Growing up in a family-run business set Chubb’s Ruth Polyblank on course to launch a ground-breaking digital insurance initiative to help the UK’s smallest business owners.
Ruth Polyblank’s earliest memory of serving a customer is not altogether a cherished one. As a child serving in her parent’s greengrocery, she was just tall enough to peer over the counter, but the baffling array of weights and prices, at first, all proved too much for young Ruth to handle. She stared at the customer, fell silent, and then fled the shop in embarrassment. It was a lesson in customer service she has never forgotten.
Today, Ruth heads up an unusual offering for a large, global insurance company – a team dedicated to providing owner-operated micro-business insurance via an online platform. But not just any insurance; Ruth is adamant that too many insurers lump all small businesses together when, in reality, their needs are quite distinct. “Think about a small business owner that provides advice,” she says. “Now contrast that with someone who’s turned a hobby of making greeting cards into a business. They may both be micro-enterprises, but the risks they face are completely different. That’s what we’re aiming to address.”
There seems little doubt that Ruth’s formative years spent in and around her parents’ business have shaped her thinking and given her a very healthy respect for Britain’s army of small business owners. Growing up with working class roots, university was not an obvious pathway. But Ruth bucked the trend. Spurred on by a teacher, she took a business degree – “The course for people who don’t really know what they want to do,” she admits – and there encountered marketing for the first time.
“It was like a love affair,” she recalls. “I loved the psychology, loved the understanding. I had to work at numbers but with marketing I discovered I had an aptitude and emotional intelligence – and it came easily to me. I wasn’t used to things coming easily.”
Ruth’s new-found enthusiasm for marketing took her first to a series of smaller, entrepreneurial insurance businesses – where fortuitously she worked for leaders with marketing backgrounds – then on to EY and the leading FX settlement service. “When I felt ready for a change from insurance, I sent my CV to the Financial Times’ top ten companies to work for. Looking back, I was running a marketing campaign for myself. I wasn’t expecting much but it worked.”
Ultimately it was in insurance where Ruth wanted to be. Freshly armed with experience of the latest digital innovations and working internationally – plus a postgraduate degree – she took a senior role with Chubb Insurance, then called ACE, to create a marketing department for its UK and Ireland business. However, Ruth’s deeply-held belief that digital was the way ahead combined with her passion for small businesses propelled her towards a broader role to use technology to create ‘relevant, dynamic’ insurance for micro-enterprises like her parents’.
“Targeting the micro-enterprise segment makes commercial sense,” she explains. “It’s growing exponentially – and culturally it’s empowering people to work. After having my son three years ago, when I returned to work I realised I wanted to focus on doing the things that interested me – and this was it.”
In addition to her primary role, Ruth is heavily involved in mentoring – both inside and outside Chubb – and also founded Chubb’s Bright Sparks programme, an initiative to promote ‘digital literacy and reach’ with the business and its partner organisations. In addition, Ruth helped create a networking programme to help colleagues juggling the demands of new parenthood with work. “When I was questioning my future after I first returned to work, a female colleague advised me that before children, you try to keep all the plates spinning; when you’re a working mother, you need to work out which plates are made of plastic and stop worrying about them.”
Taking her passion for small enterprise to its logical conclusion, Ruth is married to a small business owner automotive designer and lives in north Essex. “He’s about the only non-digital thing in my life,” she laughs as she describes her love of tech gadgets and the money she professes to have wasted on now defunct items. In the background, her son regularly asks Alexa, Amazon’s assistant, to play his favourite songs while he experiments with rudimentary coding on his Code-a-pillar toy.
Ruth may be spinning plates but it’s clear on which ones she’s focused – her family, her passion for marketing and her drive to help small business owners. Insurance may not appear the most important thing, but without it small businesses are deeply vulnerable. The woman who learned her lessons at the counter of parents’ greengrocery is doing her very best to change that.