When you look at the founders behind Bright Grey it is little wonder it has a different look and feel to it than other companies in the protection market. The two who set up the firm are 30-year protection veteran and chief executive David Robinson and deputy chief executive Tracey Ashworth-Davies.
Most of Ashworth-Davies’ career has been about change management, working within companies to help them understand how to make the best of organisational change. She is a self-confessed corporate generalist who came to financial services in 1994 as director of HR and support services at Scottish Provident after an education in psychology and a career in industries as diverse as energy and manufacturing.
Robinson’s strengths lie in a keen understanding of protection products and the lie of the financial services landscape, Ashworth-Davies says her main talent is in translating this into business strategy. At ScotProv, she proved this talent by helping raise its IFA market share from 2 per cent to 30 per cent. It was this that impressed Royal London when the two brought the Bright Grey start-up proposition to the mutual.
After only a year, Bright Grey was the sixth most recognised brand in the protection marketplace and this type of recognition has made Ashworth-Davies a hot commodity. She admits to having plenty of opportunities to move on from Bright Grey with the headhunters knocking on her door but she says there are more than enough challenges to keep her excited. “Already we have snapped up 6 per cent market share since coming to market in March 2003. Some companies that have been around for more than 200 years do not have that market share. I have spent my entire career managing change in companies so this is now a real opportunity to build something from scratch into exactly the way we want it to be.”
Ashworth-Davies’ vision for Bright Grey is for it to be a keenly client-focused organisation. The kernel for the idea came from a trip to the US in April 2000. Robinson and Ashworth-Davies were on a tour of innovative companies, including IT provider Cisco and airline Southwest. “These were businesses that had really done the right thing from the word go,” explains Ashworth-Davies. “On the plane home from that trip, we toyed with the idea of what you would need to do to create the perfect protection company. At the heart of all the US firms, we saw a deep belief in their people, product and a customer-centric focus at every level of the business. At the heart of its premise, protection is intended to help people through hard times. If we have a natural passion for doing right by the customer then we can be at the forefront of thought in our sector.”
A shworth-Davies says she “grimaces hard” when she makes mistakes, pointing to a time this year when Bright Grey did not get the balance right between product, price and the customer support to deliver in the timeframes they had set. “We admitted we had grown too quickly and service for a while suffered but we learnt from that and moved on. It was a huge disappointment for our people because we only hire people who genuinely want to help our customers.
“I refuse to dilute the recipe we have had from the start. People who work at Bright Grey need to have a natural, intrinsic need to help people and must always remember that we only exist for our customers.”
All new recruits, even temporary staff, are personally met by Robinson and Ashworth-Davies and shown how the company’s culture works and what is expected of them.
Ashworth-Davies is a person who hates losing. “There is no fun in playing the game if you are not going to win. That holds true as much in business as it does in anything else.” She says she is competitive at everything she does. “If I am at the security clearance at an airport I will want my line to beat the other line.”
The desire pushes her to the point where she will do something just to prove she cannot be beaten, such as going on theme park rides like the Nemesis rollercoaster at Alton Towers, which she hates, just to prove to herself that she can beat the fear.
Part of this determination seems to come from her close relationship to her father, whom she counts as one of her heroes. “He is a man who always knows what the right thing to do is. He taught me that the only failure in life is a failure to try and that has stayed with me from my childhood.”
Ashworth-Davies says Bright Grey is committed to sticking by IFAs in the depolarised world, its distribution channel at present. “We strongly support the principle of independent advice because it is at the heart of doing the right thing for the customer.”
But she admits, without being drawn into any particulars, that Bright Grey is also looking at other distribution models. “Depolarisation is good for advice but it is also good for tied businesses because they now have the opportunity to offer their products to wider sources. Like all providers, other distribution models are always on our radar.”
Born: Lancashire, 1962Lives: West End, EdinburghEducation: BSc Psychology (Leeds), Qualified professional chartered company secretaryCareer: 1984: joined Yorkshire Electricity as a graduate management trainee. 1989-1991: head of training and development at ICI before joining Brunner Mond as head of development and change. 1994-2001: director of HR and support services at Scottish Provident, moving on to become co-founder and deputy chief executive of Bright Grey.
Career ambition:To make Bright Grey the market leader in protection
Life ambition: To have it all, not just success in career but also in life,family, motherhood and fun
Likes: Winning, spending time with her children, coming back from the gym
Dislikes: Negativity, failure, cock-ups for customers
Heroes: My father, who always knows what is the right thing to do, my husband who puts up with me, and founder of Southwest Airlines Herb Kelleher
Drives: VW Passat