In the first of an occasional series, Insurance Age reverses its traditional regional review process. Instead of focusing on one region with the help of experts at a variety of companies, we take a look at all the regions with specialists at one company. We begin with Fusion Insurance Services.
David Bruce, chief executive of Fusion Insurance Services (right), explains how the Towergate-owned business weathered the storm engulfing its parent and coped with a mass staff exodus.
In June last year Insurance Age reported on the departures of managing director Nick Wright and underwriting director Stewart Gardiner from the Towergate-owned business along with those of Rob Chapman and Nick Milton, regional managers for the North and South respectively.
Many colleagues soon followed, mostly to Pen Underwriting which has, as Insurance Age revealed at the time, set up branches in Bristol and Leeds.
Unsurprisingly, Bruce remembers the time vividly. He came on board in February 2014 as CEO of bespoke underwriting at Towergate having spent 18 months at CCV.
"We were already down on what I would have said where we needed to be [on staff numbers]," he says thinking back to that time.
"The exodus of staff was a catalyst to take a step back and do some capacity planning."
Simultaneous to the departures Towergate also took the opportunity to "collapse down" in Bruce's words the number of underwriting zones, which led to the curious press release of 50 jobs being at risk due to Fusion's expansion.
"There were a lot of businesses across the group, a raft of brands, we took some of those and said they should be part of the Fusion offering," says Bruce.
Changes in Telford at the underwriting zone for transportation, at the Stokesley-based zone for liability and construction and at CCV's sports and leisure offering in Romford were hardest hit.
"What we wanted to do was pull the third party offering into Fusion," explains Bruce. "At that point, for a broker looking in, it wasn't as easy to navigate us as it should be. That is probably the cornerstone of everything we are trying to do now."
Thus, he argues, making like-for-like year on comparisons is difficult. However, with the structural changes and raft of people moves behind it, he says that broadly speaking Fusion has grown by 20% to 201 staff in the past year.
Then of course there came what Fusion terms the "hiatus" - the period during which parent group Towergate's future was uncertain. The unsecured creditors won the takeover battle in February and the recapitalisation completed in April.
"The Fusion brand is definitely here to stay," confirms Bruce. He adds: "The group hiatus probably had a bigger impact on us than the leavers."
Accepting that good people left he stresses that the challenge was to find even better staff, to invest in the infrastructure such as IT and to employ operations managers to give consistency of service across all the regions. It is a process that will continue with no pause ahead of David Ross' eventual arrival as the new group CEO.
It is "business as usual" he states, claiming that under new owners Highbridge the pace of investment has increased. "We all think the worst thing we could do is nothing, we just get on with it," he sums up.
So what of those regions? Naturally we'll start with Leeds and Bristol, those most impacted by the people moves.
Scott Hallett is the regional director for the South excluding London and is based in Bristol.
"I lost about a third of my staff," he says. "Five people handed their notice in on my second day. It was one of the hardest things I've had to do in my career. The point is the people were going to go anyway, it was preordained. It was a lift."
He saw the upheaval as an opportunity to build his own team, change roles around and let people step up to new positions.
It has recruited heavily to edge past the level from before the exodus. "We are up staff-wise, we were 26 and are now 27."
He is sanguine about the increased competition saying the South East and South West were very competitive anyway. "Another competitor is healthy for us and keeps us on our toes. There are plenty of competitors hungry for our business as we are for theirs."
As to business he describes it as good while accepting some clients have been lost. "We kept far more than we thought we may which shows loyalty and interest in what brokers look to Fusion for."
And as for the economy: "The South West looks like it is going in the right direction as is the South East. The UK is doing quite well."
Jon Hipkin is regional director for the North East based out of Leeds. He certainly had an interesting start to his tenure.
"I came up at the end of July when all the notices were handed in - I had two before 9.30 on my first day."
In his first fortnight ten people resigned. "In the next three months we recruited 11 new people. Then the hiatus hit. It was difficult. We had support around renewals but brokers weren't in a place to move new business to us which was really difficult."
According to Hipkin there are plenty of opportunities locally and post the refinancing the branch is "starting to see the fruits of our labour". Since April it has had its best month "and secured some large pieces of business".
The Manchester office - headed by regional director for the North West, Vicky Spence - opened officially in January during the eye of Towergate's takeover storm. "There were difficult news stories and some worries," accepts Spence. The reaction was to "go on the front foot out to the market". It started with relevant cases being transferred from the Leeds office to be serviced by eight staff, a number that has now grown to 13. "None of the new recruits left us, we kept all our business and all our people," Spence sums up.
And she sees "lots of green shoots" of recovery for both the region's economy and the group: "We've got lots of friends in the North West market who are starting to support us on our new business as well as on our retention."
Scotland and Northern Ireland
Slightly less new but still a relatively recent arrival is the Northern Ireland offering of Fusion which has been up and running for two years. "We have been relatively selective about distribution up there, we have literally six brokers," says Trevor Hillman, regional director for Scotland and Northern Ireland. In fact he has now reached the point of saying no to new broker enquiries. "It has gone really well for us," he states.
There have been changes in Scotland during this two year window as well with a new office opened in August 2013.
Hillman says that while the brokers who do not trade with Fusion probably see it as dealing with the S end of SME, that is not its true focus. The business sweet spot for the office is premiums ranging from £15,000 to £25,000 although it has accounts that go into six figures.
The mass people moves did not severely affect his branch. But during the takeover turmoil he accepts there were three types of people in the market: those who supported the firm, those who understandably took a pause in the relationship and those who were "mischievous". Either way he has not lost a lot of relationships and is not looking to grow his broker base "right now".
"The atmosphere in Scotland is very good," he notes. "Scotland had its best month ever for new business in March." His positivity extends to the wider economy, with notable growth in the construction sector.
"I think back to the referendum and there was a complete pause, people were really wondering what is going to happen," he recounts. "But now we are seeing a lot of investment coming in. Oil and gas is poor, we'll do associated business, but not all the way down the line so that doesn't really impact on us too much."
The Midlands unit which also stretches across into East Anglia did not lose any staff for reasons linked to the mass exodus.
Accepting that parts of the past 12 months were "horrific" regional manager Paul Webley, says the business is now unrecognisable and full of opportunity from the new structure and new financial backdrop.
"We have stuck to the principals that we believe in," he adds saying retention "throughout that period was rock solid".
"New business was actually very strong in the Midlands. We have got new broker opportunities that I would love to develop."
He is similarly upbeat about the future with opportunities in an expanding local economy. "It's not boom time," he clarifies, "but back a few years we were servicing reductions in wage rolls and turnover among our clients and we are now seeing that go back the other way."
Neil Peters is the regional director for London and for him the business is focused on a risk management orientated and a solution based approach in an "incredibly competitive mid-market sector".
Whereas Fusion first started out being all about commercial combined - and was somewhat similar to Arista's current offering - it has evolved over time to being unlikely to compete with its sibling company. He lists RSA and Axa as being the types of providers he is likely to come up again in the "heartland" of property orientated commercial combined type risks.
"London is always a tough environment and there is always a lot of capacity," he notes. During the past year retention has been "very good" and brokers have been "loyal" but echoing his colleagues new business has been "hard". Also like the other regions he foresees better times ahead for the company and the economy.
"We've expanded but we have to be pretty cautious," he details. "It is growing here and largely it is a pretty good picture."
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