Merchant Investors 1974 to 1977 - The Revolution
Merchant Investors, formerly Old Broad Street Securities, was one of a new breed of Insurance Company formed by Financial Institutions to exploit new financial products available – particularly from the Unit Trust Industry. Not exactly Insurance products, although they did have a nominal amount of Life Insurance associated with the package to keep their status as a life insurance product, the plans were linked to the underlying performance of Unit Trusts. Therefore – in theory at least – they provided a much better return on investment than the conventional Life Insurance Endowment product, and many financial institutions jumped “onto the bandwagon” and set up Direct Sales Forces to exploit this new market.
Shortly after the GCP London event, I received a call from John Golding inviting me to a personal meeting in London. At the meeting, he explained that in his opinion there was a better opportunity than GCP available, and that he had identified an Insurance Company looking to build its sales force.
John’s plan was brilliant in its simplicity and clarity of thought. The first part of the plan was that an instant sales force was needed – what better sales force could there be than GDP distributors who had already proved their worth in sales and team building? The second part addressed the problem all sales people face, which is how and where to find prospects. John’s solution was that sales leads would be provided by canvassing – preferably by an attractive girl – asking members of the public to complete a simple form which contained one key question: “Would you be interested in a Savings Plan designed to beat Inflation?“
And so our “team” of ex GCP distributors started at Merchant Investors in approx 1974 selling financial products. Our open plan offices were on one floor in an office block in London’s Holborn District at Thaives Inn
Our Regional Manager was Sid King and Branch Manager Terry Bilham: both were “old school” insurance salesmen, and were not expecting the sales revolution that was to come. After some basic training, our new team of some 20 or 30 individuals – most of whom I had not met previously – started to do business, using the canvassing method proposed by John. For those of us not fortunate enough to have our own canvasser, excess “leads” – completed enquiry forms – were shared between us, and sales started to come in at record breaking levels.
The products that we sold were either monthly savings plans or Single Premium Insurance Bonds, and linked to one or more Unit Trusts: the Unit Trusts were managed by the Merchant Investor fund managers. The premiums paid purchased a number of units in the Unit Trust depending on the unit price at the time, prices that were regularly published in the Financial Times and other journals. It was also possible to switch accumulated units in one Trust to a different Trust within the “portfolio”
All the salesmen were “self employed”, meaning that we relied on commission earnings from successful sales. The commission was generous – particularly on the monthly savings plans – and was paid in advance, but would quickly be “reversed” if the customer cancelled his contract within two years.
Potential customers were followed up by phone once the canvassing or enquiry form had been completed, and were invited to a “one on one” meeting at our offices, where the paperwork for any successful sale was concluded.
Some of the personalities that I remember well were:
Chris Efstratiou – Chris was one of the most successful in the group, and with the largest team, regularly headed the sales charts, and we were all jealous that he had the best canvasser and source of leads in the fabulous Jenny Auret. They later married and to this day are two of my closest friends.
Robin Fielder – Robin was one of the leading lights at GCP and drove a Ferrari. Slightly older than the rest of us, he later ran his own Motivational Business – LDL – focussing on leadership and sales training.
John Golding (Dec’d) – As I remember, John was a quiet individual, and not that interested in sales “per se”. I lost contact with him but he was a key member of the team in the early years.
Alan Forbes (Dec’d) – I was probably closest to Alan in the way we worked and our ethical priorites. We also had adjacent desks. Alan was a little older and more experienced than most of us and had a gorgeous young girlfriend at the time – Avella Hatton – who was only 19 and a top canvasser for “leads”.
George Kelly – George was an Australian Greek and close friends with Chris Efstratiou. He was more interested in team building than selling insurance products, and was in my opinion well suited to play a Mafia character in any film! His canvasser was the lovely Jan, a top model, whom he later married.
Rai Hamilton – Rai was a bit of a loner and had wealthy connections, which meant that he only had to complete a few sales to top the sales charts. Always turned out in a pinstripe suit, he married Margarita a well known record producer and studio owner. Rai is listed now as a “financier” but the only source of public information I have relates to Walton Castle which he apparently bought in 1984 with Margarita – they are now divorced.
David Lewis – David achieved great success in GCP and also drove the obligatory red Ferrari. I got to know him and his wife Suzy reasonably well, visiting their home in St John’s Wood on several occasions. A complex character, and interesting, I am not sure what happened to him post Merchant Investors.
Bob Patmore – Bob was very close at the time to David Lewis, and was previously a professional bass guitarist and a professional footballer. He sold me my first decent electric guitar – a Fender Telecaster – for £200 Always “down to earth” and modest, he went on to become very successful in his own right as can be seen from the above link.
Terry Bilham – Terry was our Branch Manager and a great bloke – a bit of a “Jack the Lad” with a London cockney background. He also favoured pin stripe suits, had a very smart house in Surrey and owned an Aston Martin, which trumped my E-Type! I am not sure what happened to Terry in later life, but I imagine he stayed in the Insurance industry.
Merchant Investors Crete Sales Convention October 1975
Without doubt the best sales convention I have attended was at the 5 Star Elounda Beach Hotel in Crete. I qualified for the event after my own record sales month in March 1975, part of the earnings going towards a Jaguar E-Type. Apart from the hotel itself – which was superb with all the facilities one could ask for – wives and/or girlfriends were included in the all expenses paid trip, and I invited Rosie whom I married the next year. Having the top sales people together with wives and girlfriends was a pretty special time for all of us.
All Good Things Come to an End
When you have a group of high achievers together – all with big egos and a lot of talent – there comes a time when what is “on the table” is not enough. Bottom Line – we were making money for other people, when we all knew we could be making more money for ourselves: most of us realised that we had outgrown Merchant Investors, and in about 1976/1977 the company started to lose its new sales team.
Chris Efstratiou for example formed his own company Berkeley Walbrook, taking most if not all of his team of salesman with him; George Kelly – who was politically very astute – eventually did the same. Rai Hamilton left to form his own consultancy. Robin Fielder decided that the Insurance Industry was not for him, and formed Leadership Development Ltd. Alan Forbes I believe also left the company to set up his own business.
For my part, I had also decided that I could do better outside Merchant Investors, and in 1977 I had set up Noble Warren Investments Ltd as an Insurance Brokerage operating out of the top floor of 50 Maddox Street in London W1. All my personal clients from Merchant Investors retained me as their financial advisor, and I had a small team of 2 or 3 consultants: I had never been entirely comfortable with the ethics at the time in direct sales “Merchant Investors” style, and although I was happy with Insurance and Investments as a “profession”, I wanted to give customers a more professional service, which encompassed all possible products, and not just high commission paying savings plans and single premium bonds with the one company.