17th Jan 2020 in Business
AS it celebrates its 40th year in business Willis Insurance and Risk Management (Willis IRM) is settling into extended premises in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter and looking to the future while remaining faithful to customer focussed service.
Executive Chairman and founder, Robert Willis can justifiably look back on the roots of the business and its future in a field crowded with faceless multinational organisations, knowing that the depth of expertise and experience trumps anything that a call centre can offer.
A true Northern Ireland success story, all four of Robert’s sons are employed in the company, with Richard as Managing Director.
Yet, in its first eight years Robert operated from the family home, with all the family chipping into help.
“I had two children at the time, and within the year I had another one which was rather unexpected,” he explained. “It was not what I was expecting in my first year in business because the bank wanted a second mortgage on the £2,0000 I needed to set it up.”
With some clients from his previous job Willis IRM was based at home, with the family doing accounts, filing and administration while Robert was out and about meeting clients.
Now, employing 100+ people, and with offices in Hull and Leeds, Willis IRM has developed into one of the few full service brokerages; all the while maintaining that it is focussed on meeting the client’s needs. “Holding their hand,” as Robert puts it.
“As such we’re more than just an insurance broker for our clients” he said. “Yes, we can help with your insurance – and we give the best service we can possibly give – but it is about having the systems in place so you reduce the risk of facing a claim in the first place.
“For example, our risk managers will go out to a premises and they’ll ask questions such as, do you have a fire alarm, where’s your nearest fire hydrant, what will you do if there was a fire? Have you had the fire brigade come and see you?”
And, the company understands that companies risks can extend into many areas of an organisation.
“We have an HR division, which has employment lawyers, so we’ll tell you that you need to sort your contract of employment out, that way it never becomes a claim in the first place.
“You could say the reactive side is the insurance and then the proactive side of the company as well to help our clients mitigate risks.
“That’s why there’s no one else in the market that offers the breadth of services we provide for clients, not the multinationals, we’re the largest specialist independent
Robert is also very aware that the nature of risk is ever-changing.
“Cyber liabilities a big thing that companies need to be aware of,” he said. “It’s not that expensive but there’s a lot of different types of policies. But the reality is that businesses are more likely to get hit by a cyber-crime now than a flood, fire or theft.
“That includes the risks associated with compliance such as GDPR – a required minimum – along with the risks associated with phishing and online fraud.”
With future plans soon to be revealed, Robert is keen to make sure they have the right calibre of people working with new and existing clients.
“We take on one or two graduates every year, who have stuck with us. And they can see there’s a career path there, the remuneration is probably quite good by the time you get to a certain level and all the perks of the jobs people expect these days such as health insurance, cash plans and the pension plan.”
As such Willis Insurance invests in staff training, paid for by the company, to ensure that the team, whether it is the claims team, the risk staff or any part of the company is up to speed.
And, that includes the developing wealth management service.
“Once someone acquires a certain level of wealth we deal with their investments and planning to guide them,” explained Robert. “Often they want advice such as what to do with their money, what to do with the company money profits, and what to do with their own personal wealth.
“They may have some idea but we can help with how they’re going to set it, how to leave their money, what sort of investments they’re going to make, and how to make sure they don’t leave their relatives with a large inheritance tax liability.”
Despite its success, and expansion plans Robert firmly believes that being a family business is key for Willis Insurance.
“There’s an ethos in a family run company, which is really the values of the people concerned,” he said. “The family aren’t a corporate structure. We’re all hands on, but it’s not just us as a family, it’s all the staff.
“Everybody repeats the same thing that employees are the most important people we have, but we take a lot of the time trying to make sure we get it right with the staff and for the staff. The result is that they too have the proper responsibility towards clients.”
Robert maintains that the company is not “profit centred” – apart from what money is needed for overheads and to keep everyone with the required income.
“The client is always at the centre of what we do. And we don’t compromise on the advice that we give clients. Obviously, there is a commercial aspect to what we do.
“I think my sons would agree with the necessity to be client centric and I think everybody in the company like would probably agree. It is that sense of the client is what’s important.
“However, while it is the way it should be done unfortunately you get the multinationals who are inclined to let’s say bend the rules, very slightly and despite their slogans they don’t really care about clients, just sales.”
The success and growth of Willis Insurance and Risk Management has attracted interest from potential buyers, eager to cash in on its achievements. Robert’s response has always been a firm ‘No!”
And, that is because, as he says multinationals or brass plate private investors don’t focus on the client, but Robert is clear that he still keeps the business as the focus.
“I don’t play golf very well, I gave it up a few years back and I don’t miss it. Nor do I have a villa in the south of France.
“The business is the thing I get most pleasure out of, apart from my wife, family and home.”