Working Lives

Forty-five years in the finance and investment worlds (1963-2010)

Location: Norwich, London, Derby

David describes his 45 years in the insurance and stock broking worlds. After some time in swinging London he travelled round England as an Inspector and Manager of Norwich Union branches and then came back to his roots in Norwich to work for London Life insurance and later at Norwich investment firm, Barratt and Cooke. His story gives a fascinating insight into the changing world of finance and insurance over the decades.


In 1955 I started school at Thorpe Grammar. This was a brand-new school and at first, we shared the facilities and teachers with Wymondham College travelling by bus from Norwich every day. Then after three or four years they finished building the new school at Thorpe, now Thorpe St Andrew High School, and we moved in.

I later transferred to Great Yarmouth Grammar School when my father, who was a draftsman, got a new job with Erie Resistor and we moved to Gorleston. It was a complete contrast – from a brand-new school established in 1955 to one established in 1551! I stayed on to the Sixth Form where I took maths, pure maths, applied maths and physics as my A-level subjects.

Norwich Union life in the 1960s

Originally, I wanted to be a pilot but I failed – out of 200 applicants, they only took 20. So, I applied to Norwich Union as an actuary student. I had been told that an actuary, a man who works out figures for insurance companies, was paid very well, and I thought, that sounds pretty good!

There was great competition for posts as actuary students, as they only took four new trainees each year. I had several rounds of interviews, first by the staff manager, then the agency manager and finally by the chief of the actuarial departments. Anyway, they offered me a job and I started in September 1963.

There must have been about 5,000 people working in Surrey St, there was the life insurance side and the fire insurance side. I worked for the life insurance side – dealing with people while the fire side insured things -cars, houses, furniture and things like that. I joined what they call the surrender value department which had about 40 staff, men and women, quite a lot of whom had been to university and got maths degrees.

What we had to do was to work out the value of any insurance policy when someone wanted to stop paying the premiums and cash it in -not only UK policies but also for branches in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, everywhere.

Initially it was very interesting, and I love figures, I love numbers and I love maths. We didn’t have computers in those days. We had slide rules, and there were huge slide rules, about two foot long, with a handle at the bottom and we used to swing them round … Absolutely fabulous machines! Later they went onto what they called a Brunsviga, which is a German calculating machine, not a computer, but a bit like a wind-up torch You wound it up and then you moved the figures across the top which was much better.

Our office was in the very modern block on Surrey Street which is still there today. It had just been built. Everything was brand new in the offices – well apart from those slide rules! Later on they went into computers. They’d installed the first computer in 1963 which was as big as this room with about the same power as the dictating machine you are using. All the paperwork and the machines were modern – the dictating machines and so on.

You dictated a letter onto your machine. It was a bit like a modern disk, a cylindrical one like an old gramophone record. That went through to the typing pool, in a bag. Then it came back again with your typed letter. That’s how I met my wife, she was in the typing pool but she also had to go round the offices collecting information about sickness absences, accidents and things like that and that is how I got to meet her.

In some ways, Norwich Union was a bit old fashioned, you were expected to dress smartly – suit, shirt and tie, polished shoes. At the time, I was very fashion conscious – all the men in their suits had turn-ups on their trousers but I decided to have trousers without turn-ups and I got my mother to cut a little triangle out by the hem because I’d seen it in a fashion magazine. I wore a pair of Chelsea boots as well and I’d bought a leather tie – I was ‘way out’, well, not way, way out, but I was certainly noticeable! The girls used to wear nice clothes – not a uniform, they could wear what they liked.

You had to toe the line, be there by nine o’clock but we left dead on five. We had lunches supplied, and they were good lunches, three courses – a starter, a main course, a pudding, and coffee…everyone together in this huge dining room

They were great people in that department, we all had the same sort of mind because everyone had had to take maths, physics and chemistry or something like that for their A-levels.

As I said, there were over 5,000 people working there and at the Norwich Union Sports and Social Centre at Pinebanks, there were three or four rugby teams, several rowing teams, about ten football teams as well as amateur dramatics and social events. I wasn’t there five minutes before my section leader, said ‘Somebody’s opted out of the rugby team this weekend, do you play rugby?’ I said ‘Yep, I play rugby.’ ‘Well, come and play.’ And then, another chap said, ‘We need some people in the rowing club.’ And I went down and joined the rowing club. I was enjoying what I was doing during the day and at night I was at Pinebanks, playing rugby, rowing, or getting involved in amateur dramatics. Even now over forty years later, we still keep in touch, we have rugby reunions, we have rowing reunions, although virtually everybody is retired now.

A new direction within Norwich Union

After two years there, I was absolutely bored out of my mind doing the same thing all day long. The morning post arrived: ‘I want the surrender value of my policy …’ all this and that. Just doing calculations and so I decided myself to see if I could do something different. So, I went to see the Chief General Manager and I said, ‘I love working for the Norwich Union, I love the sports facilities, I love the people I work with, but I am thoroughly bored with what I’m doing. I want to stay here, is there anything else I can do?’

He said, ‘I’ve got two suggestions. We’ve got a very big Estates department’. They had a separate building just for the property department. Norwich Union owned, and still own, thousands of properties which they rent out. Income comes in and that income goes towards the value of the insurance policies.

‘You can go into the Estates Department; you can be a surveyor. You’ve got the qualifications to be a surveyor making sure everything is spic and span with the properties, looking at the rents and making sure everything is OK.’ It sounded quite good, I thought. ‘Or you can go to one of our one hundred and twenty branches …’ , and you could see how you like working in a branch and see how that suits you.’

So, I said, ‘I like the sound of both of them.’ So, he said, ‘Right, we’ll arrange for you to spend a day in the Estates Department,’ (which I did, it was OK). And he also organized for me to meet the Agency Manager who was in charge of all branches and decided who goes to which branch. So, I went to see this chap, he was an Irishman, he’d been Norwich Union all his working life and he’d gone all the way through the branches and then come back to Head Office to take charge of all the branches.

He thought I would suit working in a branch and sent me down to meet the manager of the West End Branch in London where there was a vacancy. I was interviewed and then shown around the office -there were about 100 people working in this office in Piccadilly. Then we went to his office and he said, ‘When can you start?’ And I said, ‘As soon as you want me to start.’ So, he said, ‘Right, OK.’ And within a few weeks I was down in the London branch of Norwich Union and I never looked back.

Norwich Union’s West End Branch

Work in the branches was basically dealing with sales – bringing in new business to Norwich Union. In London, in due course I became what they call ‘an inspector of agents’. We had appointed agents all over the UK, thousands of them, and they all used to introduce business to Norwich Union – because the rates were competitive with a good policy and good premiums. But you had to convince these agents to introduce business to the Norwich Union. So, across the country, in all the big towns, there were branch offices – 120 in total.

The agents were mainly banks, building societies, surveyors, estate agents, solicitors, accountants – organisations like that who came face to face with the customer. If I was the agent and you were my customer, I could say to you, ‘You’ve come in here today for a policy to cover your mortgage. I can recommend Norwich Union. Here’s the form, fill it in.’ Then the form would be passed back to the Inspector who would set up the policy.

I spent two years training at the West End office to be an Inspector, it wasn’t guaranteed. I spent time with all the departments, I learnt about dealing with agents, and how to work out quotations and illustrations. I learnt all about pensions and everything about the life assurance industry. I became a member of the Chartered Insurance Institute, and recently they’ve made me an honorary member, which is quite an accolade for me.

In the West End of London, the world was your oyster. It was wonderful, because everything was there. All the theatres, the cinemas, the concerts – I used to go to the Albert Hall for the Proms, the Wigmore Hall, Festival Hall, and all the theatres. It was such a fantastic time. I had got engaged before I left Norwich and I married in 1967 when I was still in London and we lived in a flat in Chiswick and had a fantastic time before the children arrived.

When I first joined Norwich Union, my salary was £375 per annum – £30 a month and before I moved to London, it had gone up to about £800. In London, it was £1000. Later when I went out on the road, I had a company car. You worked from the branch but you went out and met your agents in your car; from 9 o’clock Monday morning to 5 o’clock Friday night you were seeing your agents and persuading them to do business with you.

I was a salesman. We weren’t paid on results, we just had a salary, but we had to go out and keep these agents happy because if they didn’t give business to Norwich Union, they’d give it to Standard Life, Commercial Union or Sun Alliance or any other company. So, you had to keep them happy and you had to be very efficient, you had to do what they told – or asked – you to do, to keep them on your side.

We used to go on lots of sales courses. We had to learn how to sell – they gave you all the spiel, I’ve been on so many courses in my lifetime …. But what I did, I manipulated it so that was my own. So, I found out what was successful, how I was succeeding whereas other people weren’t succeeding necessarily, and I worked along that route and brought in business.

Famous clients

When I was in the West End office, there were lots of famous clients, insuring themselves for very large amounts of money and so we needed to know about their health. Because if they were not in good health, they could die tomorrow and we’d pay out a million pounds … and they’d only paid £1000 in premiums, or something like that. We actually had a doctor on call who came into the office to do the medicals and people used to come in from the film industry, from Carnaby Street, Soho, all of those areas around Regent Street and Oxford Street in London. Interesting people used to come in all the time. I had David Frost, he used to do a programme ‘Through the Keyhole’ on television or used to. ‘That Was The Week That Was’, in the 1960s. Lots of film stars used to come in.

Moving on from the London office

As I said, I was bringing business in and I was being promoted quite regularly, this is why in the 15 years I worked for Norwich Union I had five moves so I was only three years in each branch because I got to the top of the previous job. My first sales job was a very lowly branch miles from anywhere and I gradually moved up the ladder.

I found out what worked – you had to be smartly dressed, have tidy hair, speak intelligently, know what you were talking about and know your business. You needed to quote your figures to agents. You would almost know them off by heart. You could look people in the eye and say ‘Look, this is a policy that will suit you – and this is why I would recommend this.’ And so on and so forth. Be on time and deliver the goods and everything like that. Instead of just spieling it off, learning it parrot fashion as they would teach you on these courses, I would try and be more natural with people. I was bringing in the business and I was enjoying what I was doing.

I would get to know the agents in my particular area very well, meet up with them socially -we were allowed expenses for a pub lunch, something like that – get to know them personally, get to know their families. That was another trick of mine, to try and remember people’s names – that scored points for me. Anyway, I loved what I was doing and I was successful.

As I moved on, I gradually was given more responsibility becoming the Senior Inspector of agencies in the Plymouth office. As an inspector, you are part of the sales team but responsible for your own area, in Plymouth, there were half a dozen areas each with an inspector. As the Senior Inspector, I had the choice area. I’d reached that position. So, the next rung up was to be a manager of a small branch.

Branch Manager in Derby

Then in 1976, the manager called me in and said, ‘‘Head Office have offered you a job in Derbyshire, to be the manager of the Derby office. Do you think you might like it?’ ‘I think that sounds great, thank you.’ So, I went off to Derby and met the existing manager in Derby.

Managing a branch is different from being an inspector; as an inspector you’re on your own, doing your own thing whereas a Branch Manager you run a sales team, you are responsible for the office, the general state of everything…….it was my business in a way. It was a new challenge and something I’d been aiming for, to be honest

Derby was one of the smaller branches with three salesmen covering the three areas of Derbyshire and three girls working in the office and me. I really enjoyed my two years there, we liked the Derbyshire Peak District and we made some good friends there.

Then by chance, I was reading the Daily Telegraph– I wasn’t looking for another job –there was a job advertised saying ‘manager wanted’ with another insurance company in Norwich. And I thought, I wouldn’t mind getting back to Norwich. My ambition was to be the manager of the Norwich Union branch in Norwich, but it would have probably taken me another ten or fifteen years. This job was an opportunity. So, I applied for the job at London Life, and when they offered me the job and I said, right, we’ll come back to Norwich! So, we came back and have stayed here ever since.

Back to Norwich – for London Life!

I was sad to leave Norwich Union, I really wanted to work for Norwich Union in Norwich but it was going to take me probably another 15 years to get there – the Norwich branch was in the top five of all the branches because everybody in Norwich did there business with Norwich Union. I was 35 so I had another 25 years before I retired and I thought, if I have to move every three years, that’s another eight moves, so the children have got to move house and school each time. Whereas if I go to Norwich, I have a manager’s job. By the time I left London Life I had a team of 50 people working for me. I had three branches – Norwich, Chelmsford and Nottingham. I had the whole of Eastern England from here in Norwich. And I said, ‘Whatever you offer me, I am never going to move from Norwich.’ I was born in Norwich, my wife was born in Norwich, our families are in Norwich and now the children are settled in Norwich.

And it was the best move I ever made, moving to London Life. Like Norwich Union, they did life insurance, pensions and investments but they were much smaller, only 20 branches compared to 120. However, they were much more professional and had a much more gentlemanly approach to things. I’ve got high morals; I’ve got high ideals and I like to think I’m doing things properly and correctly and have a certain attitude towards life and the people I worked with at London Life were all just like that. We went for what we called the ‘high net worth’ market – in other words, we went for customers, clients, who were very rich. We approached Estate Agents, solicitors, accountants, doctors, dentists, managing directors, etc. That was our market. Again, it suited me very well to deal with them.

Sadly after 15 years in 1994, they closed down. One day there was an announcement, ‘We are closing all our branches.’ All 20 branches and all 200 people working in the branches – there was an average of about 10 or 20 in each branch – everybody was made redundant. At a stroke!

The problems started after the stock market crash in 1987. When the crash happened in October-November 1987, all the managers were called down to Head Office in Bristol where we were told ‘ ‘This is disastrous for us. Our assets have halved and we’ve got to do something about it.’ Several managers were made redundant then, on the spot, but fortunately I survived that.

And after that, all insurance companies were under huge financial pressure because of their assets slumping. The FTSE 100 Index went from something like 1200 to 800, I can’t remember the exact figures. The value of investments dropped considerably. It was a black day and then there was the storm of ’87. They all had to reassess their positions. A lot of companies then, between 1987 and 1994, over that seven-year period, were closing down, they were consolidating, they were bringing in their branch staff and their sales staff. They were selling direct from newspapers, introducing telephone marketing etc. I saw the writing on the wall and luckily, I read it right and got out.

A new career as a stockbroker

I was just 50. I had thought I had another ten years ahead of me until I retired at 60. We’d bought a brand-new house in Thorpe St Andrew, had a huge mortgage, because I had a pretty good salary. We’d bought this lovely new house. Shock, you know, horror! We decided we had to downsize – the children had left home by this time so we moved to a house lower in value than the one in Thorpe and paid off our mortgage.

I had contacts with Barratt and Cooke so I wrote to them saying ‘I’ve finished with London Life, I’m looking for another job. Have you got a vacancy? Can I come and see you; I’ve got some ideas I’d like to discuss with you?’ I sent my CV, and by that time I’d 15 years with Norwich Union and 15 years with London Life – 30 years’ experience of managing people and getting investments. They invited me to come in and then offered me a job. I was extremely lucky there.

When I started work with Barratt and Cooke, I had to become a member of the profession of stockbrokers so I had to learn the job, and again, I have been very fortunate in my life in having very good teachers. At Barratt and Cooke, there was an accountant who was about to retire and he taught me all he knew about stock broking. He was so experienced and so well qualified and he’d tell me exactly what was what. I learned to be a stockbroker and within a few months, I qualified as a member of the Stock Exchange.

And in the 15 years I worked with Barratt and Cooke – well, the 45 years I worked all together in the investment industry – I never had one complaint. Because I treated my clients as I wished to be treated myself and as I said, I have high ethical standards.

The first thing I would say, when someone came in … and people used to come in just off the street with loads of money was ‘Are you prepared to lose it all?’ Investing on the stock market is like gambling and whichever advice you get, however good their track record is, it’s not infallible.

I would put people off, I wouldn’t encourage them, I wouldn’t say, oh, great, do this, do that or the other. I would give all the negatives first of all. And if they were not prepared to lose their money, I would say ‘I can’t guarantee that you’ll do well.’  ‘I suggest you go along to the building society and put it in a building society. You shouldn’t … ‘ (but of course I didn’t know about Northern Rock and Bradford and Bingley or any of those companies in those days) you shouldn’t lose money by putting it in the building society.’

If they were prepared to lose the money, we could begin to talk. We would discuss which companies to invest in because I had another adage – don’t put your eggs in one basket, have a spread. Because if something goes wrong, you’ve got other investments which remain stable.’ Although sometimes, everything falls like in 1987 and in 2000 as well.

So, if a client had, for example, £50,000 to invest, I would say ‘Right, what I would recommend that you do is you split it between ten companies – ten or 15 companies – so that you have a good spread of the market.’ So, oil, retail, pharmaceuticals, mining, you do 10 or 15 different areas of investment. So, you are spreading the load. That’s what I would recommend. The client would say yes or no, or would say, ‘I’d rather have Tesco’s than Marks and Spencer’s …’ Fine, no problem about Tesco’s we can invest in Tesco’s.

I’d then ring the market maker. And we’d work out how many shares to buy, for example, one of the areas chosen to invest in was oil, and we would recommend Shell Oil company – very good track record. I’d say, ‘Right, the price of one share in Shell today is £20. We’d allocate all the figures there and the client would go out of the office with what we call contract notes saying exactly how many shares he had bought – say 500 shares in Shell at £20 each, 1000 shares in Marks and Spencer’s at £4.50 and so on and so forth up to the value of £50,000. Then the client would hand over a cheque. Then I would remind him that ‘This is a medium to long term investment. You are not putting it in today to take it out tomorrow. This is not a building society. This is long term. The value of the investments can go up as well as down, if you can’t afford to lose it, you should not be investing this money here, you should be putting it into government stocks, or building societies where your money is guaranteed.’

Then if there was a crash, people get worried. Obviously, you’d get a few calls, ‘I’m a bit worried about this’. But if it’s a good strong company, you shouldn’t panic. All the stock market crashes, 9/11, the eleventh of September 2001, etc. We would write to all the clients and say to them, ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring! Think in the long term.’

Stockbrokers don’t necessarily lose out when there is a stock market crash. There are people who want to sell, and we make commission when they buy and we make commission when they sell. So, we still have an income. Things do go quiet for a while – after 9/11 it went quiet for several months. People were scared of investing in the market but if they had bought when the stock market was down to 3000, they would have doubled their money as it is now 6000.

In the media – toys and stock market reports

Round about 1997, I had a phone call from Tony Mallion from Radio Norfolk who was just about to launch a new teatime show called Drive Live (or something like that) to cater for people coming home from work, starting at five and going through till seven’. He said, ‘I’ve had an idea that I’d like to do something about the stock market and give a daily stock market report. Would you be happy about coming on the programme every day?’ So, with permission from Barrett and Cooke, every night of the week I was on Radio Norfolk doing the stock market report. I did about 10 minutes. I used to split it up and talk about three topics, and then at the end Tony would say to me, ‘Well, what’s the FTSE done today?’ and I would say, ‘oh well, it’s been a pretty good day on the stock market Tony and the FTSE finished up tonight at 5851 and the Dow Jones (the American) is at 10,150’, whatever. So that is how we worked. It was quite good. I used to report on local companies; Lotus, Norwich Union (of course by that time they had become Aviva), Anglian Windows, Anglian Water, Jarrolds, when Jarrolds Printing went bust. I talked about the launch of new cars, Jaguar’s difficulties and when Rover went bust. That sort of thing I’d make it local, and interesting and understandable. And people still remember me doing it. I had to be correct, I had to be accurate, especially as far as the stock market is concerned, you have to be accurate

Radio Norfolk knew me quite well. I used to do this phone in programme about toys on Radio Norfolk, you see. I have been doing that for 25 years now. As you can gather, I can talk a bit! I have written some books on toys.

Changes in the insurance and investment world

Way back in the 1960s, everybody was very naive about investments. Very few people put money in the stock market, it was for the landed gentry and for toffs. That has changed considerably. Now virtually everybody has got shares in something or other. Through privatisations, through demutualisations of insurance companies and building societies – people were members of building societies and when companies demutualised, people got free shares. Most people have got shares in water companies, or the electricity, gas and telephone companies. You know, people would come in ‘I’ve got BT, I’ve got Anglian Water.’ People bought them in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Margaret Thatcher was there and shares were a new thing.

So, the man in the street bought shares. Literally, we were selling shares in the street – in Opie Street – we put a desk in the middle of the road and people just flocked – queues and queues. We actually had a photograph in the paper of one of the staff sitting there at a desk in the middle of the road accepting all these share applications in the water and electricity companies. We had a queue right round the block. That was tremendous business. We were up till twelve o’clock every night still processing the business. It was like a licence to print money!

Insurance has changed as well. When I first started in 1963 there were 50 insurance company branch offices in Norwich. There are only about two or three now. Virtually everything is done on the phone nowadays, through television and newspaper adverts, or people doing business direct with the insurance company.

And stock broking has got much bigger, when I joined the office there were about ten of us. Now there are about 50 working for Barratt and Cooke. It has really expanded and people have got more and more interested; more and more sophisticated. There are computers, there’s the FTSE 100 Index that virtually everybody looks at every day these days to see where their investments are. People are more involved in it.

So that was 45 years of my working life!

But I’m still working now, you see, in the voluntary sector, I am or have been president or director of several local organisations, such as the Norfolk Lymphoma Group, Norwich Rotary Club, the Norwich Traffic Club, the Norfolk Transport Group and the Bressingham Steam Museum and I’m a trustee of a few trusts.

David Cooke (b. 1943) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 12 November 2010.

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