Boss of Stoke-on-Trent firm worth over £1bn grew up on miners’ estate and had dreams of playing football for Liverpool


The boss of an insurance giant has revealed how he went from a difficult childhood growing up on a miners’ estate to becoming a promising youth footballer with dreams of playing for Liverpool – before rising to the position of CEO of a group worth over £1bn.

Ian Donaldson heads up Atlanta Group, which owns Burslem-based Autonet, Swinton Insurance and Carole Nash, and is part of the worldwide Ardonagh Group.

But just like his business’ success, the 46-year-old’s personal story is also something quite remarkable.

Ian grew up on a 1980s miners’ estate in Kidsgrove, and had a ‘tough upbringing’ – despite getting a ‘strong steer’ from the women in his life.

He said: “I was the middle child of five, and I lived with my gran for all of my childhood through to sixth form.

“It was a tough upbringing. With my granddad having been a miner, we lived on a miners’ estate, which is basically a step down from a council estate. After my mum and dad separated, I went to live with my grandmother.

“You were taught to work and study very hard – as hard as you could.

“I was the only one of the five kids that sat in my gran’s handwriting lessons, and I remember going to high school for the first time and blowing away the headteacher with my handwriting.

“A lot of people come from poor backgrounds, but it doesn’t mean they have to be restricted and their dreams and aspirations can’t be achieved.

“It’s not down to where you live or the money that you have or the clothes that you wear, it’s down to the upbringing and the morals and the values that you have as an individual, that your parents instil in you.”

Despite Ian admitting he wasn’t the best footballer out of his brothers, he took it up as a hobby in order to spend more time with his father. And he got further than most in the sport – breaking into Port Vale’s academy.

He said: “Football was a bit of a funny subject in our house. My two elder brothers were good at it and I wasn’t.

“But coming from a broken family, the one way to see my dad was getting him to come and watch me play football because I knew he watched my two elder brothers.

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“So I learnt to play – watched my brothers, trained myself and did as well as I could do. I eventually got myself in the local team with some of my mates, and did pretty well.

“At the age of nine, I was picked up for Port Vale school of excellence, which was an academy. I stayed there until my late teens, and really enjoyed my football, and played a really good standard.”

While having an affinity to Port Vale, Ian had dreams of playing for Liverpool FC, aspirations he still has ‘to this day’.

But he soon opted for a more pragmatic approach, and began his journey into business.

“During the 1980s, there was no Sky or pay-per-view. You would watch Match of the Day or the FA Cup, and I guess maybe I was a bit of a glory hunter back then, and Liverpool were the team of the 80s.

“I had big dreams of playing for Liverpool. In those days I could name every single player and would have loved to play with them.

“I’ve been lucky enough to meet King Kenny (Dalglish) at a function not so long ago – he was an absolute hero of mine and still is.

“But I think I was one of the most sensible ones that knew I wasn’t quite that good, and knew I wasn’t quite good enough to play for them. And that’s where, I guess, the next part of my life came.

“I realised at 18 that was not going to be the journey for me. That’s when a few of my mates were working in a call centre in insurance and said I might like this ‘call centre malarkey’.

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“They told me you just chat to people – and I was pretty good at chatting to everybody.

“I’d sold fruit and veg out of the back of a van as a kid – knocking on people’s doors while everyone else was doing paper rounds, so I looked into it.”

After finishing his A-Levels, Ian ‘fell into’ insurance, and never looked back.

His first company was at Auto Alliance Direct, in Newcastle, where he joined as a call centre advisor.

“It was a very entrepreneurial company,” Ian recalled. “I had a very strict boss, and a lot of people found that very difficult, but I found it quite inspirational, and to this day I have great gratitude to him for what I’ve achieved because he was a real taskmaster.

“But he must have seen something in myself because at 18 he gave me a supervisor, team leader role.”

Not long after, Ian was moved out to the high street branch network, where he became branch manager, before very quickly moving to larger sites through various promotions.

He said: “They must have seen something in me because at the age of 21, he brought me back to run the call centre, which had nearly 300 staff at that point.”

Three years later, in 1998, he left the company and, at the age of 24, set up Autonet Insurance.

He said: “It was on the ground floor of Maxim’s nightclub in Newcastle, meaning most Saturdays when I’d open up the shop I would find many a present on the doorstep as you can imagine from the Friday night – including chips that had been thrown in the doorway before people got their taxis home.”

Organic growth and success followed for the firm, and it was soon known as the white van man’s favourite insurance broker.

In 2013, it paid out an £11m dividend after profits soared.
In 2016, Autonet was sold to global firm HPS Investment Partners, but Ian wanted to keep the business local, and continued to lead.

While operating as its own entity, it soon fell under the worldwide Ardonagh Group.

Ian said: “My partner at the time retired from the business, but I carried on running it. I wanted to acquire more businesses and grow even further.

“We had grown Autonet from literally zero to being the largest UK van insurer, which was really commendable as what we achieved on our own was a huge, huge business employing about 500 staff in Stoke-on-Trent before we actually sold in 2016.”

After 2016, the firm looked to the North West, where Autonet’s first acquisition was Altrincham-based motorcycle insurance broker Carole Nash in 2017, before swooping for Manchester firm Swinton for £165m a year later.

The firms later formed Atlanta Investment Holdings C – a subsidiary of Ardonagh, with further acquisitions including Bennetts Motorcycling Services Ltd.

Atlanta now has offices in locations including Manchester, Dublin, London, Bournemouth, Gloucester and Eastleigh, as well as its Burslem HQ.

The entire Ardonagh umbrella company is worth £3.6bn – with the Atlanta group worth ‘well over a third’ of that amount, Ian said.

It’s one of the fastest growing brokers in the UK motor insurance market.

Acquisitions will not end there either, with the firm planning more growth over the coming two years.

Ian said the Atlanta group is now worth over £1bn, adding: “We’re one of, if not the largest retail broker in the UK, from a standing start of zero policies back in 1998, and just me and one of my colleagues setting it up.

“We are now knocking on the door of 2.6m customers within Atlanta, and over 2,500 staff. So it’s been a bit of a bit of a whirlwind.

“It’s not a long time – 1998 until now, but as you can imagine it’s been a bit of a journey, and one that I’m very proud of, and one that I’ve seen a lot of local people do really, really well out of.

“I don’t just mean our staff and employees, I mean the local community and the charities we’ve helped. It just shows what you can create, because Atlanta stemmed from Autonet, which began in 1998 on a roundabout in Newcastle.”





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