“And you have to have that absolute belief in what you’re doing,” he said, “because otherwise you’d be better off just staying where you are. It wasn’t an easy thing to set up a broker at that time, or to grow the business during a pandemic, but we’ve grown quite rapidly. While, like every business, there have been some bumps in the road, there’s now 21 of us and more will be joining. We pride ourselves on offering the very best solutions for our clients, helped by our recognition that we’re only as good as our team.”
Increasingly, Collins said, he is finding that he is taking calls from broking talent who are unhappy to have found themselves working in larger insurance businesses as a result of acquisitions across the market. Individuals who were attracted to the advantages and the challenges of working with smaller, independent businesses can find themselves moving from being one in 20 or 100 staff, to one in 5,000.
“People can sometimes feel that loss of identity keenly,” he noted, “and can feel that their voices or ideas aren’t being heard or listened to as much in that new environment. Inevitably, offices are closed, departments moved and resources stretched. The team you enjoyed working with is disbanded or leaves, so it can become a lonely place – a place you never wanted to find yourself in.
“It’s a balance, because in some ways COVID has enabled many people in larger organisations to work remotely and they have had a lot of resources available to them. But on the other side of that, they have been working very much alone at times, which has made people question, ‘Is this the kind of business where I could fulfil my potential and career aspirations? Is this it?’”
For some people, he said, it absolutely is the right environment for them to be able to fulfil their career aspirations, and others require something a little bit more dynamic which, culturally, can help them to achieve their potential at a much faster pace. There’s definitely a lot of individuals in the UK market who are finding themselves in bigger businesses than they ever really wanted to be in.
“You don’t have to go home feeling demoted or, even worse, that you have to publicly pat all your bosses on the back on social media to progress,” he said. “That is not us, nor a lot of my independent broker friends.”
It’s not a case of better or worse, he noted, but there is a different skillset required to thrive in a corporate environment from that required to succeed in a more client-orientated traditional insurance broker. This has become clearer than ever during COVID, as every business has had to adjust differently. However, the team at Ascend has kept their focus on the ethos that led to the group’s formation – putting clients first and offering a 24/7 service whenever possible.
“We have first-hand experience in the cost of distribution arrangements and the central challenges that larger broking models bring,” he said. “It also works out very expensive for insurers; there are not many business sectors where the cost of distribution can be so different through similar introductory routes. Actually, independents in many cases have access to more markets, including nimble MGAs, so there is a significant opportunity here for the independents.”
Having the right team in place is the only way to ensure that level of customer-centricity is maintainable, and several key factors go into determining whether an individual will be the right fit for Ascend’s business model. First and foremost is the need for a strong cultural fit, he said. “Any new team member must share the same understanding of how clients should be served, how Ascend should engage with the insurance marketplace, and what it is that clients actually need from their risk advisors,” he explained.
“Also, they need to have the ability to think on their feet, to bring ideas to the table and present us as a viable alternative if a client is considering changing brokers,” he said. “That is one area new team members react so positively to, the concept that we will make things happen, quickly and without red tape … oh, and have some fun along the way!”
Being part of the team is very important, Collins said he thinks this has been a challenge for any business during COVID. For the Ascend team, it goes to the core of what the business is – one team who share the same beliefs, and work together.
“And by doing that, we are able to provide our customers with a service that has got something extra, and they can feel it when they deal with us, with regards to how we look after them and how we communicate with them,” he said. “Outside that, we’re open to people who are fiercely ambitious, who might not yet realise how unlimited their potential is, but just need the right home to harness that potential.
“And I think that’s where we come in, with our grey hair and our 360-degree experience of the market. We do understand both the advantages and the disadvantages of working for large broking houses. So, I am so glad we [started Ascend]. I was not enjoying life as much before.”