Entrepreneurship isn’t always the creation of something out of nothing. Sometimes, it’s a light bulb turning on in a young, ambitious mind that then builds an idea into a reality through blood, sweat and venture capital. Yet often in the Middle East, where graduates with ideas and hunger are often required to join the family firm, entrepreneurship can be just as innovative when it involves adding new impetus and fresh thinking to an existing organisation.
In my case, for instance, I came into our family business, a boutique insurance firm, in the United Arab Emirates in the 1960s.
Petra Insurance Brokers, which my father founded in the 1960s, ran smoothly for many years, growing past the startup stage and becoming an established company. Today it is very stable, with a core clientele and credibility in the marketplace. But, by the 2000s, like many businesses that achieve a certain level of success, the organization had slowly lost a bit of dynamism, and a reluctance to identify new opportunities or embrace new ways of doing things had set in.
In 2002, we launched Petra Insurance as a new company, as a continuation of the previous business under a new trademark. When I came on board in 2012, I decided to change that, by reinvigorating the company and taking it to the next level. It’s an on-going process, of course, but it’s been a great education on how to develop entrepreneurship in any company at any stage.
Approaching the challenge
When I first started, my biggest disadvantage was also a clear advantage: knowing little about the UAE insurance market. It enabled me to approach the company from a completely fresh perspective and, being a branding professional, I was able to ask the questions that got to the root of Petra’s main challenges.
This perspective also made me hungry to deepen my knowledge about the industry and how service companies can grow their customer base. I joined the Chartered Insurance Institute last year and was selected for the Emirates Insurance Association Technical Committee Board, where I connected with the other eight technical industry experts who were selected as members. I also joined the Referral Institute, which gave me tangible skills in networking.
Having made my assessments, both of the company and the local insurance market, I was able to introduce a number of important changes at Petra, both in strategy and culture. These ranged from what could be called low-hanging fruit all the way to a wide-ranging shift in mindset. Here are some of the changes that I implemented, which could be useful for any entrepreneur looking to revitalize a family company.
- Creating smaller departments and specialist services
To pursue new market segments, we created smaller, more focused departments that focused on servicing specialised insurance needs that the mainstream . This included looking after small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), who are often intimidated by insurance or have no idea which products to request.
- Building better brand communication
It was clear that there was life in the brand, and by communicating and educating people through our new blog and speaking opportunities, we’ve been able to reinvigorate the brand and widen its reach.
- Overhauling employee compensation
We completely overhauled our employee compensation and reward policies, in order to better motivate our team and recognise their contribution to our goals.
- Introducing more talent
In order to expand as well as to create fresh impetus in the company, we hired a number of ambitious young insurance professionals.
- Providing on-going training
In addition to introducing new talent, we offered comprehensive training programmes to enhance and update the skills of those already at the company.
- Empowering our staff
It was important that Petra wasn’t perceived as a one- or two-person show, and we ensured that everyone shared in the responsibility of moving the company forward.
- Improving digital presence
It was key that we created a new digital strategy and we immediately invested in search-engine optimisation and improved social media engagement.
- A new, positive culture
We removed the words “hopefully” and “try” from our daily lexicon and rebuilt our relationships with insurance houses on the premise of “we can do this.”
Instilling entrepreneurship across the company
At its very root, entrepreneurship is about doing something differently and, hopefully, better, than it’s being done currently. With a company that has been around for decades, an entrepreneurial mindset is important for constantly challenging the status quo, not just in a core leadership team but in every employee.
At Petra, we encouraged everyone to be an entrepreneur, whether they were delivering new processes or seeking referrals to generate new business, and this has a domino effect, both in terms of signing new clients and in overall morale, which is important for a company’s bottom line; hard work leads to a greater number of satisfied clients which in turn leads to greater rewards. It’s been great to see this being adopted across the company.
Happily, the results have been their own best advertisement. We have improved revenues by 30% year on year for the last two years, and that has now created another new challenge as we have to hire and train yet more people.
Entrepreneurship in the Middle East
My experience is representative of what entrepreneurship means for many people in my generation in the Middle East. And while the family firm might often be perceived as a burden, it can also be a huge opportunity.
Obviously, there are inbuilt advantages, such as already handling an established brand and, hopefully, dealing with guaranteed cashflow. But young professionals shouldn’t shy away from the challenge of adding value to their business by saying “this is not good enough,” looking at their family company’s strengths and weaknesses to find ways to improve.
This is entrepreneurship, pure and simple. I can tell you that it is much easier said than done, but when given the green light, it can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience – for everyone.
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