Seizing the Moment
“If I was to give any advice to my younger self, I would simply say work hard and don’t hesitate to take the opportunities that come your way. They might not be the ones you planned or expected, and you never know where they might lead,
but the journey could just be amazing.”
Del Sharman has been a Director at Pound Gates Chartered Insurance Brokers since 2013, but his career journey could have taken a very different path had he kept to his original intention.
“I was born at the end of the long hot summer of 1976, not that I remember much about it!
“My parents had married young but were determined to have their own family home and didn’t let the small matter of money get in the way of that goal. My dad was an apprentice at Crane’s in Ipswich and my mum was training as a bookkeeper. Probably going against some shrewd advice from my grandparents, they ‘invested’ what money they had - or could borrow - into a static caravan and rented a pitch for it on a site in Ipswich, close to the River Orwell. This was home for a while.”
Shortly after Del’s brother came along in December 1979, the family moved to a council house on the Gainsborough estate in town. Space then became an issue again three years later when Del’s sister arrived. This time though, his parents were finally able to realise their dream of owning their own home.
“My parents’ aim was always to own their own home. They took the bold step to buy a new property on a new development at a time when interest rates were well over 10 percent. The new house was just a short walk from where we lived, but it felt like a different world.
“As a child I wasn’t overly tuned-in to any money worries. But I do remember my dad, who worked as a lorry driver for Pauls Agriculture, working very long hours, often leaving home before 6am and not returning until after 8pm.
“I have no doubt that a lot of what my parents did for us, working hard and providing a solid environment that would give us the best childhood possible, shaped my own work ethic and determination.”
After primary school Del moved onto the newly formed Holywells High School. This ambitious merger between two long-standing local schools (Nacton High and Landseer High) was full of promise, but the reality was quite different.
“It was an interesting environment, to say the least. The communities feeding into the school were all suffering from long-term, deep-rooted social issues and so ambitions for academic success were not exactly high.
“Despite the challenges I really enjoyed my time at school and made some very good, life-long friends. I wouldn’t describe my younger self as ambitious, but I was determined to do well and make the most of the opportunity.
“I had a healthy respect – and in some cases fear - for the teachers. I wasn’t easily distracted, and I enjoyed learning new things. Somehow, I managed to pull this off without the ‘cool’ kids thinking I was a nerd, and so I didn’t get bullied along the way either. I think you’d call that a ‘win-win’.
“Like most teenagers, I remember wanting to be liked but I wasn’t concerned with ‘fitting in’. I didn’t see the point in engaging in a subject or activity I knew nothing about just to be part of something. I was, and still am, very comfortable in my own company.
“Outside of school, I spent time doing what most boys did, messing about with friends, building dens down by the river and going on adventures; generally, these were bike rides to Nacton or Levington, so not exactly the Hardy Boys!
“Away from ‘messing around’ I also had - and still have - a creative streak. I would spend hours drawing and sketching and, in my teens, I taught myself to play the guitar.
“Something I can thank my parents for is a keen interest in the natural world. Whilst at secondary school, I volunteered for the local RSPB group and where I would help to build bird hides, maintain footpaths and generally stay out of trouble.
“I always looked forward to the summer holidays though, as me and my brother would often go to work with dad. Long before health and safety came along to spoil the fun, we would help load the lorry with 25kg bags of animal feed, before visiting farms across East Anglia to deliver their orders, one very heavy bag at a time. Whilst it sounds very much like child labour now, I have great memories of that time!
“Much to my surprise, I ended up leaving high school with the joint-best results in the school that year, which included 7 grade As. It was a proud moment for me but also probably my first real experience of the direct relationship between hard work and results.”
Getting out to work
Gaining some great GCSE grades opened up lots of opportunities for Del, but opportunities meant choices and choices can sometimes be overwhelming.
“I think I had put so much focus on passing my GCSEs that I hadn’t given a great deal of thought to what I would do after that. Most of my friends were going on to A-levels but I really wasn’t sure. The school didn’t offer much in the way of careers advice, so I listened to the individual teachers that had taken the time to share their feedback with me. I had done well in all subjects, but I had a particular interest, and some talent, in art and design related subjects and I was encouraged to think about developing these skills further.”
Del enrolled on a BTEC Art & Design course at Suffolk College and spent the first year working from the newly built Art & Design studios before the course moved to the old High Street Annexe in the second year.
“My time at college was OK and I did study some interesting things, but I found the course lacked any real direction and was geared more towards art than design.”
“I must be in an environment where I am kept busy and being challenged,
and I have to see the point in everything I do.”
“I just wasn’t getting this feeling from the course or the tutors. But I don’t give up easily. So, after a period of reflection over the summer break, I decided to give the second year a chance in the hope that perhaps the structure and direction I needed would be there. An hour into the first morning, we were told that for the rest of the day, and the following day, we could go into Christchurch Park and draw trees...
“That was me done. I walked out and never went back!
“So, there I was strolling along the High Street heading into town, aged 17, wondering what on earth I was going to do now.”
Before he walked away from the idea completely, Del decided that he needed to figure out if graphic design was the right career choice. He went into the offices of Ruth Lowe Graphic Design on Princes Street and asked for a couple of weeks unpaid work experience which they agreed to.
“I’ve always had a practical head on my shoulders. For me it didn’t make sense to chase a dream without knowing what’s involved, so I needed to know whether this was a career I could see myself in. Perhaps I had just chosen the wrong college course and a different college would be better suited to me.
“Unfortunately (or probably fortunately), the outcome was that I realised that graphic design wasn’t really for me. Whilst it was great to have this clarity, it also left me with the stark realisation that now I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do.
“So, again, taking the practical approach, I bought the local paper the following Thursday as that was when all the job vacancies were advertised. I applied for some jobs and had a bunch of interviews. I also took a training course in basic computer skills as I recognised that most employers would expect me to have some knowledge in this area and we hadn’t really focused on IT at school.”
After interviewing for several jobs including travel agent, a trainee reporter position with the EADT and overseas holiday rep, Del’s first job success and entry into the world of insurance came when Commercial Union offered him a position as a Trainee Commercial Underwriter.
“I didn’t know anything about insurance and I’d never heard of Commercial Union, but I got the job on a starting salary of £6,500 a year. As a 17-year old, with friends still doing A-levels, this felt like a lot of money, but once the excitement wore off, I felt terrified at the prospect of starting a ‘proper’ job.”
Instilling a strong work ethic
Del describes his first few weeks at Commercial Union as ‘petrifying’ as he was in a completely alien environment to what he was used to.
“I felt like a child in an adult world, but there was a lot to learn and I had to grow up fast if I was going to make the most of it. So, I made a commitment to myself to give it 100 percent. After six months I felt like I was really starting to settle in. I had met some great people and it really started to feel like family to me. The world of insurance began to make sense and I could see the opportunity for a long and interesting career.
“Even though I was full-time at Commercial Union, I was also still working my usual evening and weekend shifts at my local fish and chip shop, a job I had had for a couple of years through the end of school and during college. I no longer needed the money, but the Italian family I worked for were like extended family to me and I didn’t want to let them down.
“Looking back now, I have always been surrounded by people with a strong work ethic and that rubbed off on me. Whether it was dad, mum, the couple that owned the chip shop who came from Italy in the 60s with nothing, or their multi-lingual son who by day wrote the questions for the various overseas editions of Trivial Pursuit, then in the evening would come down and help in the shop; seeing that unwavering commitment on a daily basis, and seeing it lead to opportunity undoubtedly rubbed off on me.”
Once Del had committed to a career in insurance, he set his sights on gaining the professional qualifications that would help him to progress. However, before he could start his studies with the Chartered Insurance Institute, he needed two A-levels to meet the entry requirements. So, unperturbed he enrolled into night school at Suffolk College and, over the next two years, gained the qualifications he needed.
In 1998, when Del was 21, Commercial Union merged with General Accident to form CGU and an opportunity arose for him to progress up the career ladder to become a Team Leader.
“I was now responsible for a team of 16 people working across personal and commercial lines and looking after brokers across Suffolk and Essex.
“This was a new challenge, my first step into management, and a move away from the technical side of insurance which I was used to. It was a steep learning curve. There was very little formal training, it was about learning on the job. There were three other team leaders and we were all in the same boat, so we supported each other.”
However, Del found that the two companies were very different; one had a mentality of empowerment, working hard but having fun along the way. The other was more risk averse, serious and reserved.
“There was a definite clash of cultures, so there was a need to try and bring the team together. Yet, that was easier said than done. I felt hugely inexperienced and unqualified and I made a lot of mistakes in that role, but it helped me to learn some valuable lessons about dealing with people and what makes a good leader.
“I learnt that leadership is about taking the time to listen to people; to hear their ideas, to understand their issues and to show empathy and kindness when they have problems they want to share.”
“It’s also about making a conscious decision to choose your attitude every day.”
“Do these things well and you will earn the respect of your team and gain their buy-in. They will feel part of something and will want to do what they can to help the team achieve its aims.”
After a couple of years, the business was involved in another merger, this time with Norwich Union (now Aviva). This change presented Del with another opportunity and he moved back into a technical underwriting role. The position involved running the regional small business technical underwriting hub in Ipswich and this is where he stayed until February 2001 when he left Aviva to take up a position with global insurance broker Marsh, based from their Norwich office.
“At Marsh I was a Client Service Adviser dealing with large Blue-Chip companies. Working for an insurance broker was a different job entirely, calling for me to learn new skills in different markets.”
A chance opportunity
Del had been working at Marsh for nine months when a chance social meeting with ex-colleague Kevin Collins gave him an opportunity to make his next career step.
“Kevin explained that he had recently completed an MBO of the Ipswich-based insurance broker Pound Gates. He asked whether I was interested in joining the business to lead the schemes* area.
“Kevin wanted to separate this aspect of the business from the general insurance broking arm and the opportunity really appealed to me. Having always worked for large organisations I was particularly interested in working in a smaller business, where I could more easily see the direct impact of my efforts. I felt there was an opportunity to make a real difference.
“So, I joined Pound Gates in 2001 as a Development Underwriter responsible for maintaining, strengthening and growing the existing schemes business, as well as looking for new opportunities.”
Del quickly discovered that working in a smaller company, you must be willing and prepared to get involved in all aspects of the business, whether it is marketing, HR, ICT, compliance or customer service.
“That was what interested me though. The variety means that every day is different, and you’re always kept busy.”
Del had been at Pound Gates for 12 years when in 2013, he was appointed as Director.
“I’d never had a particular ambition to become a director. For me it was always just about committing to the business and working hard to do the best job I could, so I was absolutely delighted when the offer came my way.
“It came off the back of one of the most challenging situations I’d had to deal with in my career.
“To cut a very long story short, our relationship with one of our long-standing insurer partners had ended abruptly and we had just four months to find an alternative arrangement and safeguard a large proportion of our client base and revenue. To make things worse the type of business involved was viewed as high risk by most insurers, so our options were very limited. Not having a solution was not an option.
“I remember that time so clearly. We were doing everything we could and talking to everyone we could think of, but it felt like we were getting nowhere and time was running out. However, we persevered and probably just as importantly, we kept calm. We refused to accept the idea of failure and we believed in ourselves and our proposition.
“Our determination was not misplaced and with just days to go, we secured a deal with a new insurer and breathed an enormous collective sigh of relief.
“A few months later, once the dust had settled, I was offered the chance to become a director of the business. It was an incredibly proud moment. It felt like I had come a long way from the kid who wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he left school!”
“It showed me again that opportunity can come from all sorts of situations, not just positive ones, if you are prepared to be tenacious, work hard and keep going.”
“We made sure we learnt lessons from the experience so we could move forward as a stronger business. We reviewed our risks in a more ‘real’ context and updated and enhanced our risk management and mitigation activity. We were reminded that insurance can be a fickle industry, with insurers changing their risk appetite at short notice, so we made a commitment to not let complacency creep in; to nurture existing insurer relationships and always be looking to build new ones.”
Today the business continues to grow from strength to strength and is building on its solid reputation as a leading independent chartered insurance broker and risk management organisation, working across the county and the region.
“The USP for Pound Gates is our people. We invest in them, look after them and only bring new people in that we think will be a ‘good fit’ with our ethos and values. There’s longevity here and people really care about the work they do. This directly translates into great outcomes for our clients. I am really proud of the fact that most of our business comes through recommendation.
“I see our role as that of a facilitator for our clients. We help them to make the most of their opportunities by putting in place insurance and risk management programmes that protect their businesses and, through our Risky Business Breakfast Seminars, we provide insight and alternative views on the world of risk from leading speakers not often seen locally.”
Del is quick to add that being a good business isn’t all about the financials or looking after staff and clients.
“We also want to help make a difference in the communities we work in. We call it our ‘Doing Good’ approach. Through our partnership with Suffolk Community Foundation, we award grants twice a year to small local good causes via our Acorn Fund. We also have our own charity, The Soma Leo Foundation, which runs a primary school in Nyiera, Kenya.”
Outside of work, Del has several interests, but his priority is spending time with his wife, Maria and his two daughters, 15-year-old Grace and 12-year-old Lucy.
“I love playing tennis and am a member of Woolpit Tennis Club. I have always been a keen cyclist and love escaping for a few hours into the quiet mid-Suffolk country lanes. As well as helping to keep me physically fit, I know the solitude is hugely beneficial to my mental health, as is my love of playing the guitar, although maybe this is not so good for the mental health of my family!
“Saturdays are usually set aside as family days and if the weather is kind that usually means a country walk or a visit to the coast with the dog in tow.”
But what drives Del to get out of bed in the morning?
“Lots of things. At the heart of it, I’m a worker. I like to get stuck in and get things done. There are always days when you’re fighting fires but more days than most, you’re doing the good things that will help move the business forward.
“Above all though, I am driven by feeling part of a team. I enjoy the camaraderie, the shared experience. I get a buzz from working with a great bunch of people and knowing that we are making a difference for our clients.
“If I was to give any advice to my younger self, I would simply say work hard and don’t hesitate to take the opportunities that come your way. They might not be the ones you planned or expected, and you never know where they might lead, but the journey could just be amazing.”
*A scheme is where an insurer delegates authority to a broker to underwrite an insurance product on its behalf, usually in a specialist area or niche trade.