates to our customers. So one of the final questions, Peter, that I have is just about leadership qualities. And I've obviously done lots of reading about you. One of the statements that you've made is that one of the key qualities that you look for is one in which people get to the point very quickly, they don't waffle. Talk to me about that. Why do you feel that's so important?

Peter:

One of the one of the things I want Aston Lark to be, it's a big company that acts, looks and feels like a small company. [inaudible 00:50:44] everyone, it's much more fun working for a small company, let's be honest. And the trick is, if we can be a big company that acts like a small company, we'll get a lot further. And part of that small company feeling is not drowning people in bureaucracy and not making them put through committee meetings for the sake of committee meetings and rubbish meetings for the sake of it. Just apply common sense and try to encourage people. We're not there yet, but try to encourage. Make sure that meetings are snappy, 15, 20 minutes. Stand up meetings, walking meetings. Doing things [crosstalk 00:51:23] not just slavishly go through that. I've sat through so many meetings where you spend the first half an hour going through the minutes of what everyone didn't do at the previous meeting. What an utter waste of time.

Robin:

Isn't that interesting? Because one of the things that frustrates me and I awayls used to join board meetings until those pieces are done and no looking back because I'm interested in looking forward. I asked people, I do mentoring with some people and I ask people, "When you're stood on a bridge over a river, do you look for positivity upstream or do you look for the positivity downstream?" And the questions are so varied because it means so much to so many different people in so many different ways. And for me, it's about where is the opportunity coming from?

Peter:

I want us to be a dynamic organization that grabs opportunity, gets stuff done, moves at pace. If you see a problem, solve it. If it's an opportunity, grab it. And don't just spend your life. It's not a great existence for anyone spending their life and thinking, "What did I achieve today? Well, I drafted 15 pages of minutes, brilliant."

Robin:

I couldn't agree more. Peter, I think that wraps us up and it's a wonderful way to end a brilliant conversation. It's been fascinating. I've really enjoyed it. And I think, again, I'm sure we could talk for hours about it. And I think that's the beauty of having leadership conversations from where you can learn from one another. I think it's brilliant. Just before we do wrap up, where can people find out about Aston Lark? Because obviously, people are going to listen to this and what you said will chime a lot with a lot of people. So how can they and where do they find that more?

Peter:

Well, probably the best thing is just literally go to our website, so Astonlark.com. Find me on LinkedIn, I'm pretty open unless it's a recruitment consultant, in which case I'm generally not. I'm pretty open on LinkedIn and I'm more than happy to talk to anyone that's of interest, whether it's a potential employee for Aston Lark or a potential company looking to the join forces with Aston Lark.

Robin:

Wonderful. Thank you again, Peter. It really has been fascinating.

Peter:

Thank you.