It's all a matter of trust: Alex Alway, Chief Executive of Jelf Group
PUBLISHED: 13:19 16 September 2013 | UPDATED: 13:19 16 September 2013
Nurturing people and relationships makes good business sense, says insurance broker boss Alex Alway
It’s difficult getting excited about the world of insurance broking, but as a necessary part of modern life someone has to, and that’s Alex Alway, Group Chief Executive of Jelf Group.
In reality, Alex is anything but dull, and when I listen back to the interview on my dictaphone his voice reminds me of Lord Sugar’s Claude Littner – the one who makes mincemeat out of the defenceless BBC Apprentices at the dreaded interview stage, although it didn’t occur to me when we met.
Like Littner, there is vein of steel running through this affable insurance boss, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to take on a company in a little local difficulty, float it four years’ later on AIM, the London Stock Exchange’s international market for smaller growing companies, and nurture its growth to a £86 million turnover business with around 1100 staff and 34 offices in 32 locations across England & Wales.
But he’s easy to interview and not afraid to express his opinions, especially on local issues, of which more later.
We start chatting about the business. “It’s all about the people,” he says.
“Insurance is about trust. Our customers need to be able to trust their broker to do the right thing. We act for the client, not the insurance company. When things go wrong you need someone alongside to get it sorted out, and that’s where we sit. Often it’s not about the money, it’s more about restoring everything to the status quo.”
Jelf is big enough to have the muscle to fight your corner with insurance giants such as Aviva, and small enough to be concerned about the individual, says Alex.
“There is nothing I would rather do than exercise my personal friendships across the industry to get the job done for our clients. Our customers trust us and the person at Aviva who receives my call trusts me, so between us we can do the right thing.”
There was life before insurance. Born in Buckinghamshire, Alex worked for some years at BP before deciding, just like our new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby (also a former BP executive), that there was more to life than oil and gas. The Archbishop followed the light, Alex followed the sun, Sun Life in Bristol to be exact; to take on a bigger role with more opportunity, and he also discovered the Cotswolds. He and his wife Nina bought a house on Chavenage Lane in Tetbury before moving to their current home in Bisley about fifteen years’ ago where their daughters grew up.
“I love the way the Cotswolds feels at different times of the year. Living here you pick up its rhythms. I love the Cheltenham Literature Festival in the Autumn, and the jazz festival too. Local events such as the fetes are great; in Bisley it’s the event of the year for the village and if I’ve had a hectic week it is nice to be able to attend and forget about the office for a bit.”
Perhaps it was the calming effect of Cotswolds countryside that caused Alex to soon tire of the restrictions of corporate life and when he was offered an opportunity at Jelf, a much smaller business, he seized it. He wasn’t the only one to make the move. “The man who interviewed me for the job at Sun Life in Bristol is now my finance director – we’ve worked together for 20 years. I recruited everyone I thought was any good in the industry. We call ourselves “big company refugees” who have migrated to a small company, which has become a medium-sized company and we’ve enjoyed working together.”
He joined Jelf in 2000. At the time it had over expanded and needed sorting out. Floating it on the AIM in 2004 was a big success. “We arrived in a bull market and had a really good time. We grew through acquisitions, including buying two businesses in Cheltenham. There are a lot of opportunities in this area, there’s money, but it’s discerning money. You have to build relationships. Jelf has been in Cheltenham for almost ten years and I can only now say that we are part of the local community.” Locally, the company also has offices in Bath, Stratford, Oxford, Evesham, Worcester, Hereford, Ross on Wye, Malvern and Swindon, alongside its Chipping Sodbury HQ.
“Each town has its own dynamics, and from Stroud to Stratford, it’s all about the network of people.” But Alex finds the haphazard nature of local business networks frustrating and an obstacle to business growth. “In Cheltenham for instance, there are many layers of support. Why can’t we have one cohesive group that works together and liaises with an organisation promoting business across the wider Cotswolds? I will support something with oomph behind it.”
He acknowledges the work of Local Enterprise Partnerships but feels they need a more strategic approach, and they certainly need to do more market research to find out what local businesses really need before writing business plans. The problem is some companies find it difficult to accept help, as he’s currently finding with one local football club, which is also a business. “I love all sport, but why is Cheltenham Town such a poor relation to Gloucester Rugby? It’s got very little brand awareness and I feel for the marketing team who are trying to promote it. It will never be Manchester United but it could build on a strategy of becoming a vibrant community-based alternative to rugby, I’ve offered to lend our support to help the club and look forward to working with them”.
Growth is about seizing the opportunity, and not ignoring what’s under your nose, and I hope that by the time this article is published Cheltenham Town Football Club will be talking to one local businessman who has the latent ability to help.
The club could certainly learn from Alex’s approach at Jelf. “We don’t want to grow so big that we become bureaucratic and don’t listen and if we do nothing else other than talking to our existing customers about their businesses, we’ll get real growth.”
• Alex’s working week
From 7am–7pm on week days and generally most weekends Alex is working. The day we meet he’s already met a venture capitalist at Cheltenham’s Hotel du Vin. Our interview is slotted in between his meeting the man who runs Cheltenham Football Club and seeing another who wants a job, then onto an interview for a possible non-executive director and an evening out with professional connections. It’s relentless.
“Everyone within the senior group at Jelf does the same. We have a culture of doing the right thing for the client, a corporate cliché, but it sifts down through the business and the proof is that a lot of the people we work for have become friends. Our challenge as we grow is to maintain that.”
• Alex on women in the workplace
“We encourage women to grow their professional careers, but quite often they don’t want to progress. It’s the opposite for men who sometimes oversell themselves and think they’re better than they are, but I don’t think quotas work to get more women in the boardroom. You’ve got to judge people on merit. Quotas will mean people in roles for which they are clearly not qualified. There are a number of key women that make the Jelf group work but they are all at the operational level and we’re encouraging them to move their careers on within the business. The competitive nature of the males in the industry turns some off, so we must foster opportunities for them, but ultimately they’ve got to make that final push themselves. Nationally, we need to provide an easier pathway than the quota route.”