From £5M to £250M in 15 years. BLM Meets Jelf CEO Phil Barton

This article first appeared on www.businessleader.co.uk.

For its latest CEO in profile piece, BLM met with Jelf CEO Phil Barton to talk about the impact he has had at the business; and how the role of a CEO is changing. 

Can you tell readers about your career?

I started life as a footballer, playing for both Everton and Blackburn but injury cut my career short. I then moved to the South West to study maths at Bristol University.

Following this I started my career in insurance, working for various firms, before studying an MBA and then setting up my own management consultancy business.

Jelf became a client of mine and I was assigned to deliver a project for the leadership team. When this was completed, I joined the company. This was 15 years ago.

In this period, I’ve undertaken every directorial role in the business, before being appointed CEO three years ago.

What is your vision for Jelf?

It’s simple. To be the leading trusted advisor in the market and to make a difference to the lives of the people we employ and our customers.

How do you believe the role of a CEO is evolving?

I’ve never been a big fan of the hero CEO, who comes in to execute a plan and then leaves after three years, whether they’ve seen success or not.

A good CEO needs to see a plan through and must have connectivity with the business and the people and clients it serves.

There is an issue with short-termism in the leadership space and it isn’t healthy. I respect CEOs who stay the distance. They have a vision and they deliver it.

In your opinion, what attributes make a good leader?

You need to have a strong understanding of the marketplace your business is in. Humility is important too, as is an ability to engage and motivate your people.

Other attributes that make a great leader is a clear vision, a good listener and somebody the team and customer can trust.

Regarding my own leadership style, I like to think I’m firm but fair and whilst I’m hugely supportive, I also like to challenge people to be the best that they can be.

You have been in the football world where control and fear are often used by leaders such as Sir Alex Ferguson. Is this type of leadership still relevant?

I think it’s become increasingly less relevant. Certainly, in business where there is such a war for talent, it is important to engage meaningfully with your team.

A fear-based leadership style doesn’t resonate with people. Business is a team effort, so a more collaborative approach is needed.

What would you say are the main challenges businesses are facing?

Our business acts as a bell-weather for economic performance because we insure 250,000 clients across every sector. Our employee benefits team is often the first to see negative or positive indicators regarding the economy.

Some of our investment decisions, although not critical, are being influenced by the economic and political environment.

Other emerging risks that businesses face are cyber security and finding skilled talent.

What does your typical day look like?

We’re part of an American firm called Marsh and our main stakeholders are based in London, which means I spend two or three days in the London office.

The other two or three days see me across the country with clients or colleagues. I spend very little time at my office in Bristol. My role is highly mobile with lots of early starts. Typically, my day will start at 5am and finish at 8pm.

How has the company changed in the fifteen years you've been involved? 

When I joined the company, we had 50 employees and revenues of £5m. Jelf now has revenues of £250m and 2,900 employees.

If it was a stand-alone business, it would be in the middle of the FTSE 250. There has been massive change and of course, we were also acquired three years ago by Marsh.

What has helped to drive this success?

I look back now and one of the interesting developments I see is that many of our competitors adopted a buy and build strategy and were seeking to build a corporate edifice, with glass offices in London.

We made a conscious decision to remain in the communities we serve. It was counter intuitive, but the concept of community is growing, and this approach is now what makes us unique.

What have been the main challenges that have happened since the Marsh acquisition?

Firstly, I’d like to say that they are a great parent. In the period since they became involved, we are two and a half times bigger, but we have retained our brand and personality. We’ve also made several acquisitions ourselves.

What they give us is capability that we didn’t previously possess. This is around data and technology and of course the clout to acquire businesses across the UK.

Do you see any more acquisitions on the horizon?

Potentially but it would need to add a new capability to the business or fill out our national footprint. Our most recent acquisition was Clark Thomson in Scotland. We only had a small foothold in the market and now with Jelf Clark Thomson we are the biggest player.

I would say our primary focus is around organic growth now. This isn’t easy though, as we’re in a mature market but we have an ambitious plan to deliver three per cent compound growth on the revenue line, year on year. This will give us a healthy growth in profit.

When did you think you'd like to be CEO of Jelf?

The business had a challenging time around the last recession. We had raised £50m on the AIM market and bought three significant businesses, with funds borrowed from the banks. Six weeks later the mood music had changed, and the banks considered us to be over-leveraged.

Our then Group CEO focused on re-financing the business and I worked on delivered performance by taking on the role of CEO of Insurance. Over the next five years we turned Jelf from an overly complicated child of many acquisitions, few of which had been truly integrated, into the number one in the marketplace.

I was heavily invested in the business and took the opportunity to lead the turnaround strategy which culminated in Jelf winning many industry awards and ultimately selling to the largest insurance broker in the world.

What has been your proudest achievement in business?

We floated at 81p in 2004, and the share price grew to £2.75 before crashing to 36p as a result of the financial crisis.

Following this period, we turned 36p into £2.15, with more shares issued.

It was quite a journey and there aren’t many businesses that pull out of a tailspin like that. It was remarkable and my proudest achievement.

If you’ve been through that not much else will phase you.

If you weren't CEO of Jelf what would you have like to have been?

A football manager in the Premier League.

Your favourite book?

Lord of the Rings

Your favourite film?

The Untouchables

Your favourite piece of technology?

Mini iPad

Your favourite holiday destination?