Adviser - Winter 2018

Decimal coins had just hit the high street, Martin Luther King was assassinated and the musical Hair opened in London’s West End. The year was 1968 and in Diss, Norfolk, Merrick Hill Insurance brokers was founded. Acquired by the Scrutton Bland Group in 2004 Merrick Hill, now known as Scrutton Bland, continues to thrive. Adviser takes a look into company’s history and speaks to staff past and present. T he Merrick Hill business was set up in Diss in south Norfolk by Sidney Hill in 1968 and at that time traded as S Merrick Hill Business Services. Offering general business administration services such as payroll, invoicing and bookkeeping from their offices in Church Street (and later St Nicholas Street) Merrick Hill served the breadth of the local business community. As these administrative jobs came and went, it became clear that a more stable line of income was needed for the firm, and David Leeder was taken on in 1975 to increase the level of insurance broking business. David recalls that his ‘word of mouth’ approach was very successful in a market town where so many people and businesses knew each other, and over the next year and a half he picked up at least one new policy each working day. However, whilst Diss maybe have been a quiet market town, there was nothing sleepy about Merrick Hill’s marketing strategy. Recognising In 2004 Merrick Hill took the decision to sell the business to Scrutton Bland, and Andrew Eaglen, John Burrell and David Leeder all retired. Merrick Hill continued to be an active part of the local business community, such as the Diss Business Forum, for whom Ed Nottingham acts as Secretary and which works to encourage local firms to work more effectively together. In 2014 the office moved to Victoria Road on the outskirts of Diss, and the Merrick Hill name remained in use until 2018 when the Scrutton Bland brand refresh was rolled out across the firm.

As you might expect, in Diss and the surrounding area there were plenty of farming and agricultural clients, but other businesses also called on their services, not least Anglia Television who were based in Norwich. In the 1970s, during the height of the package holiday firms would advertise on television, and viewers were given a number to call to send for a brochure. That number would go through to a 24-hour answerphone at Merrick Hill, where a team of outworkers would transcribe the details of the people calling in, type them onto labels and then send to the relevant holiday company to post out their brochure. Andrew Eaglen, a partner in the firm from the beginning, remembers that this was a hugely successful campaign for the business, so much so that they had to move to a new office to accommodate the volume of equipment and staff needed to process the enquiries. However as the need for manual recording and processing declined, other lines of business had to be explored. An interesting revenue stream was to emerge from the processing of money off vouchers. Merrick Hill landed the contract to process money off coupons from the Key Markets national chain of supermarkets, and in the 1970s and early 80s each branch of the supermarket would send large sacks of vouchers each week to Merrick Hill where they would be manually sorted and sent on to the various product manufacturers, who would then reimburse Key Markets. Like the holiday brochures, this was a laborious, but lucrative project for the Merrick Hill staff, not least lifting and sorting the sacks of paper vouchers, but it came to an end when Key Markets were taken over by Somerfield and automatic bar code recognition came into use.

that advertising was helpful in generating awareness, they had beer mats printed and distributed to local pubs. In 1978 Sid Hill retired and John Burrell joined the business to help grow the insurance brokerage. The back office organisation was comprised of manual cardex systems, handwritten receipts, and of course, says David, “everyone paid in cash”. At that time there weren’t many high street insurance brokers, and many local people placed their personal insurance with Merrick Hill, including the former international speedway star Geoff Pymar, the Monte Carlo rally driver Raymond Joss, and the carriage driving expert John Parker whose coach and four can be seen on many period films and television dramas. David Leeder even ended up helping John out on a number of occasions such as Royal Ascot and on a London-Norwich carriage driving event. of several local insurance businesses. It was at this time that a number of staff joined and who are still working in the firm’s Diss office today. Gary Stannard, Ed Nottingham and Alison Wilby all joined in the early 1990s and contributed to the firm’s success as a motor and fleet broker and specialist in placing agricultural insurances. Gary and Ed are now directors of the firm, Gary recalls: “In the 1980s we were one of the few local businesses who offered a photocopying service, and we charged 10 pence per copy. It was a really popular service, as well as being a great way to keep in touch with other firms and promote our own insurance.” The 1980s and 90s saw an expansion of the insurance broking business, with the acquisition

There are still many interesting and unusual clients on the books including a local car collector whose collection includes the famous ‘flying’ car Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the titled landowner who leases parts of his scenic estate each year to the organisers of the Latitude Festival near Southwold. Another client was Pete Gillings, who was one of the best known residents of Diss. Each year he would lead the Diss Carnival, taking the carnival queen through the town in his Rolls Royce, except in 2010 when he had booked to go on holiday, before realising it clashed with the carnival. Ed recalls: “He called me to ask about adding a driver to his insurance policy for the day, and when I asked for the driver’s name he said “you!” He left me the chauffeur’s hat and gloves and that year I drove through the town, getting plenty of odd glances from people I knew. It was a great day!” The Merrick Hill name may now be no more, but the business continues to thrive under the Scrutton Bland Group: a great example of professional expertise and local knowledge combined with personal service.

Contact Scrutton Bland’s Diss office on 01379 643444.

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