Tradesure backed by 30 years of experience.
Outstanding achievement in the business world is a status with which two Sunshine Coast locals have become highly familiar. But as Ross Forbes and Brian Chatham explain, the road to success has been a long and at times arduous one. Celebrating their 30th year of joint business operations, the two men share some of the challenges and rewards encountered throughout their journey.
Ross and Brian are now highly successful businessmen, leaders in the insurance industry field, and deeply involved with the community; but the duo started out small, gradually building upon minor successes in order to strengthen their position, while also overcoming their fair share of obstacles.
The pair first met through social connections in 1977 in Cohuna Victoria where Ross was working with a local insurance broker. Ross’s first wife Helen, worked for Brian’s brother and sister-in-law in Vet clinic in the same town. Ross and his wife were regular Friday night guests at Brian's parents' place, where they would chat and share a few ‘tallies’. Brian, being only 15 however, was only able to participate as the beer caddie.
Brian's first job was when he worked with Ross in 1978 during work experience at Orrs Insurance Services in Victoria. Brian started permanent work in July 1978 and Ross and Brian worked together for 18 months before Ross left his 3 year position to move to Queensland.
Ross secured his first job in 1973 with South British United Insurance (now called CGU), in Bendigo Victoria. Accustomed to working part-time as an insurance inspector, Ross would fill in whenever one of the regional BDM representatives was away and that's how Ross met David Orrs, from Orrs Insurance services, who offered him a job.
Sunshine Coast opportunities call
After visiting almost every capital city and many major regional cities in Australia over the following 2 years, Ross identified the Sunshine Coast's potential when he discovered there weren’t any insurance brokers set up in the region. The day after Ross arrived on the Sunshine Coast he walked into the office of a local insurance agent in Caloundra office and asked if there were any positions available not knowing the agent had advertised the position as a receptionist that very week. The organisation quickly recognised his insurance knowledge and skills and employed him in their company.
In 1980, Ross changed employment and began working at Haycroft & Associates in Caloundra, becoming a partner in 1981. With the business growing, Ross recognised he needed more quality staff, so he rang Brian and asked if he would be interested in moving to Queensland and joining their team as the Office Manager. Brian was excited by the offer and keen to expand his professional skills beyond the standard farm insurance procedures he was dealing with in Victoria.
There can be no doubting the integrity of the men behind Forbes Chatham, which has undoubtedly helped to bolster their success over the years. Ross shares some personal experience along these lines.
During his employment with the original insurance agent in Caloundra before Haycroft’s, Ross quickly recognised that things weren’t right in the business. He discovered that many insurance applications weren’t being placed with insurance companies – as a result, many clients weren't insured, something where consumers are completely protected from today. Ross approached the fraud squad and advised them of his discovery. Unfortunately, the fraud squad needed more cases in order to take action. A few months later when Ross was working with Haycrofts, he was with a client who was a well-known architect on the Sunshine Coast and pointed out that his income protection insurance didn’t exist, even though he'd been paying the premiums to the agent where Ross had previously worked. Ross gathered the information and contacted a journalist he knew at the Sunshine Coast Weekly. Ross was concerned that the situation was affecting more people and businesses than he was aware of, possibly leaving many clients uninsured. He left some cases as evidence with the journo, explaining he would be happy to help expose any fraudulent activity and put an end to the situation where people may not have been insured.
The next day on the front page of the Courier Mail and the Sunshine Coast Weekly headlines read 'Insurance Scam Hits Sunshine Coast' and the day after those TV cameras were in the office exposing the scam to the Nation. An investigation ensued and, as a result, the law regarding payments made to insurance agents and brokers subsequently changed and the people involved convicted.
'I acted out of genuine concern for not only my customers I had assisted but also out of concern for others who I was unaware of who could be in the same situation,' Ross says. 'After watching a man lose $150,000 and having no claim, I knew I couldn’t sit back and do nothing.'
Forbes Chatham is Born
Wanting to specialise in general insurance Ross and Brian found themselves pushing in a different direction to that of Ross’ partner Graham Haycroft. So in April 1984, they bought their own premises for $50,000 at the Echelon Centre in Caloundra and paid a builder mate $150 and 2 cartons of beer to do the fit-out for the office. They sublet the office to a finance broker and shared the costs of a secretary to keep costs down, getting them through the opening stage. As a result, Forbes Chatham was off and running.
The Biggest Challenges
Ross and Brian have faced and overcome significant adversity in setting up their business – challenges that went beyond the need to shoulder and effectively manage financial burdens.
Ross recalls one of the biggest challenges he faced was coming home to tell his wife they were going to have to sell their house to further the business. Ross was confident he could grow the business and brokered a deal with a friend to swap his 4 bedroom house in the suburbs of Caloundra for a 2 bedroom apartment in the industrial area of Caloundra. This strategic move ensured Ross could invest cash back into the business and push it to the next stage of growth.
The men drew a mere wage of $200 per week and kept expenses to a minimum.
'I'd walk to work, because we could only afford one work car between us for business at the time,' Ross says. 'And sharing a vehicle meant I needed to be diligent with keeping my appointment times so that I'd be back at the office in time for Brian to drive our one car home to Wurtulla.'
Although it was challenging at the time, Ross and Brian recognised that such sacrifices were necessary to further the business.
Ross Explains, 'Our philosophy was that if we couldn’t afford it, we didn’t buy. We only ever borrowed money once – $5000 from my brother which was paid back in 3 months.'
The Tipping point
Ross and Brian have worked tirelessly over the years, embracing tenacity, personal sacrifice and sound planning in order to allow their business ventures to thrive.
The men can recall a few trigger moments during which they felt confident their business was going to succeed. Clients they were not confident of keeping from the previous business, voluntarily came to them. Ross explains "They clearly got that we were the people they dealt with most and they wanted that to remain. We are truly indebted to those loyal clients who gave us faith in ourselves."
After living on $200 per week for 3 years, they both managed to save some money, but neither of them realised they had to pay provisional tax.
Ross explains, 'The bill subsequently swallowed our savings, but after meeting this obligation, we still made a genuine profit – and that was when we knew we were going to make it.'
The pivotal point for Brian was different; he recognised they were going to make it when their database started to expand due to word of mouth referrals, but acquiring this database was a story in itself.
Over the years, the men at Forbes Chatham have shown a willingness to take calculated risks, confronting those who have potentially tried to take advantage of them.
For instance, during the separation from Haycroft there was an agreement they would halve the client base. They made arrangements to divide the client base but each time they tried to acquire the files they were given excuses and left without their share of the database. Addressing the problem, their legal adviser told them that one option was to take the files from the office that Ross still held the a joint lease on. The challenge was that the locks had been changed. This didn’t stop the boys. They were able to gain entry at 2am and spent the next couple of hours stuffing Brian’s old Cortina wagon with files and transporting them to their own office.
The next morning, when the secretary at Haycrofts opened the filing cabinets and discovered empty draws, she notified the owner who called the police. Ross and Brian were sitting at their office with their solicitor surrounded by files, when they were arrested and taken to the station to be finger printed. They made a subsequent court appearance where the matter was held over. Once the police learnt Ross had the lease in his name and had some entitlement to the property they had taken, they dropped charges.
Finally, all the files were taken to a neutral location and divided evenly between the parties.
About 18 months later Ross and Brian purchased the remainder of the previous business for $11,000. They also got all the files back; both men identify this as another break-through moment, when they knew success was waiting for them just around the corner.
Onwards and Upwards
The vision of the Sunshine Coast men continued to shine through and, in 1998, Ross had a building architecturally designed and developed in Caloundra. Forbes Chatham then purchased one of the offices and moved in with their by now 4 staff. Mainsail Professional Centre is still one of Caloundra’s premier office buildings.
Tradesure is born
Ross and Brian are living proof that success in business requires some innovative thinking. In Feb 2007 they continued operating the insurance advisory business, but were searching for a niche business to run in conjunction with the insurances they were already operating. They decided to look at the local market for an insurance product where they could really help local people and eventually reap some benefits for themselves. In doing so, they noted the building industry was experiencing rapid growth on the Sunshine Coast, engaging many subcontractors. They then developed and trialled a specialised insurance, Tradesure, with targeted products for local subcontractors, which eventually expanded to operate on a State and National level.
In 2008, they moved into the office at the Regatta with a staff of 6. They had simply outgrown their office in Caloundra and needed to employ more staff with the rapid growth of Tradesure.
With an excess of 10,000 policies and 14 staff Forbes Chatham, have continued to expand. Ross states that gradual controlled growth is the best growth.
Both men want to work on the business and as well as in the business. They want to maintain a local focus and support local businesses on the Sunshine Coast. They also aim to remain community-oriented, and are presently members of 5 local Chambers of Commerce. Brian and Ross also contribute to philanthropic organisations such as Encouragement Foundation , Destiny Rescue and World Vision, as well as many local sporting clubs and charities.
The focus on growing Tradesure and the Secret to Success
The mindsets of both men changed when they recognised the possibilities that existed within Tradesure. Given that the domestic insurance for houses and cars was becoming competitive with many new insurers, they needed something for their business that would allow them to grow and remain competitive.
Brian and Ross acknowledge the efforts of QBE, who helped them get Tradesure off the ground. Many other insurers have also greatly assisted over the years, including Allianz, CGU and Zurich, as well as their Steadfast Insurance facility through AIS Insurance. The key to forging successful cooperative efforts was to strengthen relationships with individuals in these companies and then to produce what they said they would.
'They understood that they were taking a chance with us by giving us discounted premiums and their faith in us has contributed greatly to our success.' Ross explains. 'These relationships were always built on honesty and integrity. We never went to these companies and proclaimed to be able to do something and then not deliver on it. This was how we built trust. From this trust, whenever there were opportunities for growth or expansion we were always considered.'
Both men suggest that the keys to growth and success are pretty straight forward. 'We have never over-capitalised. We're careful not to lease too much equipment or spend money on expensive cars, because that won't help a business grow,' says Brian.
Brian and Ross believe it's important to keep things simple. They advise business owners not to over- commit taking on that your business has the potential to be your best ever investment. They also suggest that the surest way to make a business grow is to look after its customers first and foremost.
Know your industry
Both Ross and Brian point out it's important to be involved in your industry, as well as your community. Ross says, 'Always look to how you can actively change your industry and be a voice for the direction you want to see it evolve into.'
With this in mind, Ross is on the national board of the IAAA – Australian Insurance Agents Association. From this association, Ross became a founding director and shareholder of an alliance called NAS Insurance, which now has a turnover $200 million dollars per year. It was originally set up with 3 other people in Western Australia and was originally designed to assist insurance agents to conduct their business with other insurers where they needed access to specific products. Ross explains, 'If you're an individual and you're with CGU that’s it. If you go to NAS it opens up all their insurance facilities for you.' Although no longer involved with NAS Ross adds, 'It was a great learning experience.'
Brian and Ross offer the following key tips for building and sustaining a successful business:
- Be modest in your spending in the early beginnings.
- Be champions for your customers. It’s all about having the confidence in us to know that we can listen and deliver what our client needs.
- Sacrifice where it needs to happen.
- Always work with honesty and integrity.
- Look after and respect your staff.
- Make sure you have a system. You can only give good service if you have good systems in place.
- Give your staff a forum to contribute to the business, such as regular staff meetings.
- Invest in your staff and offer quality training.
What does it take in your personal life to make this happen?
Both Brian and Ross have worked extremely hard to get where they are today. Brian offers a few insights in this regard: 'There are going to be opportunities that you wouldn't get it you weren’t in business. You need to make the most of these and make the necessary sacrifices in order to secure the benefits that will come from those opportunities. These benefits will eventually far out way the sacrifices. Remember to put in long hours, where necessary, and don’t expect to be rewarded for it. Having said that, you can always increase your income, while growing a valuable business.'
Both men explain that the greatest reward is being involved in the local community and providing employment for so many people over the years. In this way, they hope they have contributed significantly to the Sunshine Coast community.
Overall, Brian and Ross are leading by example. The men at Forbes Chatham are showing other business people and entrepreneurs on the coast and around the country that, given the right approach, success, growth and sustainable longevity are within reach for the average Aussie business owner.