This is a series of stories told by leaders in the Doncaster area (City of). These stories have been curated by me (Kurt Ewald Lindley) as part of a collaboration between Doncaster Council, Doncaster Chamber of Commerce and other Team Doncaster member to showcase, not just the best of Doncaster, but to inform the development of Doncaster’s Economic Strategy and
“make it the best place to do business.”
The #DNBusinessTalks road trip continues, this time to meet Jon Whiteley (the most humble leader yet). Once the owner of Doncaster based ProAktive Insurance Broker and Risk Management Consultants, recently retired having sold the company earlier this year (July of 2022).
This was a great opportunity to hear how a business leader sees things, now that they have stepped out of the organisation they created 38 years ago!
The Journey – live on your promise
ProAktive was the positive result of a falling out. A commitment was made to Jon and then broken, his employer at the time did not it seems ‘live by their promise’. This was the fuel that in 1984 helped establish a business, which has grown in size and reputation for nearly four decades.
And I believe the continuation of this growth over the years is routed in Jon’s genuine curiosity for his clients. He mentioned that he would turn up at clients offices and be invited to review documents and paperwork, however his first desire was to learn more about them. Often asking to walk the shop floor, showing sincere interest and allowing people to express their pride in their business.
Jon spoke about the importance of reputation, which meant clients would come to them. His focus was to become the Insurance Broker of choice, which at times was hard – “there were too many people after the same customers”. In the mid to late 90’s ProAktive established itself as a strong player of note in the field of ‘Risk Management’. Whilst they have since diversified, this remains their cornerstone of work.
Growing at the right pace seemed to be a foundational philosophy. Jon mentioned “we were as big as we wanted to be”, he went on to share “we could have been bigger” but this would have consequences (see challenges below).
When making decisions about growth, Jon spoke of the ProAktive square, a tool for business planning. In essence all business decisions would be based on 4 criteria – Will this add to us being;
- The best employer
- the risk management broker of choice
- the providers preferred route to market and
- will it bring the right financial return
Point 4 stands out to me, the phraseology specifically of ‘the right financial return’. Not the biggest or the best. Why? Well Jon explained that at times if they took this approach, they may compromise items 1-3.
Business success never came at the expense of the employee or customer, but with them front and centre. This is a story of balance. Not one over the other, but one with the other.
This people first culture seems to permeate much of ProAktive’s approach. Jon shared the phrase “square peg, square hole”, his follow up to this was:
“if people didn’t fit somewhere, we didn’t move them on. We moved them around until they found their place”
It’s clear Jon understood the value of people. That in all of us we have things we are good at and things we are less so. Jon would focus on what they have, what good they bring and work with individuals to find their natural fit.
Throughout our conversation, what struck me about Jon was his maturity of thought and his humble nature. Not once was there a boastful comment, just a pride in his work and the work of those he had the privilege to spend his day with. It was a real pleasure to listen to Jon, his words and messages spoke of ‘prosperity’ rather than ‘profit’.
Challenges in Business – the risk of growth
“During the late 90’s we weren’t big enough to demand better deals for our clients, so we bought businesses to build ourselves up. What we didn’t realise was the impact of their culture on ours”
Whilst ProAktive may have grown and could now command better deals for their clients (because they could trade in higher volume). What they hadn’t factored in was the disturbance and dilution of their culture, due to the influence of the cultures their newly acquired businesses would bring. Jon expressed:
“this threatened our existence”
ProAktive later went on to resell the businesses which didn’t match with their value system.
“the challenge of the 2001 insurance crisis showed us at our best. People rolled up their sleeves and dug in…..we learned through this adversity”
I’m guessing the reason people did this was because of the culture Jon and the team at ProAktive were working so hard to create (and protect as mentioned in the challenge above).
Lessons for others – Good People and Good Decisions
“Employ good people to free you up to do what you do best”
On numerous occasions Jon mentioned the value of “sticking to what you are good at” and recruiting people to fill the gaps you have within yourself.
“do what’s right for the business”
Jon felt that you will always be able to respond to criticism this way. Doing what’s right for the business, sustains the business, allows it to continue not only to serve its clients but to pay its workforce. “You must always consider the opportunity cost”, not at the expense of others, but with others in mind.
Advice to a younger you (and the ones who didn’t choose so well)
“it took me 25 years to know I wasn’t as good as others in some areas, I wish I’d trusted and delegated sooner”
The Legacy – Be as good as you can be
In his leaving speech Jon used the following phrase, a twist on a Robert Louis Stevenson quote:
“unfulfilled potential is the greatest unpunishable crime. Be as good as you can be in whatever you do and then you will reach the end of your career a very happy person.”
Jon’s legacy or that of ProAktive’s as a company is to be as good as they can be, to focus on what they are good at and encourage the same of its workforce. Robust businesses with loyal and skilled employees speak of continuity and trust which clients love. This drives a strong position in the market.
The Call to Action – we’ve made good ground
“Use the resources available to you and celebrate the ground we have made”
Jon was keen to acknowledge that whilst yes lots more could be done by the systems, we (the Doncaster Business Community) have a lot going for us and we have achieved a great deal for a relatively small place. He was keen to acknowledge the good work of Business Doncaster and its positive impact on the economy.
Your one ask of ‘Team Doncaster’
“keep the economy at the centre of your decisions”
If the economy is growing, we can make the investments we need into our communities. With inward investment and a focus on trade and skills.
I return to something I mentioned earlier, ‘maturity of thought’…. Jon reached the point of sale with ProAktive, because in his own words “the business didn’t need me, it could do with new owners”. I love how he knew where his jumping off point was for the betterment of the business. I love that he was able to recognise when it was time to allow the right ‘someone else’ to take the helm.
He did jokingly say “I mean really, do you want someone in their mid 60’s questioning your decisions”. I think Jon still has many good questions to ask. His reflective nature and considered approach, tells me Jon will continue to be a positive guide to the business (his career and life capital remain an asset to ProAktive).
Jon is one of many who are making Doncaster the best place to do business. And it’s from his story and the stories of others that ‘Team Doncaster’ hope to create a robust, prosperous Economic Strategy for our City.
Do you have a story or know of a Doncaster Leader with a story to share for #DNBusinessTalks? Get in touch here.