Monday 14th August 2017 marked 50 years in broking for Stephen Greenfield. We felt that was something to celebrate, so sat him down to delve into half a century’s worth of broking expertise. We discovered why he doesn’t focus on the financials, what he did to get through the dark days when the industry expected small brokers to give up the ghost, and how he still has a relationship with the first client his business ever invoiced.
When you remember your first ever job interview, it’s likely that alongside the nerves you recall the halogen lighting and functional furniture of an office; but if you’re Stephen Greenfield, you remember sofas, cushions and your mum’s teacups.
That’s because back in 1967 at the tender age of 16, Stephen’s first interview saw him sitting with his parents in his living room, across the coffee table from local broker Ronald Saunders. Little did Stephen know back then that he was taking the first step into a career that would span five decades – and counting. “I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do after leaving school, so my godmother put me in touch with Ronald who was looking for someone to train up,” Stephen explains. “He was an old fashioned sort and felt a house call was the proper thing to do!”
Stephen spent the first 13 years of his working life with Ronald; and by the age of 24 he was running the business solo. “Ronald taught me a great deal,” says Stephen. “Back then, the only real choice for higher education was the technical college, but I think learning on the job served me well; my company car back then was an MGB BT, which was unusual for a lad of 24!” Stephen says that even after Ronald decided to sell the business, the pair stayed firm friends for many years until Ronald sadly passed away several years ago.
People over profits
This tendency towards strong and long lasting personal relationships has driven Stephen’s business decisions throughout his career. “I tried a couple of different business opportunities over the years but felt the companies I was working with were too corporate,” says Stephen. “When I set up Greenfields Insurance in 1989, I knew I wanted to run it differently. I didn’t set out with an ambition to own my own brokerage – I just wanted something that felt more personal. I suppose you could say that I morphed into it.”
“We’re not heavily focussed on the financials. We concentrate more on finding clients who are a good fit so we can give the service we want to give.”
The benefit of running your own business, says Stephen, is that you can create your own working culture with your values and priorities in mind. “There’s no-one shouting about figures all the time at Greenfield, because that isn’t our focus,” says Stephen. “I remember Grant at Broker Network once very kindly described us as a ‘lifestyle business’ – which he quickly pointed out was fine by him!” Stephen laughs. “At the time that stung a little bit, but he was right. We’re not heavily focussed on the financials; that’s just not us. We concentrate more on taking on clients who are a good fit for our culture, which is why we mainly work with owner managers – they understand what we’re doing. FDs often don’t really get it. Ultimately this means we can give the service we want to give.”
When Stephen started his career, there may have been fewer gadgets but to all intents and purposes the job was the same. “There were no electric typewriters or photocopiers when I started; so the biggest change I’ve seen over the years has got to be the development of technology,” says Stephen. “Up until the introduction of the Act in 2016, I don’t think much has changed in the industry really.”
“We recently took half a dozen clients out for a day at the races, and we’re lucky enough to be able to call each and every one a friend. You just wouldn’t get that with an online business.”
With the advent of new technology, Stephen feels that the role of a broker needs to be much more technically-focused – to a point. “If you’re happy not to be a ‘personal’ broker you can make a lot of money online, but you’re never going to get to know your clients,” says Stephen. “Maybe we could we have done better over the years in terms of financials, but what really matters to me is relationships. For instance, we recently took half a dozen clients out for a day at the races, and we’re lucky enough to actually be able to call each and every one of them a friend. You just wouldn’t get that with an online business.”
If at first you don’t succeed
It hasn’t all been a smooth ride, though. “We’ve had challenges along the way; mostly to do with lack of finance!” Stephen explains. “As a small broker it’s frustrating to know that there are things you could do, but you’re restricted by financial or number resources – that’s still a frustration to this day.”
“For every ten mistakes you think you’ll make, there are a thousand more you’ll have never considered. To get through it, all you really need is resilience and financial support.”
And how to get through these challenges? Perseverance. “All you can do is get your head down and keep going really!” says Stephen. “If someone listed all the things that could go wrong before you set up shop, you’d never get started. For every ten mistakes you think you’ll make, there are a thousand more you’ll have never considered. To get through it, all you really need is resilience and financial support.”
Stephen explains that he has also been careful not to exploit the business over the years to ensure that it remains sustainable. “We might have only started making more money over the past ten years; but we’ve also still got a relationship with the first client that we ever invoiced 28 years ago. It’s those bonds that I’m interested in.”
Strength in numbers
“People kept talking about the death of the small broker, and it was as if people expected us to turn the lights off and walk away. Broker Network gave us confidence.”
Being part of a Network has played a major part in Stephen’s journey as a broker. He says that looking at the landscape when Greenfields joined Broker Network in 2006, no-one was giving brokerages of his size a chance.
“People kept talking about the death of the small broker, and it was as if people expected us to turn the lights off and walk away,” says Stephen. “Broker Network gave us confidence, and helped us out in lots of ways, such as with the compliance side of things and the HR service which we’ve started using more recently.
“The Network has just been an overall supporting factor, and helped us to still be here. Maybe the prediction of the death of the small broker was overstated, and maybe we would still be here today without Broker Network; but I know that joining was the right decision to make.”
Ready for the challenges ahead
He doesn’t have a crystal ball on hand, but Stephen predicts challenges ahead for the broking industry. “I think there will be more challenges in the next ten years than in the previous ten, and a lot of that is down to the millennial generation and how brokers will communicate with them,” says Stephen. “Brokers tend to be of a certain age, there aren’t many young guys getting into the industry, and a 20-something talking to a 66-year-old doesn’t really work because their attitudes and buying ideas are so different. The business will always be there, but that audience will prove harder to convince. For millennials, good service is attributed to how quickly things are turned around, rather than how well issues are dealt with, so brokers need to figure out how they will handle that.”
“For millennials, good service is attributed to how quickly things are turned around, rather than how well issues are dealt with, so brokers need to figure out how they will handle that.”
And when it comes to the young start up brokers ready to embark on their own career in insurance, Stephen has some words of wisdom. “You’ve got to understand your market; what your customers look like and how they think,” says Stephen. “You’ve got to get involved with social media, and be speedy. And crucially, you need to really try to adapt and fine tune the way you do business to suit them. Brokers can’t dictate how to do business any more.”