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Willis Insurance boss: 'Dad always dressed in a suit to work in his bedroom office'

The big interview: This week Margaret Canning talks to Richard Willis of Willis Insurance about leading his brothers in the family firm and how his father has been his inspiration

Not many business leaders had to give up their bedroom as children for their future livelihood. But the sacrifice paid off for Richard Willis, who's lived to tell the tale as managing director of Willis Insurance and Risk Management, set up by his father Robert in 1978.

Northern Ireland is known for its family businesses - and few embody the quirks of the model better than Willis Insurance, Northern Ireland's biggest independent commercial broker. Father-of-two Richard (38) is the second youngest of four sons in the Bangor family - but is now the leader of his older brothers in the business.

And when they're not working in the headquarters in Belfast, the four are gathering with their wives and kids at their parents' house in the town, where they all live in close proximity. Richard is married to Diane, who's a freelance flight attendant on private jets, and the couple have two daughters, Marina (5) and one-year-old Sarah.

And it's clear that watching his father Robert, now executive chairman, grow the business from the family home in Bangor was a major inspiration.

Since taking over, Richard has doubled the size of the workforce and led its expansion into employment benefits and services, though the majority of its work is still in commercial insurance.

"The business has been my father's baby since he set it up at home nearly 40 years ago in one of his back bedrooms," explains Robert.

"That was the year before I was born and it wasn't long afterwards that my mother found she was pregnant with me. My father's background had been as a multi-national broker, but he decided to set up on his own with one or two clients.

"He's gone from that to 65 employees and an office in England, plus cross-divisions in wealth management and employment services. He's still very much the patriarch of the firm but we have very much the control of day to day operations. But my dad is in every day.

"The most vivid memory is with him being in a back bedroom in the house. Essentially we had to move out of the bedroom for him. But I remember him getting up in the morning, getting dressed into his suit and walking out with his briefcase and into the bedroom.

"I've been working with him now for 14 or 15 years and I wouldn't still be working here if I didn't look up to him and use him as an example - as a patriarch who's shown longevity and a bit of caution.

"We have grown relatively organically all along. We are interested in some acquisition potentials, especially in Great Britain, but as a business up until now, we have relied on organic growth for our most significant businesses."

The firm has annual income from premiums of around £18m, and Richard says income in the third quarter is up around 30%.

Nationally, the firm is part of independent broker network Willis Towers Watson. Richard also sits on a national brokers governance committee in London.

But he denies there was ever an expectation that he should join the family business. And while taking over may sound like a safe life choice to make, Richard is proud of spreading his wings and going to study in Edinburgh. "There was never an insistence or guarantee that we'd go into the family business. I joined the business straight out of university as I wanted to get moving as quickly as possible. And I worked my way up from the bottom."

Colin, the oldest of the family, joined last year after two decades in another industry. Mark was already in insurance and then rejoined the company in 2010, while youngest son Stephen is a financial adviser in the company's wealth management division.

"The good thing is that Stephen and Colin are in the one division and Mark and I are more closely aligned on the insurance and claims side.

"We have our own sections to cater for and our own things to do and lines of responsibility, and we come together monthly to discuss those areas.

"And it's good to have three brothers in there. They're all very, very good at what they do and it's a nice dynamic to report into my dad."

Four years ago, the business set up an employment services section, which includes advising companies on employee benefits as well as on employment law. The firm had already operated in health and safety advice and in providing insurance for employment law cases. It decided to branch out into employment law advice to help firms facing wrongful dismissal or discrimination cases.

"We are somewhere between complementing and operating in competition with the law firms but it is a cradle to grave service. But undoubtedly there has been an increase in employment law cases and tribunals in the last 12 months. People have a greater awareness of their rights."

Insurance brokerage remains "the driving force" of the firm. "Employment services accounts for 10%, wealth management 14%, and the rest is brokerage. This year, our target for growth would be to increase employment services work by 20% to 25%, and we're reaching that every easily."

And he described the company as an "all rounder in its appetite" when it comes to insurance clients. "Around 95% of the business is commercial insurance, that would include 10% of the Top 100 SMEs in Northern Ireland."

Richard studied Business and French in Edinburgh - and a student job in a small Tesco on Broughton Road means the grocery giant is the only other employer he's ever had. "It was actually quite a nice base and a very family-oriented store, coincidentally employing a lot of Northern Ireland people."

He relocated to Edinburgh after doing the first year of his degree at Bangor Technical College. "I'd wanted to stay here but pretty quickly decided it was a bit restrictive and I wanted to see the world. So I decided to move to Edinburgh and study at Napier University, and it was fantastic - the best decision ever. It taught me about self-reliance and having confidence in your own abilities and about dealing with people of totally different backgrounds. It really opened my eyes to life and I was tempted to stay and I had opportunities to do so."

He was already familiar with the insurance world when he returned with his degree in Business and French, after working in the business every summer in roles from the mailroom to reception.

Now the company is based at Donegall Street in the Cathedral Quarter in the former News Letter building. Thankfully, life in that location is a little bit more staid than its former premises of Murray Street.

"Dad always talks about how his old office in Murray Street was hit by bomb in The Europa. He was sitting with his back to the window when the bomb went off, and the shattered glass ripped the chair all down the back."

Richard enjoys sports but time with his family outside work is sacrosanct. "On Saturdays most of us go round to mum's. It's a totally different dynamic from the office but we do still talk about work.

"Business dominates our social life and family life and I think we would miss it terribly if we couldn't work together long-term."

For sheer strength in brotherly numbers, only bakery chain Genesis Crafty with its five McErlain brothers can outnumber the Willis clan.

And Willis' client base includes a large number of family companies, including hospitality giant Beannchor, where the leadership includes founder Bill Wolsey and his sons Luke and Conall.

"Like us, they are a second generation business with the patriarch very much the driving force. I've played football with Luke and Conall - and they are from Bangor, with a family dynamic pretty similar to us."

The family business environment doesn't stop there. All of the staff embrace that culture and the benefits to the business have been tangible and evident.

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