Lead Interview: Chris Sargisson

Our lead interview in the AGILE issue of Norfolk Director is Chris Sargisson, CEO at Norfolk Chambers of Commerce
Published in Norfolk Director Magazine, Summer 2021
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Respond, Disrupt, and Adapt

“To be agile in business, you need to be certain about where you’re going and what the endpoint looks like. You also need to have an idea of what’s coming and have the ability to respond to things quickly and well. You need to be able to disrupt, not necessarily changing what you do, but reenergising and reigniting the way you do it.”

Interview: Sue Wilcock
Pictures: Warren Page

CEO of Norfolk Chambers of Commerce, Chris Sargisson, talks to Norfolk Director

OK, I’m going to be upfront from the start; I like Chris Sargisson, the CEO of Norfolk Chambers of Commerce. This isn’t just because one of his mates is my heartthrob, the actor Daniel Craig. It’s also because when you listen to his journey, there is an authenticity about his experiences, which makes you realise there is a lot you can learn from him about overcoming adversity.

I’ll pick up on the friendship with Daniel Craig later on, but to understand the Chris of today, we need to look back to his past to discover what shaped him.

“I was born in 1967 in Northampton. My mother used to be a nurse and my father was a businessman. He was a troubleshooter who worked for a company that was based in Liverpool. His job took him to various places around the world ‘fixing’ things, and as a family we followed him.

“We were continually moving around, and I was regularly changing schools. Unbeknown to everyone, I was also dyslexic; doing odd things like getting my numbers back to front and reading pages from the bottom up. All of this combined had a catastrophic impact on my education and gave the impression that I was a bit dim.

“So, when I was nine, my parents decided to send me to a private boys’ school.

“Although at the time I didn’t fully understand it, and my parents certainly didn’t know it was going on, I was abused while I was at the school.

“When it was happening, I could recognise the physical abuse, but I didn’t get to grips with the mental abuse until it was pointed out to me years later. You grow up thinking you are a ‘grade A thicky’ when you’re not. I knew I wasn’t stupid, and I couldn’t understand for a minute why I was scoring so badly and being put into bottom streams.

“Of course I now know that this was deliberate and part of the process to enable opportunities for the abuse to take place. I was groomed to believe that it was my fault, and that it was because of the way I was that I needed to be taken aside and given ‘special’ attention.”

Speaking out

“I don’t find it easy, but I am able to talk about it, and if there is another person out there who has gone through what I went through, believing what they have been told, and I can show them that it’s not true, then I feel I have done a good thing.”

Chris’s time at this school ended abruptly when aged 14, his father got a longer term posting in Liverpool, and he decided to move the family to Merseyside.

“My parents literally plucked me out of private school and dumped me in a secondary modern in The Wirral.

“What a shock that was! To be fair, Mother and Father tried to get me into the local grammar school, but I didn’t even bother sitting the exam, so the alternative was the secondary modern.

“Although I was capable and could stand on a stage and sing to people, I was very introverted. I turned up the first day speaking the Queen’s English and wearing a school uniform, to find myself surrounded by kids speaking scouse – which I genuinely didn’t understand – who were dressed in their scaled down version of a uniform.

“I survived the first day, went home and told Mum that I wouldn’t wear the uniform and she must drop me off at the corner – she drove a sports car – rather than outside the school. The next day I started faking a scouse accent. I also started being taught properly which was surprising for me; it was a complete transformation.

“The change of school gave me a real interest in life, in music and in girls. I still wasn’t good academically, but the school didn’t really care too much about that. I did lots of naughty things, spending time smoking and drinking; it was brilliant.”

This is also the point where Daniel Craig comes into Chris’s story.

“Danny was in the same class as me and we were friends. We both liked music and were interested in singing and performing on stage. We were in a punk band together called Yellow Void, and I was cheesed off as he had a better microphone than me! We had our fallings out, like mates do, and we lost touch over the years. However, every time there is a new James Bond film out, I get a reporter from London standing on my doorstep, asking for a comment.”

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Chris left school at 16 with no qualifications and had to spend six months at Birkenhead Technical College resitting his O ‘Levels.

“I told my parents that they didn’t need to worry about me. I had realised that there was no point in me doing exams, it just wasn’t the way I learned things.”

There was one thing that did interest Chris though, and that was computers.

“In 1981, I got given a computer for Christmas. I liked the logic behind it and probably due to the dyslexia, I could work out the solutions to problems. As long as I could get into a space where I could learn things in my own way, and in my own time, the penny would drop.

“I liked fixing things and would spend hours taking electrical gadgets apart and putting them back together. I was always fixing Sony Walkman’s for school friends. It was all self-taught and I didn’t realise that what I was doing was unusual and there was a value to it.”

“I have learnt in my life that I have a method for learning and retaining information. I am a typical dyslexic and have developed coping strategies. I don’t have any memory for remembering certain things such as names and dates. I’m good at strategy and can work backwards from the endpoint, but I don’t do well in the traditional classroom environment.”

“When I was 18, I fell in love and when she moved to London, I followed her. I didn’t tell Mother that I was leaving home. I just said I was going away for the weekend and never went back.

“I grasped quite quickly that my feelings for my girlfriend weren’t reciprocated and when the relationship fell to bits, and not knowing anyone in London, I decided to go to Norwich where my older sister was training to be a nurse.”

Returning to Norwich

When Chris turned up on her doorstep though, she turned him away; she had only just enough money coming in to feed herself and pay her rent.

“So, homeless and with nowhere to stay, I found myself at Norwich City Council, and they found me a flat in a cluster unit in the city.

“I then got a part-time job in a local electronics shop, BB Adams. They had just opened an area that sold computers. Nobody knew anything about them, but I did, so I was put in charge of selling them and providing technical support.

“This was the time when word processors were just emerging and replacing typewriters. It wasn’t long before a businessman came in who ran an estate agent with 10 local branches. He had been told they needed some computers and I helped him. The result was that he offered me a job.”

Chris hadn’t been with him long before his boss sold the business to the Alliance & Leicester Building Society.

“They looked at everyone’s skills sets and put me on an Open University course in management. The diploma course was totally practical and all about problem solving, people management, processes and the softer skills that are needed in management.

“I completely got it and it made sense. I wasn’t just learning; I was doing it and applying it practically in what I did at work. I loved it and did really well; I went on to become their top employee.”

Then in the early 1990s, the world fell to bits with the recession.

“I thought I could do better by working for myself. So, I left to start up a business of my own; what could possibly go wrong?

“If you’re an organisation and you’re in the middle of the transactional chain, then I feel strongly that what you do should add value. I could see that with housing transactions, there was a right and wrong way to behave, and I wanted to do things differently.

“I was advised to work alongside a business partner and was introduced to someone who would be a good fit for me. Without doing any due diligence, or background checks, I started up the business with this person, putting everything I had financially into getting it up and running.”

Losing it all

“A year into the business and everything was going OK, or so I thought. Then one day my business partner didn’t come into work.

“I discovered that he’d spent all the money, incurred a load of debt against the business, and had filed for bankruptcy.

“As I was liable for half the debt, I managed to come to an agreement with the creditors and agreed an Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA). I had to sell everything I had, including the house. My wife Rachel and I were left with nothing.

“Rachel had a really good job working for Norwich Union in their International Division, but with nowhere to live, we had to move in with her parents, who lived in an old farmhouse in North Norfolk.”

“If I knew then what I know now and had carried out the checks and the due diligence, it would have killed the partnership before it started. It’s about knowing the unknowns, and it didn’t even occur to me that he would be dishonest.”

“With everything that happened, I reverted back to feeling how I had in childhood at Bracondale: stupid, no good, a failure. It was a real low point and I felt I had jeopardised everything.

“Luckily for me, I had Rachel. She unpicked all those demons and told me not to look at it as a failure, but as a lesson learnt.

“She told me Norwich Union was recruiting and pushed me to go and get a job with them.

“It was good timing, as I walked through their doors just when they were transforming their business and the insurance industry was in freefall. I got a job working as a customer adviser for a new company they were setting up called Norwich Union Direct (NUD).”

It was at this time that Chris met Patrick Smith, the CEO of NUD.

“Working with Patrick was when I first came across and experienced a disruptor. Disruption in an organisation is not about changing the product or service you sell but changing the way you do it; I got that. We were still selling insurance products, but we were going direct to the customer. This meant we had to change the culture, skills set and the technology in the business.

“I was working with some really brilliant, clever people and when I left three years’ later, I was managing all NUD’s call centres around the country.

“We developed a culture that engaged with the team and which energised them. Patrick allowed us to be extremely experimental and we were able to regain our position as a leading insurer because of it.”

In 1999, Chris was asked to return to Liverpool to set up a new office for NUD. He moved with Rachel and their young son Ed, to spend a year getting everything up and running.

“It was about this time that we were starting to hear about this new thing called the Internet. This led to an understanding that we could have a very different relationship with a customer, if they were able to do what they were already doing through a call centre, but on a home computer instead.

“Patrick and three other colleagues who I worked alongside, started a discussion with Norwich Union about adopting this capability.

“However, they didn’t get it. So, we decided to leave and start up an online insurance business called ITS4ME. Together with our individual stakes, we gained additional financial support through one of Patrick’s connections; a French insurance company who was moving into the UK called MMA. As the new business was based in Norwich, I moved back to the city with Rachel, who was now heavily pregnant with our daughter, Flo.”

Taking insurance online

“Insurance is very complicated and heavily regulated, so there were all sorts of hoops we needed to jump through to get things signed off. We were developing a system that would enable customers to research, input their details, get a selection of quotes from a panel of insurers, before being able to purchase the policy online.

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“We were the first insurance broker selling online, and it was very expensive to set up. There were insurers that were adventurous, and there were some that were cautious; we were burning money, so we had to get it happening quickly. We also had to market it.

“We realised early on that we couldn’t market an online platform offline. So, we created the technology with no branding, and then we promoted it, via Google Ads, as a series of differently packaged products that appealed to different audiences such as lady drivers and the over 65s.

“Another complication was that we launched when the dotcom bubble crashed, so we spent a lot of time initially in chaos. We kept going because we knew we were onto something that would open up all sorts of opportunities. All four of us shared that creative desire to do something that was a game changer, and it was a race to be the first across the line to bring it to market.

“You need to be completely focused on the key indicator for success and for us, that was the point in time when we sold our first policy online. From a money point of view, we had to push every single extraneous cost to the side to reach our goal. We turned off the lift, so we didn’t have to pay the electricity bill, and we didn’t buy milk; every bit of money was spent on the business.

“Also, we didn’t want to compromise on the quality and service of the product. It was ferociously chaotic and difficult, but we needed the systems in place that would enable the customers to do things correctly, such as printing their policy documents on their home printer.”

When the first deal was done, there was a massive party, but the team quickly settled down to work on scaling the business.

“Whilst retaining purity and a single-minded focus, we knew we had to refrain from being distracted into doing something else, such as home insurance. A key to success is concentrating on what you’re good at.”

Over the next five years, the business grew, and the team sold ITS4ME in 2007.

“The indicators for us to exit the business, was when we had a growth curve with a sustainable profit, but there was no need for us as entrepreneurs to move the business on further, a different skills set was required.”

Chris moved on and, as well as doing a bit of management consultancy, he started an online estate agency with fellow director at ITS4ME, Richard Savelli.

“Due to our own bad experiences, we wanted to bring to the market a service that added value to the transaction process of buying and selling property. We built a digital platform called House Revolution which allowed the buyer and seller to have honest conversations directly with each other. We started this in 2007 and sold it in 2016.”

Joining Norfolk Chambers of Commerce

Whilst providing management consultancy services, Chris was approached and asked to take a look at the Norfolk Chambers of Commerce.

“I picked up quite quickly that they had lost their engagement with their customers and that the whole culture needed to shift towards being customer centric, and away from administration.

“Then a couple of years later in 2017, there was a change of CEO and I was approached by a board member who had seen my report, and he asked whether I was interested in applying for the position.

“It really excited me as I was given the remit to disrupt and change, and I understood that if I could make it work, it would matter. I had first-hand experience of the Norfolk Chambers as a membership support group; I also knew how hard it was to make a business succeed.

“The biggest challenge was that it felt like the Chamber had lost its relevancy. So, everything I have been doing over these last three years has led from the questions; is it fit for purpose? Should we change? 

“The sweet spot for me was turning things around so that we built relationships based on support and honesty, driven by the members’ needs. Then, utilising new technology, we could start to make presumptions and suggest things that would help improve growth and success.

“It was like the song ‘There’s a Hole in My Bucket’; although you definitely need to have people that aren’t afraid to ask questions, you also need people to offer up solutions. It is also about making sure that you have the right ratio in your team, of those that are innovative and entrepreneurial, and those that are happy to support change and innovation.”

“My drive as CEO has been around developing a service that is more user-friendly, more loved and more engaging and useful.”

“Just before COVID hit we had got to the point of understanding. So we had to implement what we wanted to do in just three or four months. Engage, engage, engage was the mantra, but we now had to do it with one arm tied behind our back: executing everything digitally, rather than 1-2-1 and at big events.

“At the present time, it has never been more important to have a membership support group like the Norfolk Chambers of Commerce. We are not for profit; we have no agenda other than providing support to businesses, and we truly put the membership and their business’s success ahead of everything else.

“I have no doubt that if COVID had hit three years ago, we wouldn’t have survived.”

Out of work, other than the singing and the Daniel Craig connection, Chris suggests he is quite boring.

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“Rachel and I have got into gardening and I love pottering around in the open air. We have two ‘Star Wars’ themed chickens, although we started with three. The one in the picture is Princess Lay’ia, ironic as she stopped laying eggs about three months ago. Out of shot is Hen Solo and Jabba the Cluck sadly was a taken out by the Imperial Foxes in a daring midnight raid.

 “I’m learning to play the guitar and I play the drums. Music is still a keen interest of mine and as well as going along to many raves and gigs over the years, I have 10 plus Glastonbury Festivals under my belt.

“I have no sporting skills at all, but I run; I find it’s good for cleansing the mind. I often leave the house with a problem, go running and the solution becomes clear. I also like skiing. My son is really good at it, so I am often chasing him down the mountain.

“Ultimately, my biggest motivator in life is doing the right thing. I genuinely can’t quite believe where I am. I’m utterly blessed with the 30 years I have known my wife, and I am extremely fortunate to have a healthy relationship with my children.

“It’s very much a personal thing for me; to create an environment that is the best place it can possibly be, whether that is at home or at work.”

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