Polly Staveley: The insurance broking boss who says it's all about people

Polly Staveley is the first female managing director of her family's historic insurance broking business but it's been a steep learning curve, writes Lizzie Murphy

Polly Staveley who took over the family insurance business TL Dallas in 2017. Her great grandfather Thomas Lessels Dallas set up the business in 1919.
Polly Staveley who took over the family insurance business TL Dallas in 2017. Her great grandfather Thomas Lessels Dallas set up the business in 1919.

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>The business stories you must read today>Employers' concerns over BrexitThe story goes that when she was eight years old, Polly Staveley stood in a kitchen and declared that one day she was going to run her family’s insurance broking and risk management company.

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“I don’t remember saying that,” she admits, and confides: “I don’t think I did always want to join the family business.”

Several years into her career with Yorkshire Bank, however, Mrs Staveley changed her mind and joined the Bradford-based TL Dallas in 1999.

The company provides insurance broking and risk management services to predominantly family-owned or owner-managed small and-medium-sized companies across the UK through a network of 10 offices, employing 120 staff.

She took over the reins as managing director in 2017 – the fourth generation of her family to run the company founded by her great grandfather Thomas Lessels Dallas OBE 100 years ago in 1919.

The firm, which currently has a broking turnover of £10m, focuses its growth on acquiring small companies and teams of insurance brokers. “Ours is very much a people business so you tend to pick up clients through people relationships,” Mrs Staveley says.

The business has a number of specialisms, including credit insurance, real estate, and a private client team.

Investment in new technology is pulling the company into the digital age. A new insurance broking IT system is streamlining its operating systems and automating administratively-heavy tasks to free up its brokers to deal with client activity.

Challenges for independent insurance brokers like TL Dallas include competition for acquisitions due to a high level of consolidation in the industry. “We’re constantly up against larger insurance broking companies,” Mrs Staveley says.

Other challenges include preparing clients for an ever-increasing number of risks such as data management and protection, cyber crime and flooding.

“We’re going to get to the point where it’s almost impossible to insure for flood unless the Government does more,” she says. “Households are protected but the Government’s doing nothing for commercial businesses at the moment.”

It’s a huge contrast to the insurance industry her ancestors worked in. Her great grandfather founded the business to offer insurance to over 300 textile mills operating in Bradford.

“Fifty years ago, if you ran a factory, you would be most worried about having a fire in it or maybe a flood or a storm,” Mrs Staveley says. “Whereas now you’d be more worried about a cyber attack or a serious employee injury.”

Brexit won’t directly affect the company but some of its clients who have European subsidiaries will need to make sure that their insurance company has a European office.

“That’s really all we can do for now until we know what it looks like,” she says.

Born and brought up in Poole-in-Wharfedale and then near Harrogate, Mrs Staveley, 44, says she was never pushed into the family business.

After studying maths and psychology at Newcastle University, she says she “fell into” Yorkshire Bank’s graduate training scheme. But when the organisation was taken over by National Australia Bank a few years later, she decided it was time to move on.

“I realised that I didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t involved in any decision-making processes and I could see there were certain levels you could get to and then that would be it.”

She rang her father, Colin, and suggested joining the family business.

“I think he tried to put me off but then eventually conceded and said you can come but you’ll have to start as a junior handler in the credit insurance department and see where that takes you,” she says.

She adds: “Family businesses are a funny thing, it’s a love hate relationship you have with the company. My dad felt he was expected to go into it. I don’t think he would have ever admitted that and he was very good at what he did but in another world he’d have been an engineer or something else.

“I would never have chosen insurance as a career but there’s a pride in a family business, especially when you’re the fourth generation.

“The blessing is that you’ve got a great history behind you. The curse is thinking are you the generation that’s going to mess it up?”

She worked her way through the business, along with her brother, Mackenzie, and at one point there were three generations around the board table with her father and grandfather, Ian.

Ian Dallas died in 2006 at the age of 85. Six years later, her father, Colin, who was the chairman of the firm, took his own life, aged 64.

Raising awareness of and money for mental health causes is close to Mrs Staveley’s heart and Bradford Mind was one of the four charities chosen by the business when it pledged to raise £100,000 during its centenary year.

At the time, the company had an external managing director, John Butterworth, who is now chairman.

“A few years after dad died, I was group director and John started talking about stepping back from the business,” says Mrs Staveley. “At that point we decided I was the one for the job.”

She admits it’s been a steep learning curve. “Nothing prepares you for it.” But she’s surrounded herself with mentors and business leaders who she can turn to for advice.

Although Mrs Staveley, who is married with three teenage children, is officially the firm’s first female managing director, her great aunt, known as Babbie, held the fort during the Second World War.

She believes that being a woman in what is still a male-dominated industry is often an asset. “Insurance broking requires a high degree of empathy and emotional intelligence and the ability to multi-task.

“Without being rude to men, I think women are better in all those areas. We’re often better at negotiating and that’s what insurance broking is all about,” she says.