Monday Interview: Edward Bruce, Bruce Stevenson

Edward Bruce is seeking to expand further and is looking at acquisitions. Picture: Julie Bull

Edward Bruce is seeking to expand further and is looking at acquisitions. Picture: Julie Bull

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Edward Bruce admits that, when he first joined the insurance broker that was co-founded by his ­father, David, the firm “wasn’t in a good way at all”.

But 18 years later, Bruce Stevenson is one of the largest firms of its type in Scotland and is seeking to expand further by taking advantage of ongoing consolidation in the sector.

Bruce, who joined in 1996 and took the helm five years later, says: “A number of the big takeover vehicles have got themselves into a lot of debt. As a result, my perception is they’re pulling away from customer service because they have to cut costs, but we’re going in the opposite direction – the customer has to be at the centre.”

His firm went on something of an acquisition spree itself at the turn of the century, racking up seven takeovers in as many years with the purchase of Glasgow’s Downes Cameron in 2005. However, Bruce said deals began to get too pricey so he reined in purchases in order to focus on bringing in teams and individuals from elsewhere.

Takeovers have not dried up entirely though, and earlier this year Bruce Stevenson bought Glasgow-based Premier Insurance Brokers.

“We’re looking at other acquisitions, but growth will also come from people who aren’t happy working at consolidated businesses,” Bruce says. “Growth has to be sustainable. What I don’t want to do is get too much gearing.”

The company now has about 80 staff, across bases in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London, along with what Bruce describes as an “office on a farm” in Banff, from where it hopes to expand its rural and renewable energy business.

“It always helps if you can bring someone in who’s an industry expert because you can build around that,” he adds. “It’s a good area to compete on; if you become the industry expert, people then default to you and you can get away from just trying to compete on price.”

Speaking of industry experts, he is particularly pleased to have secured the services of Mark Richards, the former Scottish managing director of auctioneer Bonhams, in 2009.

“He came in and I made him do some exams and he now runes our private client side,” says Bruce. “He’s very customer-focused and he knows what the contents of a client’s house should be insured for.”

Customer service is a theme that the firm’s chief executive keeps returning to, and he ­reveals it has just tasked an ­organisation called Investors in Customers to measure whether it is delivering on its promises. The move will see staff and customers quizzed on their experiences before a rating of one to three stars is delivered to Bruce, who observes: “If we’re not quite at three stars we’ll have an action plan to get there.”

The journey to this point has not always been easy, however, and Bruce acknowledges that the outlook was not so bright 18 years ago.

“It was a very small business when I joined. There were 15 people and we were making a loss. It wasn’t in a good way at all.”

He adds: “My father was the managing director but he didn’t actually have control of the business. His other directors were at a crossroads and looking to sell, and it wasn’t a good place for a year or two. Luckily, my father eventually backed me to buy out a lot of the other shareholders and directors to move it ­forward.”

Now the majority owner, he is also a director of the UNA Alliance – a network of 12 regional brokers that work together to share best practice and market information. Bruce Stevenson is the only Scottish member of UNA, and while it remains fiercely independent the firm can benefit from the buying power that comes from being part of the alliance.

But Bruce points out that being a successful insurance broker is not just about providing the cheapest level of cover. “With insurance, all you’re doing is buying a promise. It’s a promise you don’t want to ever call upon, but if it doesn’t deliver then cheapest isn’t always the best.”

The firm, which saw its gross written premium grow 10 per cent to more than £20 million in the year to August, is now looking at an initiative to help the owners of listed buildings get enough cover in place without being burdened by crippling premiums. It is also looking at a solution for museums and ­galleries.

Bruce Stevenson is “constantly” on the receiving end of approaches, but these advances get short shrift from the boss, who says he is “just not interested” in seeing his company swallowed up.

“Every business ultimately has a price but I don’t want to sell. I’m a relatively young man and there’s still a lot more to do. I have children and they might want to get into it.”

Despite admitting that he “didn’t particularly” enjoy his schooling at Strathallan, Bruce’s two teenage sons have been sent to “rival” boarding school ­Glenalmond.

If they were to join the broker, that would see the firm – co-founded in 1981 by Tony Stevenson, who once owned ­Edinburgh’s historic Prestonfield House hotel – enter its third generation.

But Bruce is adamant that the “name still fits” and rejects the notion of dropping Stevenson from the brand. “I’m not that vain,” he laughs.

30-second CV

Job: Chief executive, Bruce Stevenson

Born: 1964, Fife

Education: Strathallan; Seale-Hayne; Reading University

Ambition while at school: I always wanted to run my own business

Car: Audi A4 Allroad

Favourite mode of transport: Train – I go to London a lot and you can get lots done when the wi-fi works

Music: Very varied – my wife has booked tickets for us to see Passenger

Can’t live without: Family

Favourite place: The west coast of Scotland when the sun is shining and the midges aren’t out

What makes you angry? Over-use of email and negative people with a “can’t do” attitude

What inspires you? Building a sustainable long-term business with strong core values

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