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Serving three generations of clients

Can there be a longer-standing member of the Insurance industry than ERROL ROSENBERG of Vaal Central Insurance Brokers in Orange Grove? COVER Magazine interviewed this stalwart in his 90th year on his career beginnings, changes he has seen, and if he is ever planning to retire!

COVER: How, where and when did you start in the insurance industry?

I was a member of the South African Air force during the Second World War, and, when peace was declared, I had the option of taking up a position in Cape Town; however, in 1946, I joined LH&A Behrmann and Ross, which was an estate agency with an insurance division, situated in Johannesburg Central. It was at this company that I learned the insurance business, as I met regularly with various people in the industry, including the legal representatives. When this company changed to Bastion Insurance Company, I became a share-holder and surveyor. When I left Bastion, I joined I Kuper & Co., another estate agency, and managed their insurance division. A number of smaller brokers, including mine, amalgamated under Alexander Forbes, and moved to Jeppe.

These were not smooth transitions. There were a number of times where I yearned for a change and did various activities that had nothing to do with insurance: I was going to enter the fishing industry in Cape Town; I joined a client in his electroplating business for a time; and, to fulfil my love of the sea, I ran a yacht charter during a year’s sabbatical from I Kuper & Co. I finally joined Vaal Central Insurance Brokers in 1999, and am very content.

COVER: How does it feel to be, probably, the longest-standing member of the industry?

I feel at home in the insurance industry. I like mixing with people. I could have retired but I enjoy keeping my mind active. I live in a retirement village and, when I see my fellow-tenants filling their time, I say, ‘Thank goodness I have a job!’ I take pleasure in sorting out others’ problems, and that is what insurance is all about – knowing your client and his/her needs in a personal way.

COVER: How long have you had your longest-standing client? Why do you think he has stayed with you?

I am one of the few agents who have clients that span three generations; I am currently serving the grandchildren of a client of mine from 1946. They regard me as family, and call me ‘Uncle’. I have given reliable and ethical service to the family for all these years, so they see I have a personal interest in their problems, and they often consult me on matters other than insurance, because they trust my advice. Interestingly enough, I have seen companies I have worked for close and the clients I had stay with me.

COVER: How have you kept up-to-date with the changes in the industry?

I have written a number of examinations, and keep current by reading material in the industry; but, ultimately, experience counts for a lot in understanding the trends.

COVER: You must have seen many changes in the industry over the years. Which change do you see as the most important?

With my background as a surveyor, I appreciate the fact that there are now risk specialists who can visit a client, not just to assess risk, but to advise the client on ways to run the business to avoid that risk, for example, to protect against fraud. These specialists are more qualified in a particular area of risk, so they can spend time to educate their clients with regards to their risk.

COVER: Which changes are you saddest or unhappiest about?

I think it is unethical that claims are declined because of misunderstandings resulting from a lack of contact between client and broker. There is often little explanation of the product, just a list of instructions, sometimes just to help the broker keep his/her job. Those in the industry may pass exams, but seem to have lost touch with people.

COVER: Do you think it is more challenging to be in the industry today than 30 years ago, or is it easier now?

It is definitely more challenging now. I find the policy wording more obscure, resulting in misunderstanding between clients and sellers, who sometimes don’t understand the language themselves. In the past you could see exactly what you were covered for. This is exacerbated by the influx of telephonic sales and therefore loss of people contact. There also seems to be more dishonesty and fraud now. Then regulation is required, but too much regulation can also be difficult.

COVER: If you could bring back one thing from the early days, what would that be?

We had more time in the old days – we could spend more time in discussion with clients, but now everything is rushed. I understand that the market has changed – it is larger and the client is different, but it is a pity that clients are lured by ‘better deals’, but come back because they miss the personal contact and someone understanding their problems.

COVER: Do you think technology has improved the industry or does it only do the same thing in a different way?

Of course technology has made things easier and quicker. I confess, though, that it is difficult to keep up with the technological changes (I still prefer faxing to emailing). Sometimes computers are blamed for what is actually human error or inertia.

COVER: What will you do to occupy yourself, should you ever retire?

I don’t think I will retire … I will work and then drop dead! I have been thinking about that very question, though, and imagine that once I can no longer drive, I will have to stop. I will continue bowling for as long as I can. I see that many of my contemporaries are spending time surfing the net, so I am curious and would possibly do that, though it would be a change from yachting as a hobby!

I am fortunate – I have had an interesting life. I had a number of scrapes with death when I was flying in World War Two, high above the cloud cover, in machines with instruments far less sophisticated than we currently have. It was my task to escort ships and guide submarines, and that often required landing at night or in poor weather. Sometimes I couldn’t land – I would then fly to the limit of my fuel and have to land on the sea. Once I was shot down by a German submarine that we were tracking, and had to swim to shore in Durban. We were grateful that the fire had missed the depth charge we had on board, and were convinced that the subsequent ‘plane had destroyed the sub – but it reappeared some time later in the Thames!

I have eight grand-children, and the family will be gathering later this year to celebrate my birthday. As you get older, the secret is not to let go – keep sharp, keep busy. When you are facing difficulties, don’t think it’s the end … there is life afterwards. When you have lived as long as I have, you can tell the younger generation that we have come through the difficulties. You have to keep positive.

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