He is the Institute of Directors’ director of the year and his business won the professional services category at the Post’s business awards – but Wesleyan chief executive Craig Errington isn’t resting on his laurels, he tells Enda Mullen.
Despite an impressive performance for Wesleyan Assurance through the dark days of the downturn, Craig Errington still gives it only “four or five out of ten”.
As far as he is concerned, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
The company, which now specialises in providing financial services to doctors, dentists, lawyers and teachers, has been based in Birmingham since its inception in 1841 and the award-winning boss believes it could thrive for 170 years to come.
He said: “We’ve been delighted with some of the recognition we’ve received so far, but we have only delivered the tip of the iceberg. There is huge opportunity in the markets we serve.
“I would give us a two out of ten when I took over in 2005 and we are now four or five out of ten, so I think we still have a long way to go and a lot more to deliver.”
The mutual has come a long way from its humble 19th century origins, when it was set up by local Wesleyans as a means to provide for factory workers who became ill.
Though, like all institutions, it has had to adapt to survive and continue to prosper, a key turning point was its move into specialist areas, a process which began in 1997.
“It has got a long history of being able to adapt to changing economic circumstances and I view myself as extremely lucky to be leading such a great organisation,” said Mr Errington.
“It is the centre of our strategy and what differentiates us the most from other people in our industry.
“We decided a number of years ago continuing to operate the way we were was not going to prove successful in the future. We started to move into markets where we could differentiate ourselves based on our knowledge of those markets.
“We train staff in very specific professions, so part of the workforce are trained to understand GPs and they start to become part of the profession itself. Another hospital doctors, another dentists, another teachers.”
It is also a two-way street, with Wesleyan creating advisory boards relating to each of the professions it serves, enabling unique customer feedback.
“Our advisory boards are made up of some of the most eminent people in those professions,” said Mr Errington. “When thinking about new initiatives we talk to those boards and they advise us if we are likely to see any changes in those professions.
"We can then look at how we adapt our product to make sure it meets their needs. This is part of our success, to create product that will support them.”
As far as the recession is concerned Wesleyan would seem to have weathered the storm and is still seeing significant growth, he said.
“We have come through it well but that is because of the level of insight we get from advisory boards and customer panels,” said Mr Errington.
“One of the things we are able to do is to create appropriate products. People are looking for a safe home for their money and clearly we are seen as a good place.
“During the difficult years of 2006-10 our new business grew by 238 per cent and a further 20 per cent so far this year. We are finding our services are more in demand as people become more concerned about managing their finances.
“It doesn’t mean some markets haven’t been impacted in various ways but customers appreciate we have been able to manage the business in a financially prudent way that has increased our profits.
"As a mutual our profits translate into better payouts for policyholders. We have paid out 43 per cent more alone on average – that is quite a significant difference to our competitors. They appreciate we are trying to deliver the best returns we can in what are difficult market conditions.
“But we can’t just sit back on our laurels. Every single day we need to be looking and determining what is the best step to take in order to deliver members and customers the best possible outcome.”
Acknowledging the significance of both customers and staff, Mr Errington said: “I had the opportunity of coming up through the organisation, which meant hopefully I had a reasonable understanding from a customer’s perspective and a reasonable understanding from a staff perspective what is good and what is bad.
"I always say if you want to know what’s good and what’s bad you are far better off to ask customers and staff and they will give you a warts and all picture.
“The biggest part of the success we have achieved has to belong to the whole organisation and the staff. Having got them to understand what we want them to achieve they have made fantastic strides.”
Mr Errington was also recently elected chairman of Aston Reinvestment Trust, a role he sees as an important one which might even see him encouraging “the Wesleyans of the future”.
“It is a small organisation but doing a really big job for the community, seeking to help new entrepreneurs and existing businesses that have not been able to secure finance from the banks,” he said.
“Some might be the Wesleyans of the future. I’m delighted to be involved in it and it’s a great way to give something back.”