Lead interview: Rob Thacker

Founder and CEO, Sona Insurance Solutions

Our lead interview in the NURTURE issue of Essex Director business magazine is Rob Thacker.

Published in Essex Director Magazine Winter 2023 | 24

NURTURE: Anticipating the unexpected

“I have to take clients to a place of doom and gloom. I make them think about what could happen, question how likely that is, and support them in deciding whether they want to cover themselves against the risk.”

Interview:  Sue Wilcock / Anna-Marie Casas Pictures: Pagepix

Rob Thacker talks to Essex Director

If anyone knows about the importance of mitigating the risks involved in running a business, it’s Rob Thacker.

After 35 years in the insurance industry, Rob, 53, has advised countless companies about identifying risk and protecting themselves against the potential pitfalls that can destroy a business overnight. As CEO of Sona Insurance Solutions, based at the Innovation Centre at the University of Essex’s Colchester campus, Rob can also offer a perspective from both sides of the fence, as owner and broker.

“I try to have really pragmatic, honest discussions with people about risk,” says Rob. “I have to take clients to a place of doom and gloom. I make them think about what could happen, question how likely that is, and support them in deciding whether they want to move forward without the protection that insurance might bring them, or cover themselves against the risk.

“You have to think forward, the cost of insurance might seem something you can ill afford at the moment, but what I can say is that from experience, insurance is really cheap in comparison to a claim for the worst case scenario. Some companies still don’t truly appreciate how badly things can go wrong. I’ve met people who’ve had a fire and that quite literally was the end of their business.”

From the smallest start-up to the largest corporation, there are risks – some bigger than others depending on where you are on the business journey.

“Start-ups tend to buy policies that cover the basics, as it can be a lot of money for a fairly miniscule risk,” he explains. “But requirements should be revisited regularly, to ensure you have the protection in place at the right time as your business grows – and also that new and emerging threats are on the radar.

“For instance, it doesn’t matter what the size of your business, you’re far more likely to have to make a cyber claim than a property claim these days – the risks are ever-changing in an ever-changing world.”

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The impact of 9/11

Rob’s formidable industry experience includes first-hand observation of the most catastrophic example in living times of how difficult it can be to anticipate risk and how new ones are constantly emerging.

When the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York happened in 2001, Rob was working as an Account Executive for insurance giant Aon in Southampton, which had offices in the doomed buildings.

“In the second tower, Aon had two floors very close to the top,” he explains.

“There were people in those offices who we never spoke to again. They insured the towers on a first loss basis – nobody ever anticipated both towers would come down.”

Rob’s career has seen many peaks and troughs in a sector that is at the whim of cyclical risk, global events and market shocks. So how was the eldest son of a bricklayer, Martin, and receptionist, Trudy, ever attracted to join an unpredictable industry with such high stakes; one he compares with “playing a game of poker”?

The early years

Born in 1970 in Lydden, in the Dover district of Kent, Rob remembers with fondness a modest but happy “working class” childhood.

At 10, he sat the Kent Test, an exam for entry into grammar school and passed. Describing himself as “academically average”, he went on to take A Levels in maths, history and economics.

“Dad was self-employed, and I used to help him with building jobs for the family while I was still at school. I also got a Saturday job in the stationery department of WH Smith when I was 16. He said I could be a bricklayer if I wanted to be, but he encouraged me to look at office work.”

While awaiting his A Level results and unsure whether he wanted to go to university, Rob applied for jobs with insurance and re-insurance companies. “Working as an insurance broker just sounded like it would be fun,” he reminisces.

It was not long before he landed a job with insurance broker Bain Clarkson, later known as Bain Hogg. “The moment I started, I could see the potential, and within six months I was in the broking team dealing with renewals. It was the greatest place to start working life.”

From the outset, Rob demonstrated a good gut instinct. Initially as an underwriter for personal accident and travel, and excess public and products liability, he remembers with humour turning down insurance cover for Eddie the Eagle one month before the ski jumper broke both legs.

Nurturing relationships

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Rob also realised early on that he preferred being able to nurture relationships with clients as a broker to being an underwriter. “You’re either a broker or you’re an underwriter – a bit like you’re a smoker or you’re a non-smoker. As a broker you just want to get to ‘yes’ at the right price, whereas you’re much more comfortable with ‘no’ as an underwriter. I like to be able to say ‘yes’.”  

“But I would say that as a broker you’re only as good as the underwriters who are your friends and will help you, and that can also take years to nurture those relationships.”

Rob was advised by his boss to study for the professional industry qualification, the Associateship of the Chartered Insurance Institute (ACII), now known as the Advanced Diploma.

Four years later, he passed, but suddenly felt the pull of university. “I was 22 and I wanted the university experience before I felt too old. I handed in my notice, got a full grant, and went off to do an economics degree.”

Throughout his studies at De Montford University in Leicester, Rob worked for his old company in Canterbury each holiday. He was asked to stay on at university to do a Masters, but the draw of business life was too strong.

Back to work

Rejoining Bain Hogg in 1995, Rob experienced the company’s second merger when it was bought by Aon, and he began harbouring an ambition to become a branch director.

However, it coincided with Rob’s mother being diagnosed with lung cancer, and he put his career aspirations on hold. She sadly died in 1998. “Her death really knocked me for six,” he reflects.

Still grieving, Rob joined an IT and gaming company in a sales role. It was a move that would lead to his first brief taste of running a business when he was appointed Managing Director by default. “It was chaos and people ended up looking to me because I guess I was the most commercially-minded,” he says, modestly. “But it all ended in 1999 when the dot.com bubble burst, and I had no technical skills to back anything up.”

By this time, Rob also had a family to consider. He had met his wife-to-be, Kate, who worked for biopharmaceutical company, Pfizer, in Kent in 1998. They married two years later, just after the birth of the first of their three children, Amy (followed by Jack and Poppy), celebrating their nuptials and mutual love of sci-fi films with a Star Trek-themed wedding in Las Vegas.

“Both Kate and I are ‘Trekkers’ from the Next Generation era, and we really wanted to get married on the command deck of the USS Enterprise, as it was in Vegas at the time, but our budget wouldn’t stretch that far, so we had to settle for a wedding ceremony at the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel.”

“Spock married us, and we were in full Next Gen uniforms, including Amy, who was aged one. The chap playing Spock was completely in character and I kept trying to make him laugh, whilst he kept looking at me blankly, as that’s what Vulcan’s do.  Amy and I were Captains, whilst Kate was Chief of Security.”

Career-wise, Rob went back to what he knew. He was appointed to the role of Associate Director at Aon’s Southampton branch and relocated his family from Kent.

Working closely with his boss, Rob began winning some big ticket clients. All was going well, but the unpredictable world of insurance was about to be shaken to the core.

A double-whammy

In June 2001, three months before 9/11, insurance firm, Independent Insurance, went into liquidation leaving hundreds of thousands of UK policy holders in limbo.

“On the day it went bust, we had to contact all the clients we had set up insurance policies for to tell them that they wouldn’t be protected. it was terrible as some had paid big sums upfront and were going to lose all their money,” recalls Rob. “I was gutted, the client is very important to me – you have to look after people.

“Then 9/11 happened and that was it for the insurance market. Premiums went through the roof. It was a very stressful time, but on a positive note I learnt a lot, about myself, about resilience and about business risk.”

The catastrophe generated the insurance industry’s largest ever manmade loss, totalling tens of billions of dollars, and triggered changes to the industry that have since made insurance companies more resilient.

“Independent Insurance going bust was the real reason for the insurance market going up, but 9/11 made it twice as bad,” comments Rob.

“We are a cyclical market, and you really have to expect the unexpected.”

“Take cladding for example. After Grenfell, I had a client whose annual premiums went from £10,000 to £250,000 in three years – and they weren’t even doing that type of cladding. That area became almost uninsurable even for Lloyds market providers.”

Moving up the ladder

After four years at Aon’s Southampton office and the branch having doubled its business, in 2003, Rob was promoted to Branch Director at Chelmsford, Essex. It was a busy time, with the family relocating once again and a third baby arriving the following year. Also, keen to develop his business leadership skills and plug any gaps, Rob completed an MBA (Master of Business Administration) with the Open University.

Rob occupied the Branch Director role for a couple of years, also taking on responsibility for Norwich, before he decided to move to a City job, as Head of Corporate Risks for Centor Insurance & Risk Management Limited in London.

However, after the recession kicked in during 2008, Rob found himself out of a job, and keen not to go back to commuting, he joined insurance broker Pound Gates in Ipswich as Sales Manager.

“During my time there, I rose up the ranks becoming a Director in 2012. It was a great, steady job and we did some amazing stuff at Pound Gates – we even opened a school in Kenya through our charity.”

Rob is a keen athlete, and over the years he has run four major marathons, completed four Half Ironman competitions and has taken on a quadrathlon. But in 2016, he ruptured his Achilles tendon, and unable to go into the office, Rob found time for a period of reassessment and retrospection.  

Earlier in his career, Rob had joined Vistage, the world’s largest executive coaching organisation for small and medium sized companies, and he had developed aspirations to lead his own business.

“I had been at Pound Gates for nine years, and I felt like I wasn’t getting to where I wanted to be. I needed a fresh challenge, and I was looking for some self-fulfilment. I suppose, ultimately, I wanted to get to a place where I was financially independent and not feeling as if I was at the whim of the cycles of the economy.”

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Going it alone

So, Rob left Pound Gates and became Sales and Service Director for Towergate Insurance in Chelmsford for a year-and-a-half until the right moment came to go it alone. Taking one of his longstanding clients with him, he started Sona – meaning ‘wisdom’ – in November 2019.

“Things were okay, but the biggest challenge for any broker is getting more opportunities for clients,” says Rob. “So, when energy supplier Pozitive Energy with its 20,000 clients showed an interest in teaming up, I didn’t hesitate, and Pozitive Insurance Solutions was born.”

Developing a scheme to sell insurance directly to Pozitive Energy’s customers, the business started flourishing and Rob quickly developed a team around him. Pozitive Insurance’s rapid growth was also fuelled by demands created by the Covid pandemic.

“Everyone was looking at their insurance. We picked up business from people I’ve known for years – relationships I’d nurtured over the years. Those Vistage years I spent with amazing people paid dividends.”

However, in March 2023, Rob was delivered a bombshell by Pozitive Energy – it wanted out.

“At the time I felt like the bottom had fallen out of my world. We had a reasonable book of business, but I had to come up with a decent plan quickly to find the way ahead.”

The first call Rob made was to David Sheepshanks, Chair of Vistage (and former Chair of Ipswich Town FC) to get some advice on what to do.

Deal or no deal

While Pozitive Energy and Pozitive Insurance were separate legal entities, Rob had shareholders to consider – and his clients and staff.

“I’m massively loyal to my clients and my people. When I’ve left places where I’ve nurtured some amazing relationships and had to leave some of my clients behind, it has been wrenching.”

Rob agreed a Management Buy-Out (MBO) with Pozitive Energy, which involved him buying the insurance business they shared, with the deal going through in May this year.

“The way I look at it, if I had started this business from scratch, I would have had to run up some debt to get to where we are now. I threw caution to the wind and just got on it. What else was I going to do? Like any business, you know what your risks are. I couldn’t retain the Pozitive name due to its links with the energy business, so I reverted back to operating as Sona Insurance Solutions.”

Now living with his family in Earles Colne, Essex, Rob says the support of his amazing wife, Kate, through good and bad times – both emotionally and on a practical level taking care of their three children who are now grown up – has been key to his career progression and drive to lead his own business. Kate retrained as a biology teacher 15 years ago and now works at Colchester Sixth Form College.

He recounts with pride the time she was a contestant on ITV’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire and won a whopping £64,000 during the pandemic.

“We had a couple of amazing holidays after that, and we put money into a flat for our eldest daughter. It also gave us a backup to fall back on if something went wrong with the business.”

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Continual learning

Rob credits Vistage as crucial to his decision-making, and how he reads business development books to improve his learning.

“I’d like to think all the things I didn’t know when I took over as a Branch Director for Aon, I know now, thanks to Vistage. And I always want to keep learning and developing. I follow the Gino Whitman book, Traction, for a business operating system model and I give the book to everyone who starts working for me. That’s what we’re working to.

“The challenge and priority for me now is the business – not marathons, Iron Man competitions, triathlons or quadrathlons. But I do plan to keep fit, healthy and well – that’s really important when you’re running a business.

“I’m planning a ten-year business. We know what we’re doing for the next three months, there’s a broader arc, we know where we’re going, and everyone knows what we have to do to get there.”

Concluding, Rob smiles as he adds, “I count myself as extremely lucky to have a beautiful, insightful and supportive wife, three fantastic kids and a company that gives me the freedom to do business the way I want to. Who could ask for anything more?”

www.sonainsurance.com            

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