Neil Watson from Zurich talks about his turbulent career in financial services and how he has been able to adapt to the continuous change and start again.
Neil Watson has spent 40 years in financial services and has weathered all the ups and downs of the last decades which means that he has developed a great deal of resilience: it has not only given him a deep and broad understanding of the sector, but the ability to pick himself up and start again, adapting to whatever comes next.
Neil joined the Royal Insurance Group in 1981 at the age of 23 through a series of events rather than any grand plan.
He had not had an easy start in life; his father was violent and died early, uninsured, leaving Neil’s mum to raise her two young children on her own. The family eventually lost their home and struggled financially for many years.
Neil’s mum worked long hours in the local factory and Neil left school in the fifth form with only CSE O levels and limited options – he could either go to FE college, join the armed forces or work in the factory.
So, he retook his qualifications and was offered a place at Loughborough University in part because he was a promising athlete at the time. In the end, however, he decided to go to another university to study Geology/Geography and then worked for an archaeological team and for British Rail.
Everything changed, however, after Neil was caught in flagrante with his girlfriend by her dad, a well-respected local insurance broker…He suggested that Neil needed a more “respectable” career and showed him an advert for a new role in the Royal Insurance Group; he applied for the job and got it.
Neil adapted to the new competitive world of insurance sales quickly; he liked working with clients, initially through building society and bank referrals, and highlighting the importance of mortgage protection.
In the mid-1980s, the Royal Insurance Group bought an offshore company on the Isle of Man. That meant Neil experienced having one foot in the international market focused on non-domiciled UK residents.
By 1988, the opportunity to fully focus on international issues arose through Royal Life International. He became part of a small team of five and covered the Midlands and South West, training other life insurance consultants as well as developing and widening a new network of financial advisers.
It was through his work on the account of a well-known pop star that he was headhunted by Clerical Medical and he joined them in 1990.
Within a week of starting his reputation got a boost when he successfully handled a large investment case. It was not long before he gained promotion and was asked to look after the Gibraltar office and develop Spanish- and Portuguese-based intermediaries.
Having shown he could develop something from nothing, he was then asked to develop the Nordic region as well as Southern Europe. That meant contacting local regulators and developing ‘eyes on the ground’ with local accountancy and legal firms.
Neil loved the sense of developing something new and finding the right companies to work with, not just the ones where the easy money could be made.
“There were a number of potential pitfalls, but with a careful approach I made sure we put down roots with the right businesses and individuals who behaved ethically and with integrity and could be trusted.
“You need to have a lot of self-discipline and not be distracted by offers of quick wins or questionable opportunities that occasionally came my way,’’ he says.
Things were going well in the Nordic region when the company underwent a major restructure.
As a consequence, Neil’s job changed and he became Head of International Sales with a brief to help identify where the company should focus its resources.
The end result was a successful refocus on particular geographical areas and the recruitment of regional managers in Hong Kong and Europe.
It was during this time that the Halifax bought Clerical Medical and, with a new CEO in place, Neil was encouraged to relocate to Luxembourg, but he decided that, with a young family, he wanted to stay in the UK. He was made redundant following some internal consultancy work.
It was not long afterwards that in 2003 Neil spotted an advert for a trek across Iceland in support of Macmillan Cancer Relief and made up his mind to raise the money required to take part.
“I liked the idea of a challenge and had been to Iceland a few times previously; it was something completely different,” he says.
On his return he was contacted by a former colleague in Gibraltar who had set up his own FSC-regulated business there and asked if Neil would consider becoming a co-owner, developing links with banks as an independent consultant in a regulated financial services firm.
He agreed to do this, but only for a limited time and subject to review. About a year later he was contacted by another former colleague to develop new distribution channels from scratch in a different part of Europe.
After a lot of research and meetings, the distribution channels widened and his UK-based limited company was generating sales way beyond what he had anticipated.
However, all of this suddenly came to a halt in 2008 in the wake of the financial crisis as new business ground to a halt almost immediately.
Neil continued to focus on his customer base and new business gradually restarted, but his company was then was hit by the Euro crisis in 2010. He needed time to reflect and consider his next steps.
He took a job in Lloyds Bank as a Protection Adviser and simultaneously set up in a new career as a freelance photography business. He has been passionate about photography since his teens, in particular wildlife photography.
The photography business forced him to interact more with people – at the time he was working from home most of the time. He bought a trailer and travelled around taking photographs, some using a large crate which families could sit on or use as a prop.
“It forced me to get out and sell myself; the business took off with me setting up at various venues such as theme parks and animal farms,” he says.
That photography business is still going and Neil has been doing corporate events, weddings and multi-million pound hotel refurbishments. Despite Covid proving challenging for the business, it is now regaining momentum.
The financial services side of his work continued to be turbulent, however, with Lloyds Bank announcing a big redundancy programme in 2014. Neil found himself out of work again.
At 57, he was worried that ageism would mean he would struggle to find a job, but in April 2015, he was appointed a Business Account Manager at insurance firm Zurich and has stayed with the company ever since.
Neil, who lives near Bath is married and has two grown-up daughters and a granddaughter, says Zurich has been a good employer. He cites its flexibility when his wife, who has supported him throughout his career, became very ill recently.
He says: “Without that flexibility it would have been much harder for both of us.”
Work-wise, Neil is looking forward to whatever new career challenge he may face next, his self-motivation and belief reinforced by years of experience of change. He cites the French author André Gide: ‘’If you want to discover new oceans you need to lose sight of the shore.’’ For Neil, that is about leaving what is safe and having the courage to start a new journey.