Saturday, 22 September 2018

Insurance broker loves to lend a helping hand

Insurance broker loves to lend a helping hand

NOT everyone can say they have faced cruel nuns, scheming business associates and even ghosts in the attic to reach the top.

Ann Manning overcame them all. Now enjoying success with her Henley-based insurance brokers Manning UK and helping charities and organisations, life is running smoothly for the 66-year-old.

But it wasn’t always the case.

Born in London, where she lived with parents John and Edna and brother Ian, Ann spent 13 years of her childhood at a convent in Ealing once attended by singer and Henley resident Dusty Springfield.

She doesn’t look back on her time there fondly and says it didn’t set her up well for the world of work.

“It was hell,” Ann says. “It was very cruel and while there was no violence physically there was mentally and humiliation.

“When I was 17 I went to be a trainee journalist at Women’s Realm magazine. I liked writing and was given a golden opportunity to go and do that in High Holborn. I was put on the problem page.

“Having been in a convent for all those years I didn’t understand what some of the problems were. I got a letter one time and had to ask my colleague. She said ‘have you never heard of this?’ It was incest.

“She asked, where have you been?’ and I said ‘in a convent’. She said ‘that explains it!’”

Despite spending a year in her first job, Ann admits she hated it and quickly looked to leave. Her parents agreed, provided she got another job.

Ann said: “I went to the job centre and all they could offer me was banking and insurance. I thought no one picks insurance so I went for it.

“I worked for an insurance company in Ealing called General Accident and was transferred to Reading when I was 19. I was then headhunted to Stenhouse where I had fantastic training. I couldn’t have asked for more.”

Ann was soon headhunted again and joined Bland Payne, which later merged with Sedgwick, leaving her future up in the air. She said: “After the merger they didn’t know what to do with me.

“There weren’t many women in the insurance industry and when the Sedgwick team came in I ended up just sitting at a desk, which didn’t go down very well.”

The final straw for Ann was when she was asked to put a paper record of every one of the company’s clients with an account of less than £5,000 in a shopping trolley and wheel it round to offer to other local brokers.

“I thought it was crazy,” Ann recalled. “I decided I wanted my own company and that I could give them a better service. I saved up for 18 months and then my father found me a tiny office to rent.”

That small office in Reading Road is where Ann remains to this day.

Ann says: “The first day I arrived I sat looking at the wall thinking ‘what have you done?’”

After going for a walk to clear her head, Ann returned to the office to find 10 messages on her answering machine.

The first was from a former client who asked her to come to his offices in Bourne End for a coffee. When she arrived he handed her a letter from her previous employers.

Ann said: “It was damning and had been sent to every client I’d ever handled. It said I had started my own company and they suggested they don’t go anywhere near me.

“I thought that was me finished but he pulled an envelope out of his pocket. He said if you’re so much of a threat you have my business. Many others did the same. I met the person who wrote the letter some years later and thanked him for the 500 clients!”

When she started her business in 1984, Ann was one of a handful of women in the UK who owned their own brokerages. She said: “Underwriters either accepted you wholeheartedly or you had a battle on your hands.” But despite the difficulties, the business continued to grow. Ann took over Courtiers’ general insurance contracts in 1986 and another broker three years later, doubling the company’s size.

Manning UK now has 12 staff and also takes on motor schemes with car companies including TVR, Porsche and Bugatti.

Ann says she always knew the business had potential. She said: “I wanted it to grow much quicker but I think I’ve always been very cautious.

“I never wanted to put jobs in jeopardy for the purpose of expansion but my biggest issue is office space. Henley doesn’t have office space, it’s all residential now and I’ve got nowhere to go. I either have to refurbish here or move to Reading, which would be sad because I’ve been here for 34 years.

“I’d definitely stay in Henley in an ideal world and I’ve looked at places like the Hub in Market Place and Newtown Road, which I loved, but the rent is crazy.”

Ann has also seen off competition from rival insurance broker Swinton — which briefly ran from the premises directly underneath her office — due, in part, to a forgetful manager.

She said: “In my first year there used to be an estate agents underneath me but they left and I saw a sign saying Swintons are opening. I thought ‘how can you do that to another broker?’ but it was actually very good for us because no one went in there.

“The manager would have a sign saying he was going out to lunch for 10 minutes but he never remembered to take it down!”

When she wasn’t seeing off rival companies, Ann even had time for a bit of ghostbusting. She recalls when the offices were being refurbished and one of the builders ran across the courtyard and begged her to come with him.

She said: “He was shaking from head to toe and said ‘there’s a body in the loft’. He’d been up there to get something and a body had lifted up with no head.”

But instead of a spectral figure, it turned out a young man had absconded from a nearby mental hospital and wandered in to the open offices.

Ann said: “He laid down in the rafters but when he sat up a beam went across his head so you could only see the body. We dined out on that quite a bit!”

In January 1988 Ann was asked to become a magistrate and she was immediately thrown in to passing judgement on criminal cases and admits it was a learning curve.

She said: “It was an eye-opener. Being young as I was then, I thought the burglars would come in wearing striped jumpers.

“When I sat on the bench the first guy that came in was up for possession of vegetable matter, which turned out to be cannabis.

“I had two experienced magistrates with me. I asked them why he couldn’t have vegetables and they said ‘because it’s illegal!’”

Nevertheless, Ann soon picked it up and would regularly be part of a three-strong panel who handed out sentences.

She said: “You have intensive training but the whole point is that you aren’t a legal body, you are there for common sense.

“It gave me a good balance because when you live in Henley and have well-educated staff you tend to think that’s what life is about. Being a magistrate kept my feet on the ground, loose change isn’t £50 in your pocket.

“Henley is a bubble. It’s a fabulous place to live and work but you don’t brush with reality.”

In three decades on the bench Ann only regrets one verdict.

She said: “It was a cruelty to a dog case in 1990 and there were just two magistrates, which is very rare. I was chairing and the other one was a huge dog lover. We gave her the maximum sentence of six months, that’s a long time.

“I think we probably got it wrong. If you did it now you probably wouldn’t get sent to prison but everything is easy in hindsight.”

Away from insurance and dispensing justice, Ann keeps herself busy with charity work. She has volunteered at the annual Woodley Festival in Reading for the last 13 years, having first offered her services when a flu epidemic struck down the other workers.

She said: “I asked if there was anything I could do and sat on the door.

“I went inside the theatre when I had finished taking the money and I couldn’t believe my ears. I was blown away.

“The talent in these youngsters is phenomenal. You can’t believe a five-year-old could stand up and play the violin and this weekend just gone I saw a child under 11 play the cello like I’ve never heard it played before.”

Ann also presents the festival’s Perseverance Cup, which is only awarded to performers who make a special impact.

She said: “One lad was being bullied for his ginger hair and when he got up to perform he started crying and ran out.

“I presented him with the trophy and the next year it had changed him. The children or their parents have come back and said it was just what they needed and I get so much pleasure from it.”

Closer to home, Ann has also supported Henley in Bloom, an exhibition at the River and Rowing Museum in Mill Meadows and the Henley 60+ Club, which was struggling to raise the funds to stay afloat.

Ann said: “I like to support the town where I can.

“When I read about the 60+ Club I thought it can’t close, it’s a lifeline. I rang up and we chatted and I said I’d give them the £5,000. Then I thought that only gets them level, so I doubled it. They were so grateful.

“I worked with my dad on the refurbishment of Chantry House. He was in the Rotary Club for years so I was brought up on fund-raising and charity help. If someone needs help we will do it.

“I’m in a fortunate position that my business has been successful, without this I can’t do these things. We have an IT guy who had a ponytail for 30 years and cut it off for charity. We sponsored him.

“People come to me and ask if I will do something and if we can we will. Staff come up with ideas and we usually decide in May whether we want to support one charity for the year.

“We can’t help everyone and I like to do the small ones. I handle drug rehabilitation clients and they are very close to my heart.”

Ann has been recognised for the service by the community. As well as appearing in the Faces of Henley, she won the community award at the 12th annual Sue Ryder Women of Achievement Awards in February.

Ann, who picked up the award at a ceremony in Reading, said: “I’m still blown away, it was such a privilege to be nominated and I still think there were so many women in the category that deserved it.

“When I heard him talking about the magistrates and the 60+ Club I thought ‘that sounds like me’ but I was blown away and honoured.

“It’s just sad we couldn’t all win.”

Ann has her own advice for women who want to achieve their own goals and doesn’t believe gender is any indicator of ability.

She said: “You get a job by your merits, whether you are male or female shouldn’t make a difference.

“When I started here in a male-dominated society if you got a job you did it. Today women think they are owed it but you have to earn respect.

“I feel a bit sorry for the guys, we used to have a bit of banter and it was harmless. These days you have to be very careful.”

Ann says she still wants to expand the business and is working on new initiatives to serve more people.

She said: “We’ve started insurance surgeries because the population of Henley isn’t all young and not as used to using computers. I’m finding more and more that people want to sit down and talk.

“People are wary of insurance because it still has a reputation of ripping people off. It’s there in the background.”

But Ann remains committed to Henley and those who live in the town. Even 34 years after the business was founded, it looks like Manning UK is here to stay.

Ann said: “It’s given me a different view of Henley people because it’s a very strange place. It’s very diverse, you get a mixture of very wealthy, not so wealthy and youngsters who work here but don’t live here.

“If I had a magic ward I’d get all my staff on the property ladder because they nearly all live at home.

“I still think the business has got so much potential but we are hampered by office space. We’ve gone paperless to take the filing away and fit in two more desks but if we had a bigger building I think I could double the turnover.

“That doesn’t mean more money for me, it means we can do more. I feel like I’ve neglected Henley, we should be concentrating on the people on our doorstep.”

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