It’s winter 1976. Britain has not long cooled down after a record breaking 22 days of blistering summer sunshine. Petrol is 77p a gallon, a pint sets you back 32p and it’s 19p for a loaf of bread. Just a few months back Concorde made its first flight out of Heathrow; underdogs Southampton sensationally beat Manchester United 1-0 to win the FA Cup, and drivers were queuing up to treat themselves to the newly released Ford Fiesta, a snip at just £1,950. On the music scene, the United Kingdom triumphed in the Eurovision Song Contest thanks to Brotherhood of Man’s Save Your Kisses for Me, and American rockers the Eagles released Hotel California, one of the most famous and biggest selling albums of all time.
Over in North Chingford, a new company had started up. On 30th November 1976, Robert Gerrard & Co. Ltd. formalised the business that Keith and Jacquie Townsend had been building up for five years beforehand. The namesake of Keith’s two sons’ middle names, Robert Gerrard would quickly become the friendly, local high street one-stop shop for everything insurance related.
40 Years on and the Founding Ethos Remains Unchanged
Fast-forward to the present day and the company is about to celebrate an amazing 40 years in business. Robert Gerrard is one of just two or three businesses that has gone the distance to remain to this day a part of the history of North Chingford.
The landscape of the area may have changed considerably since 1976 with many of the traditional style local traders replaced by a bank of eateries, drinks venues and night-time hangouts, but one thing that has never changed is Robert Gerrard’s founding ethos of delivering a personal, helpful service. In fact, this is the one overriding factor that every member of the team agrees is the key reason behind the longevity of the business. This, and excellent team work, according to Carla Preston, Keith Townsend’s daughter who joined the business a decade after it started and is about to celebrate her own anniversary of 30 years’ service.
Charting the Birth of a Nationally Renowned Specialist Insurance Plan
And the long service awards aren’t set to stop there. Scott Townsend has run the business as joint director with Carla since 1997 and has recently celebrated his own 30-year anniversary at the company. And Commercial Account Executive Keith Bacon, considered by Carla as her ‘library, insurance bible and oracle,’ will also reach his 30-year milestone in January 2017.
Having been friends since the age of 18, it seemed inevitable that Keith Bacon and Keith Townsend would end up working together. In fact it was the two of them who created the now nationally renowned Robert Gerrard Lift Plan, a specialist liability policy that today protects over 500 clients in the lift industry.
Keith Bacon recounts, “Lift Plan is probably our biggest achievement. It all started because Keith had a friend called Derek Lycett who was a lift manufacturer, and he would often relay tales of woe about how difficult his lift engineer customers found it to get liability cover. So we set about looking for a solution, and the rest is history. Incidentally, Derek’s family still run the lift company from Highams Park to this day.”
Keith adds that his working life has been lots of fun and he’s made lots of friends along the way. “I always look forward to going into work,” he says, “and despite what people think, insurance is interesting – I won’t hear otherwise!”
Growing Through Word of Mouth
According to Keith, Robert Gerrard has grown thanks to word of mouth, and concurs with the rest of the team that this is down to the personal service the company has become known for.
Personal Lines Executive Tim Nurcombe also agrees. With 21 years of service under his belt, Tim is another member of the team who has witnessed a lot of change over the years. One area of particular transformation was during the ‘comparison site revolution’, where lots of consumers ditched their brokers in favour of doing things online. However, this has now come full circle and, according to Tim, customers have returned with an even higher level of appreciation for the one-on-one, human based service they know they can rely on from their broker. After all, what comparison website is ever going to take personal responsibility for making sure your car is insured when you forget to renew your cover because you’re on holiday?
Technology the Biggest Change
The fact that technology has been the main area of change for the business, and the industry in general, is universally agreed by everyone who works at Robert Gerrard. Carla, Keith and Tim all remember the days of the old typewriter – with a ribbon – and the carbon paper and bulging filing cabinets. “We considered ourselves cutting edge when our first fax machine arrived,” says Carla. But Tim says it’s important to strike a balance with technology, because there are still some generations who are not sure about it.
“Some of our customers still prefer the traditional letter in the post. It makes them feel reassured. Not everyone uses email, so we’ll always ask our customers about their preferences for communication. We’ll do whatever suits them. After all, it’s the small gestures that have the biggest effects.”
A Long Serving Team
Robert Gerrard as a company has grown year on year turnover wise. Having occupied the premises at Station Road for 35 years, its team has grown over the years too. Commercial Account Executive Gary Atkins is another long serving member with 18 years under his belt. Accounts Manager and Lift Plan Administrator Gill Collins has clocked up 13 years and Personal Lines Executive Suzanne Pace will soon be reaching her first decade anniversary. Julie Robinson, Ken O’Neill and Mark Bayford have a little catching up to do, but there is plenty of time. Carla says that the continuity provided by the longstanding team is a major benefit for customers. “Our staff are loyal and hardworking,” she says, “and this is why our customer retention rate is consistently high.”
Early Aspirations for a Young Townsend
So has insurance always been in the family for the Townsends? Carla recounts her early years from the age of about 11, dutifully calling into her dad’s office after school to embark on her pocket money chores which included cleaning out the bins, polishing the windows, making tea and filing. “I was top of the class at school for anything alphabet related” she laughs. Carla would also play ‘pretend offices’. In her make-believe, aspirational world, she was an insurance broker, filling in forms for customers to get them the cover they needed. Trouble was she got stuck beyond the name and address part!
“Insurance was a complicated business in those days,” she remembers. “Lots of paperwork, eye-boggling matrixes and calls to underwriters to check details. Now all you need is there at the click of a mouse,” she says.
Carla says that another reason for the company’s success is the fact that it has moved with the times. “We’ve invested heavily in IT and anything else that can boost efficiency. In 40 years we’ve gone from typewriter ribbons and carbon paper to email and now a paperless office. But Hotel California is still one of my all-time favourite records!”
Robert Gerrard’s 40th anniversary coincides with their being shortlisted for the Broker Network independent broker of the year award, a fitting accolade for a business that has maintained its personal service ethos over four decades.