2016 NSW Broker of the Year John Dunk works in the cherry capital of Australia – Young – with a population of nearly 8,000 but his clients range over thousands of kilometres, including the remote towns of Tibooburra and Hungerford in the corner country of NSW. He tells Insurance Adviser what it’s like to be a bush broker.
Insurance Adviser: Most people won’t even know where Tibooburra is on the map. John, what is a normal day for you as a broker in regional Australia?
John Dunk: My Tibooburra mate is probably the furthest away client I have. We do all his business, including motel, caravan park, post office, roadhouse, home and motor vehicles. He is probably the most interesting as well because they are so geographically remote and they’ve built everything from the ground up – him and his wife. They are in an area where the conditions are quite harsh. The travel to get anywhere and anything is enormous. They would be 1,150km from Young and 300km from their nearest supplier.
Most of my clients are 200km each way. In any one day, I could travel over 650km and visit five clients. You can’t work short hours, or office hours in the country. But driving these distances is what I’ve always done, growing up in country NSW and it’s my time to think, plan and reflect.
IA: So what led you into insurance?
JD: My cousin and friend had a job with Australian Eagle back in 1981 in Nyngan NSW and he suggested I apply. I had to go down to Dubbo, 350km away, for the interview and I got the job as an Inspector (as they called us in those days) at West Wyalong. I had no idea what I was doing but they wanted ‘bush blokes’ who could talk to farmers. I was brought up on a 76,000 acre property near Hungerford which I still own and run and had worked when time permitted as a wool classer and shearer.
Brokers are so important out here. We have to have a basic understanding of the things that impact farmers.
All I did for the first 12 months was drive around and talk to farmers, but it was easy because I was one of them. There’s a bit of a stigma against insurance… so when I went into a shearing shed, some of them thinking they were smart would say, ‘you better shear one for us’ and I’d do it! That really floored them. But it gave me good grounding and immediately built trust with them.
IA: How has being born and living in country NSW shaped the way you approach broking?
JD: This game is so much based on relationships.
Something from my upbringing in the country that has significant meaning for me is that while we as children never wanted for anything (my mother was a splendid cook)… we never really got fresh bread as it had to come from Bourke some 185km on the back of a mail truck and could be sitting in the sun for lengthy periods. And I remember when the then Dalgety rep would call out, he always brought a loaf of fresh bread.
So now every farmer I visit, I take a cake (my wife owns a bakery in Young) – even to people I don’t know. Because the usual thing is they offer you a cup of tea and we can have cake with it. I say ‘if you deal with us, you can have your cake and eat it too!’.
Usually the first question to me is: “where do you come from?” And I tell them that I live in Young but come from Bourke. All the work is done then, they trust you straightaway.
Also, I visit the little towns and communities because everything in the way of services is continually being taken away – they shut the banks and supermarkets – in a way, I feel like I’m putting something back into those areas by going there and providing my services. For example, I used to go out to Tullibigeal every third Monday – that’s when the bank is open and the sheep sale was on. To this day, I still drive out there weekly.
IA: What are the challenges of being a regional broker?
JD: Because we are in a regional area, underwriting is difficult because the occupations don’t fit the codes that the insurance companies have… not that it doesn’t happen in the metropolitan space as well. But people in the country are doing it tough… so there are no straightforward occupations. They’ve got to have other fingers in the pie to keep the wheels turning. For example, a florist could have a bridal wear section or a bakery will sell giftware or homewares. So as brokers we have to be really careful when dealing with mixed occupations.
Another challenge is with claims, particularly with the availability of tradesmen and repairers. The costs are horrendous. While insurers have their preferred suppliers, country people like to buy locally because you have to keep the town going. But when we lodge a claim, the insurer refers us to their supplier which could be hundreds of kilometres away. It’s the tyranny of distance out here!
IA: What are the opportunities for brokers out in the country?
JD: The biggest problem out here is economies of scale for the insurance company – there’s just not enough dollars. It’s so top heavy in the corporate world that the systems are not geared to regional/bush insurance.
That’s where we come in. Very few clients care about Allianz or QBE for example. They don’t feel compelled to insure with any particular company. They deal with John Dunk – they won’t necessarily know or care who they are insured with.
I visit the little towns and communities because everything in the way of services is continually being taken away… I feel like I’m putting something back into those areas by going there and providing my services.
Brokers are so important out here. We have to have a basic understanding of the things that impact farmers – financially, legally and socially. If something is about accounting or law or banking, because you’re a broker, they expect you to have a handle on that. They look to me because they trust me so much, so if I don’t know the answer, I’ll find out and point them in the right direction.
You basically take them under your wing and they don’t go anywhere else.
My dream has always been to have a “business supermarket” – to have an in-house risk insurer, succession planning, accountant and lawyer because they all interact.
IA: How do you think brokers can be attracted to work in regional NSW?
JD: I think there’s a real problem with awareness. It’s not easy to get qualified staff… and you don’t want to poach from another business.
Insurance is also not an occupation of choice. No one really knows about insurance, it’s not something that is suggested, recommended or taught in schools. We need to be going to the schools to talk to them, making the teachers aware.
However, at the end of the day, it is about building relationships and a big part is attitude. The right type of person can be taught about insurance.
Your date of birth doesn’t determine the type of person you are, it’s your upbringing. Look at the good employees, their parents will generally be honest, hardworking, loyal people. When you live in a regional town you live with these people so employing becomes a product of awareness.
IA: What are the key issues for regional brokers for the next few years?
JD: In the regional areas, many towns are going backwards socio-economically. Retail shops are closing due to online shopping. That’s a big hit for the locals, and we rely on these businesses.
Farms are also particularly at the mercy of the weather, and weather patterns are changing.
Education of our customers about the value of correct insurance cover is crucial.
Insurance is not seen as value for money. It’s not where it should be on client’s priority list.
A medium to large farm account should attract a premium of $10,000 to $50,000 but that is just not going to happen. They have a figure in their head that they are prepared to spend on insurance, for example, $8,000 and they say, “You give me as much insurance as I can get for that”.
Most of the bigger accounts are snapped up by the large international brokers so it’s hard for us to compete. Mostly, the local businesses want to deal with you but the Internationals have a scheme based on volume in place.
IA: What is the highlight of your career so far?
JD: The highlight of my career, I would say, is my longevity. And that I’ve remained relevant. Winning the state award was an individual highlight of my career. I wouldn’t have thought I would be nominated, let alone be successful.
I believe the relationships we’ve built up over the years – with clients and underwriters – they have been wonderful and have gone on for a long time. Many of my clients I am now visiting each year for the 35th time.
And having good staff. I hope I’ve managed to create an environment of happiness in the workplace, because if you have that, it’s a conducive to increasing productivity.
Finally, is the fact that I’ve maintained my desire to help people in a nice way.