'Ecommerce is the future for insurance which is why I had to make the call to close six of our branches'
Hughes Insurance chief Brian McDowell tells Margaret Canning about his career in banking and his focus on the brand's future
Not many people liken their career progression to a game of Trivial Pursuit. But that's the analogy used by Hughes Insurance chief executive Brian McDowell to describe his progress in the competitive world of financial services.
The Londonderry-born 40-year-old has been leading the broker, which is based in Newtownards, for just over a year since the departure of founder Leslie Hughes as chairman and former CEO Gareth Brady's move into Leslie's old role.
Since getting the top job, Brian has taken some big decisions, including closing six of its 11 branches and increasing its spend on ecommerce.
Brian said: "I've always looked on myself as getting a job and staying three or four years, becoming absolutely fantastic at it but then thinking of my career as getting one of those circles, like a counter in Trivial Pursuit, where I have to fill all the gaps to be complete."
It's an approach that's served him well since leaving St Columb's in Londonderry with A-levels in French, Irish and English literature. "I always thought to myself I'd love to be an interpreter as I loved languages and travel.
"But then when I got to the point of deciding, I fancied finance and banking. At that point it was massively growing so there were so many opportunities in Ireland and the UK."
He followed up his four-year banking and finance degree at Ulster University in Coleraine with a one-year Masters in IT.
Now a father of two boys, Jack (8) and Ben (5), he attributes his own success in part to the drive of his own parents - his father, an engineer at Maydown Precision, and his mother, who works at offenders' support organisation Niacro. "I was the oldest of three boys. I was the one that my parents pushed more than anyone. It was great to have that support, time and energy from them.
"I remember them sitting with me the whole way through school helping with homework. Even at university, my mum typed my dissertation for me."
It was at university that he met his future wife Michelle, a student teacher at the time. They decided to leave for England after Brian won a place on an accelerated management programme in Liverpool with Alliance & Leicester, which is now part of Santander.
"We felt that unlike London, Liverpool was a place that you could put down roots. And we had four or five wonderful years there. I was also being promoted a lot - I've always been focused on my career and ready to take on new challenges," says Brian.
But the pull of home was starting to gain momentum. "Michelle was always very attached to home. We had a great time in Liverpool but afterwards we were going from place to place. It's quite hard for a teacher to keep moving. She loved seeing the kids develop every year so it's hard to keep moving - whereas in business, you don't think about it."
A move back home followed, and Brian got a new post running the Gasworks call centre of building society Halifax. He made the contact centre a multi-product centre and tried to make it more attractive as a career option to combat its image as a short-term destination for graduates, with roughly 100% turnover of staff every year.
Brian then moved to Bank of Ireland in 2007 where he was hit with the "real turbulence and real challenges". "All hell broke loose. The credit crunch hit like a tonne of bricks, and our priorities just changed," he says.
"There was a run on our deposits, then Anglo Irish went bust and we had £1bn in deposits at risk from other companies, which were offering crazy money. It was the most competitive time... and I absolutely loved it. It was an amazingly exciting time, as silly as that seems.
"It was also an amazing opportunity for Bank of Ireland as we launched a deposit product into the UK. As the Irish deposits guarantee was much bigger, we stepped into the UK with a deposit product and fell over with demand. I loved it, and got massive exposure into the corporate and business banking."
But there was the sadness of long-term customers going out of business. "That would have been horrible, and that happened a lot - 2008 especially was a really bad year. Customers that would have been with Bank of Ireland for years were finding that turnover just wasn't happening. It was tough in that respect," he adds.
Brian's final role in Bank of Ireland was running branches - and opening branches, though it seems hard to imagine in the present climate of bank closures. He opened new Bank of Ireland branches on the city's Ormeau Road and Donegall Square.
Through his work at Bank of Ireland, he met Hughes chief executive Gareth Brady as the companies joined forces for an affinity product. That led to a few coffees and conversations - with the upshot that Brian joined Hughes as sales and marketing director in 2010.
"I made up my mind to leave the secure corporate world of banking to jump into the more unknown private company world."
Hughes Insurance has certainly imprinted itself on the Northern Ireland psyche as a home-grown business - with much of its recognition factor down to the former advertising campaign featuring Co Tyrone comedians Grimes and McKee in a pastiche of The Blues Brothers.
It's been part of global Boston-based insurer Liberty Mutual since a deal announced in 2014 finally closed last July. Liberty was already well known on the island of Ireland for buying Quinn Insurance after it went into administration.
"Liberty is a $50bn company and a model like that typically buys scale in a market," says Brian. "When they go in, they are one of the top players. From a Hughes perspective, we grew more in the six years to 2014 than in the previous 30, and had phenomenal success and growth.
"One in every four motors is insured with us, and we had a 23% market share and we were the fastest growing insurance broker in island in terms of growth. Liberty approached and said 'we'd love to have a conversation'.
"For Leslie Hughes, the time was right after 35 years. But there were coming in not just to buy scale but the management team - and the fact that we've always had a lot of innovative things going on that we don't shout about. That's the 'secret sauce' of Hughes - things like how we manage our renewals by doing things the majority of our competitors aren't doing. We use advanced analytics to attract the right customers who we can have a relationship with rather than in one year and out the next. We have a team of 12 people doing analytics, and the vast majority doesn't have that."
He's upfront about the tough decisions. "I made that call (to close branches). I sat down and thought about it when I took over last June. To be really honest, seven years ago 20% of customers applied online. The vast majority was done through branches, people calling in. Now 67% of our business is online. So I made that decision but went to every branch that was being closed and told people. There were 20 people affected out of 280.
"Almost every one was redeployed though a few took voluntary redundancy. To me it was about setting up the business for the future, which is why we've invested about £1.5m in an ecommerce platform.
"The next step is going into the rest of the UK and making maximum use of the potential of ecommerce. I want every customer to be able to pick up their smartphone and press a button to be able to apply for a product renewal, to add a driver or change a driver... If you're not in that space you won't win because someone will come and get that quickly.
"Being part of Liberty now means we have the best of both worlds. We can leverage and lean on a global company and its expertise in pricing and marketing analytics and in building ecommerce."
It's working on a telematics project to help younger drivers get cheaper products by monitoring their driving. And the younger generation is pre-eminent, not just as a dad to his two young sons but also in his role as a coach with the Carryduff Colts FC.
"I really love it. There's nothing better than leaving work on a Friday to go home and run with kids around a football pitch," he says.
Q. What's the best piece of business (or life) advice you've ever been given?
A One of my first mentors always talked about work/life balance. For me it's really important to make sure to live life to the full and ensure that you spend every opportunity possible building memories with family and friends. Work is important and I love what I do, but family is everything.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A I spent some time during and after university living and working in the US and also spent four to five years living in England and working in a variety of companies in various locations. I really believe that this was instrumental in helping me build experience and more importantly opened up my mind to new ideas and opportunities. My advice would be to experience as much as you can in different companies and locations and to always be in control of your own personal development. It's important not to be afraid of taking on new challenges and experiences. Don't be afraid to fail and if you do, see this as an opportunity to learn.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A Joining Hughes Insurance. The opportunity and development that I have had in the last seven years has been remarkable.
Q. If you weren't doing this job, what would be your other career?
A Probably a PE teacher. I think it would be a fun job.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A My last holiday was to France with my wife and kids and our family friends. Our next holiday is to Florida for Easter 2017 - the kids are at the age where Disney/Universal Studios are the ultimate places to visit.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A I absolutely love coaching soccer and organising tournaments. I've been coaching my son's soccer team Carryduff Colts in the IFA small-sided games programme for the last few years. I'm an IFA Level 1 coach but aim to achieve the UEFA 'C' certificate early next year. It is genuinely one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A I love all sports to be honest - I'm a regular at Ulster rugby games and Ireland rugby games. But I also love attending soccer games and have been to many All Ireland hurling and Gaelic games through our sponsorship with the GAA. One of the best games I have ever attended was Ireland v All Blacks in 2014 when we lost the game in the last 30 seconds - so close to beating the mighty All Blacks. Let's hope we can do it in November this year.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A I've played soccer most of my life and was a very keen swimmer but let's just say I would never have been able to give up my day job for a career in either.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A Michael Phelps - 'No Limit: the Will to Succeed'. I am a huge fan of this incredible athlete who is the greatest Olympian of all time with 28 medals of which 23 are gold.