An entrepreneur interview with: Karen Weir

Posted on the 12 January 2016

An entrepreneur interview with: Karen Weir

Karen Weir is managing director of Weir Insurance Brokers, a second generation family business. Having started out in general insurance at Aviva, Karen worked there for ten years, around the UK, before joining her husband’s family business in 1998.

Can you tell me a little about the history of the company?

Weir Insurance Brokers Ltd was founded in 2003, although my in-laws started the business as a partnership in 1972, selling car and home insurance. 80% of our work is now business to business, we still sell car and home insurance although, it’s only a small part of what we do.

A big change for the company came in 2004, we bought a smaller insurance firm in Bedlington. At that time a lot of smaller firms were selling up, as the Financial Services Authority was due to start regulating the sale of general insurance products in 2005 and the cost of complying with new regulations wasn’t always worth it for them, this was a major period of consolidation in the industry.

In 2006 we acquired another small firm, based in Monkseaton, and by 2008 we’d absorbed the two smaller firms into Weir Insurance, and all staff and moved to the Weir office in Blyth. At this stage we were growing between five to fifteen percent a year.

How did the recession affect you?

We didn’t lose many clients, though a lot of them downsized. A typical client may be an electrician employing 15 people, and during the recession many of these businesses survived, but downsized to one person operations. Growth was minimal, about two to three percent a year, and but we were still in profit.

Did the recession change your business approach?

Yes, we decided to do the opposite to what most people were doing. At this time companies were tightening their belts, and one of the first things to go was the marketing budget. We didn’t have to spend a lot more, we found that we got more for our money. Adverts cost less and we got lots of column inches from our investment in PR, we also commissioned a new website.

We also took the opportunity to re-hire a member of staff who’d moved to Tesco Financial Services. She moved to Tesco to move into more of a leadership role, but moved back to us, preferring our family business environment and she missed her clients.

How has the business adapted to changing markets over the years?

The world is a lot more litigious now and insurance is certainly no exception. We have always been very careful and thorough about the recommendations we make, and the advice we give to our clients, and this is more important now than it’s ever been. We are very clear to point out to clients what they aren’t covered for, not just what is covered. No-one likes nasty surprises. This means we have to interview clients thoroughly to understand how to advise them. We’ve always done this, but the rest of the industry is has seen how important this is and are catching up.

People like to do business with people they like, but spending 50 minutes in a client meeting discussing football, and only 10 minutes on business doesn’t work for us, it’s the other way round. We never ever do business on a golf course, that’s a disaster waiting to happen when you’re giving serious advice on insurance and risk.

What are your unique selling points?

We now specialise in commercial insurance, we’re B2B, but we do provide home insurance to the clients we have. This isn’t as profitable as commercial insurance, but it lets us wrap our arms around our customers, it shows were care about them and not just their money.

We also offer specialist insurance for the beauty industry, which many firms don’t bother with. Beauty is a Cinderella Industry, when times are good people have money to spend on looking good and when things aren’t so go they cheer themselves up by spending it anyway.

We offer liability insurance for almost any beauty treatment you can imagine, and we do this nationally. We even have a client that does fat freezing, cryolipolysis if you want to give it its technical name.

What is your secret for keeping your team motivated?

It’s all about a work-life blend. Not balance, blend. If our staff want to work flexibly, that’s fine as long as the work gets done. This is very much results driven, and we find that flexibility is better motivator than remuneration. 

We have a low staff turnover, I think this is because we’re willing to support our staff through challenging times in their family lives. We’re very proud to say no member of staff has missed a school play or sports day yet.

How does your motivation now compare to when you first started at the firm?

I am more motivated now than when I started out, but it’s a different kind of motivation. When I started it was very exciting to be running a business, it was something new. Now I’m motivated by being part of something bigger than myself, our company is bigger than our list of clients, bigger than our team, bigger than our products. It’s very much the case that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and this is inspiring.

Tell me a bit more about the structure of your business, how did the current structure come about.

When we amalgamated the two smaller firms into Weir Insurance in 2008 we had 19 staff, seven of them were over 65. This was the point we decided that we had to start a knowledge transfer scheme. This was very successful, and it was a two-way street, more experienced members of the team would teach newer members about the technical side of the insurance industry, in return younger team members would teach them how to get the most out of modern technology. A secondary benefit from this is new starters feeling they add value to the company straight away.

All of our staff have passed their technical exams, which are non-compulsory in the insurance industry, so this helps us stand out from the crowd. We now employ 11 people, fewer than we have done in the past, but with no loss of productivity. Automation means we’re able to do more with fewer people, though we will be looking to recruit more in 2016.

Do you find the right people in your local area or do you have to recruit further afield?

The vast majority of our people are local. We’ve had six apprentices over the years, two of them are still with us, and all of them have gone on to bigger achievements like university. By bringing on our home grown people we’re turned around the demographic of the company, and we’ve done it properly. 

How has Weir Insurance benefitted from mentoring?

I’m a member of Vistage, a director development organisation and I’m mentored by David D’Arcy. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve everything I have without David’s support.

There is lots of mentoring going on within the company. On top of this, we let staff choose which skills they want to develop, and we will fund almost any training they ask for that has some benefit to the business, even if it’s not an immediate benefit. We’ve paid for project management, and stress management courses, you get the idea, though I don’t think we’d stretch to a pottery class.

How do you get the most from your team?

We’ve had everyone do a Myers Briggs personality test, so we know how to motivate people best and how they fit in to the company. When you understand what motivates people, and what has the opposite effect, you’ll see fewer people getting wound up in the work place.

So, what does 2016 have in store for you?

We’re going to expand our range of products, so we’re busy looking at the best performing health insurance products at the moment. We’re also expanding our risk management services as we’ve been doing this for some of our existing clients for some time, so it’s time we brought it to the wider market. This is very much a case of our clients themselves tell us what they want us to do more of! 

We’re looking to recruit some advocates, customers who are willing to speak up about the service they’ve received from us. We’re also looking at how we can add value to our clients and help them grow their businesses, by utilising our own insured tradesmen for insurance claims. This kind of innovation comes from client feedback, which we take very seriously. We also use feedback when deciding which suppliers to deal with, there is no benefit for us or our clients in selling them a product from a supplier that doesn’t pay out when they’re supposed to. 

As I mentioned earlier, we’re looking to take on more staff. Everything is in place now, we’re a well-oiled machine, so the time is right to scale up.