Relay’s Alastair Bell: keeping the customers satisfied

Gary: So, Alastair, tell us about your career – how you got to where you are at present.

Alastair: Well, I started as a deer farmer! my father was the first person to commercially bring deer into Ireland. I was brought up in a farming family just outside Cookstown in Tyrone.

This helped put me through University at Jordanstown. I did Computer Science there, and got a student placement with Relay in 88, I did some more work for the company in my final year  and then I joined the company full time in 89.

I was in the software development team at first, I got more involved with customers, and so I eventually moved more into sales. Then, whenever Greer [McKenzie, the founder of Relay] retired in 99, I led a management buy-out with two other mangers Michael Harding and Jackie Conn. That took a few months to put together, but we got it sorted out. So that’s been, what…twelve years now owning and running Relay.

Gary: So, Alastair, you’re in the unusual situation in this industry of having worked for the same company your whole career. There aren’t that many people do that – IT people tend to chop and change.

Alastair: Well there was a good opportunity here for me and I enjoyed my work and working with my colleagues. I got a buzz out of it – that was the important thing. Most of the people I’m working with now, I’ve been working with for twenty odd years. That’s a strong testament to Relay – we’ve got really good employee retention. 50% of our people have been with us at least 5 years.

Gary: That’s quite remarkable in this industry.

Alastair: Most of our management team have been with us over ten years, a lot of key developers have been here with me for long time, many for 15 years or more.

Gary: So in all the phases and changes that Relay has gone through over the years, what is it that produces that level of interest and commitment from people?

Alastair: Part of it is we’re always re-inventing our technology, we’re always going forward. And another part is that we’re strong advocates of Investors in People. And that helps us keep the communication going, right through the company, so that everybody knows what we’re doing, trying to achieve. That’s been key. When I took over as MD, that was one of the first challenges I took on – Investors in People – we went for it, got it and that’s been a strong element this past twelve years. So everybody’s involved, everybody’s engaged – sure, we’ve had some turnover in staff, but it’s small, lower than most other IT companies.

Gary: So how long had the company been going whenever you took over as MD?

Alastair: The company had started in ’85, so…about 14 years.

Gary: Tell us a bit about Relay. First of all, what is it that Relay does?

Alastair: We provide an end-to-end, one-stop shop solution to enable an Irish insurance broker to sell both online and through a call-centre. This includes full-cycle trading with the insurance companies. And we have a full panel of insurers in the Irish market that provide motor, home and commercial vehicles. We also provide commercial lines of insurance and are having good success there with some underwriters as well.

Gary: And how are things for the company right now?

Alastair: Very exciting times for us. Acquisition is our main growth thrust at the moment – we’ve just completed two acquisitions within the last twelve months. One was Spike Technology, a specialist in household insurance – and then just in the last few weeks we completed acquisition of Brokersoft, who specialize in commercial vehicle insurance. So adding those two products into our portfolio means we’ve a more complete offering to the market.

This combination means Relay now has a 75% share of the Irish business that’s traded through the intermediaries, in motor, commercial vehicle and home insurance. So we’re pretty strong.

Gary: How is the insurance business in Ireland, with all the turmoil in the economy?

Alastair: Insurance premiums are up and policy numbers are down. Overall, there’s still a need for insurance. Of course they’ve had to manage their costs. So their incomes are being sustained.

Gary: In the UK, the broker market has been dramatically affected by aggregators like comparethemarket and so on – is that a trend you’re seeing in Ireland?

Alastair: Ireland is still very traditional. People like to buy from people. And brokers still close the majority of sales off-line. So there’s still a need for the high street broker.

But you could say that Relay essentially provides an aggregation solution. But here it’s seen that the broker is the aggregator; we put the panel of insurance products together for them. So Relay, effectively is the Irish aggregator.

Gary: Thinking back over your time at Relay, Alastair, you started off as a developer – so you’ve been into the technical detail of Relay’s products – now you’re the MD. Do you still get involved in the technical aspects of the company?

Alastair. Every day. I’m constantly involved – don’t write programmes, but every day I’m involved at a technical level.

Gary: So all your people know that, in the end of the day, Alastair knows what’s going on at a fairly detailed level?

Alastair: Yeah! But because the guys have worked with me for so long…they sometimes listen to me! But seriously, I let them run with it…they lead it technically. We have a very strong architecture team, and they lead things… they know where we want to get to, so it’s a team working together. We have a very strong team environment at Relay.

Gary: So how would you describe your style of leadership?

Alastair: Well, it’s all around open doors, good communication, but with a strong organizational structure. That way of approaching things seems to work well.

Gary: What sort of people typically succeed in the Relay environment?

Alastair: We like people who understand the business, the need for hard work… take a pragmatic approach. And have an understanding that a business has costs and that there are opportunities. On occasion, we’ve recruited seemingly high-flyers, but they don’t fit, because they have no commercial awareness.

Gary: Are you talking about technical staff as well as those involved in marketing?

Alastair: Yes. Our recruitment is very thorough and we look for people with some kind of commercial ability.

Gary: I guess that isn’t always easy – it can be hard enough getting technical people, but to get that combination at times must be challenging.

Alastair: We’ve found it very straightforward to get the sort of good people we want. We have a very strong benefits package. We’re competing against the FDI companies, but we’re one of the largest indigenous software companies. We pay well and we retain our people. And if people perform for us, they get rewarded. And people get to enjoy that.

Gary: Looking back over the last ten years, what is the biggest challenge that you faced?

Alastair: Well, I take a very planned approach to life and to business. And if you plan things, you don’t really have significant challenges. Here in Relay, we plan for the next five years; we know where we’re going. In terms of our customers, the average length of a broker being a customer is over fifteen years! We haven’t lost a customer in over five years. And a lot of that is down to careful planning. That planning process means we can anticipate what’s happening in the market…traditionally the insurance market is a slow-moving vehicle…so we plan and we manage our business accordingly.

Gary: Sounds to me, Alastair, you’re bringing your systems engineering background to bear on the way that you manage.

Alastair: Maybe…or maybe it’s the farming background!

Gary: What’s been your best achievement? What are you most proud of?

Alastair: There have been a few things. Being first to market with the eQuote product which allowed comparative quotes online back in 1999 – that was a key milestone; also prior to that we had launched the first Windows application to our market; more recently we’ve developed self-service functionality to allow end consumers to manage their policies themselves. And moving forward we want to continually innovate in our market and help brokers significantly reduce their costs.

Gary: So what is it that you’re really good at? And how did you get good at it?

Alastair: Well, I’d say I’m a good delegator – but then everyone would disagree with that! Multitasking & delegation are probably my two strengths. I don’t think these were things I learned, I think they’re just the way I am.

Gary: So is a good manager born or can they be trained?

Alastair: I think either someone is built for a management position or they’re not; I don’t think they can really learn it. People can learn by their mistakes, but you’ve either got it in you or you haven’t. In our business, just because you’re great technically strong, doesn’t mean you’ll be good at management. Management is all about having good organizational skills and being good with people – but some people who are good technically find all of that difficult. So we provide an alternative career track for those people, where they can succeed and be rewarded – but not as a manager.

Gary: How do you make your people more effective?

Alastair: Give them ownership and responsibility. That’s really worked for us. Allow them headway to make decisions; certainly give advice, but leave them to it. And keep the communication going. It’s a simple process and it’s worked really well for Relay. And praise, when someone’s done a good job – that’s a big thing. Positive strokes!

Gary: You said earlier that you have this long relationship with customers – what’s the key to that?

Alastair: Good customer service. We’ve a very strong team in Dublin that is a main point of contact and they’re very strong technically. People who understand our products and even more important than that, they understand the customer’s business. And so they really do understand the frustrations they have if they have an issue. When people call Relay, they don’t get a graduate in a call centre – they get experienced people who know the customer’s business, the Relay product set and can deliver what the customer needs.

Gary: So what’s in the future for Relay?

Alastair: Continue growing the business in Ireland, providing the most advanced and efficient solutions available.

Gary: Finally, Alastair, what would your advice be to someone starting up a new technology business?

Alastair: Stay out of Ireland! Particularly if you’re selling insurance software!

Find a niche – that’s been the secret to our success; we did try one or two other markets along the way, but sticking to a niche and becoming really good at what you do in that niche – that would be my advice.


About Gary Burnett

Fabrio's Gary Burnett has many years experience in the ICT industry, working in Ireland, the UK, Europe, India and the US. He helps technology companies change and grow.
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