Most brokers will tell you that it’s the personal approach that separates them from direct insurers – the ability to tailor policies for individuals and put their needs first. However, when it comes to agricultural broking that human element goes much, much further.
“One of the farmers I insure got stopped by the police and when they asked, ‘Who are you insured with?’ he said, ‘Debbie’,” says Debbie Airey, managing director of Country & Commercial Insurance Brokers. “They said: ‘No, which company?’ He replied: ‘I don’t know – just Debbie.’ ”For Airey establishing that personal connection came naturally, as she grew up on a farm in a rural community and knows all about her clients’ unique lifestyles.
“I was brought up on a farm as a child, lived in the middle of nowhere and grew up in a rural community where everyone knew everyone else,” she says.
Airey was involved on the farm from the age of six, feeding cows before she went to school in the morning. As the youngest of three children, she was also assigned with a unique job.
“From the age of eight I was driving a tractor up and down in straight lines on the field because you always had the weakest one driving the tractor,” she says. “It is a fantastic upbringing for a child – so much so that I have actually moved back out to the country and brought my children up in a rural area.”
Her road to insurance was lined with more bumps than the typical farmer’s driveway. She originally wanted to be a travel agent and recalls travelling to Blackpool and going into every office in the town until someone gave her a job. Her employer promised to send her to college, too – but when they failed to live up to the commitment she “had a little strop” and went into the job centre, soon
securing a position at Swinton
Insurance, at the age of 16 for just £40 a week. From there she moved to AA Insurance and recalls her interview vividly.
“One of the questions was: ‘You live quite a way from Blackpool. If we had bad weather, how would you get into work?’ ” she says. “I said: ‘Well, my dad will bring me in the cattle wagon.’ They fell off their chairs laughing and said: ‘Well, what if the cattle wagons couldn’t get through?’ I said: ‘I’d come on the tractor.’ I was being truthful and honest – that’s exactly what we would have done. We would never have been allowed to not go to work.”
From there Airey moved to work with a local broker, during which time she became the mother of four children.
“Thankfully, I had a very understanding boss,” she jokes.
By 2002, however, she had set up her own company with a business partner. However, she carried out a buyout in 2007, commenting that her partner “couldn’t understand” the farming side of the business as a marine and freight specialist from London. Her company, Country & Commercial Insurance Brokers, based in Longridge, near Preston, was recently acclaimed as the Specialist Broker of the Year, an accolade that Airey puts down to her personal style of doing business.
“I’ve been chased around a table by an 80-year-old guy when his wife wasn’t at home,” she says. “I was met at the end of a two-mile track by a quad bike when the weather was bad and I was holding my folder while hanging on to this rather buxom farmer’s wife going up two miles freezing to death. “I even know one farmer who has put a profile of their goose on Facebook – so now
I am friends with a goose on Facebook. “But that’s the personal side of agricultural broking – if someone has been involved in a fire, the first thing you do is go and give them a hug. Then you can sort out the practical details. You always have to put the human element first.”
Despite the success of her company – which Airey notes now writes about £3.5m in premium income and recently won a contract to wholesale to the COBRA Network – she will never forget her farming roots. Indeed, her own home was even converted from a pig sty.
“We don’t farm but I had to live in the country,” she says. “That community spirit is not found in towns, and I think that is why we’ve done well in what we’ve done, because as a broker we’ve been involved in the community.”