Broking success: Centor of attention

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Centor Insurance’s CEO Neil Walton tells Caitlin Morrison why the firm’s claims team is so important and why he wants the broker to be known as the John Lewis of insurance

▶ How did the business get started?

Centor was formed in 1998, out of a management buyout (MBO). When we started it was myself and majority shareholder David Stratton, who’s now non-executive chairman. It was a forced MBO because the plc that we were working for was going bust, so we had four days in which to do it. We borrowed a seven-figure sum from the managing director and chairman of Independent Insurance, and off we went. We had no bank accounts, nothing really. It was quite an incredible time for us.

David and I thought it was an opportunity – ‘it’s now or never’. It was mad, at the time, but we really enjoyed it all and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I love this business. In 2004, I bought [David] out, so I was involved in two MBOs in the space of seven years.

▶ And how did it go in the early days?

It was very tough. We didn’t have a day off for six months. Lots of other brokers tried to attack our business so we learned to fight, and we brought in some really good disciplines. We would have weekly staff meetings and tell them absolutely everything, we wouldn’t hide anything. And we’ve carried that through to now, because it’s all about trust and being honest. When we say something [the staff] have to know that we mean it. Within about six months the business started to settle down, we started to grow organically, and it has grown substantially since then.

▶ Has growth been organic?

Mainly organic, or from taking in teams. About six or seven years ago we took a team from RK Harrison, and we’ve taken a team from Aon. It’s about trying to get good quality staff. We tend to purchase books of business too and we don’t flout restrictive covenants. If a person wants to join us and they’ve got a portfolio of clients that want to come as well, we often sit down with their current employer and say “let’s structure a deal”. And that seems to work.

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▶ What lines do you operate in?

We have four operating divisions. Corporate commercial, property owners’, private clients (including super yachts) and then a brand new division which we started on 1 January this year, employee benefits. I wish I’d set that one up years ago.

▶ Why?

Because the competition isn’t very good. There’s a real need for new blood. The cross sale is incredible, we’re picking up an awful lot of such business and totally securing the client by looking after them in all areas.

I wanted to start the employee benefits division years and years ago, it was just a matter of finding the right person to head up the team. I’ve now recruited a person who has been in the field for 20 years.

You’ve got to bring in the expertise, you need the people who have got the knowledge. I purchased a book of employee benefits business so we hit the ground running. We’re currently looking to make two acquisitions of employee benefits books of business over the next few months.

▶ You have an in-house claims team, how important is that to the company?

We’ve always had the claims team. They sit on the trading floor, right in the heart of it, and very much interact with the other divisions so everyone knows what’s going on. [The team] is integral to the business.

Our claims service has won awards. Paul Field is our claims director, he is in charge of the day-to-day running of the claims team, which has really rejuvenated the claims department. Excellent service is everything. We focus on all the little things that mean a lot to clients.

People often send a claims team out when a claim has occurred – we like to send our team out to meet potential customers, and we take the claims team along to renewal meetings. You don’t have to have had a claim to meet the team.

▶ Do you think having a claims team makes Centor stand out?

You don’t see a lot of other brokers with their own claims team, and I find that surprising. If you expect a customer to rely on you as a one-stop-shop, you have to provide that claims service. It’s vital. Customers look at us as a trusted adviser and we have to help them through difficult claims. In this current market, insurers are starting to repudiate more claims, be more difficult, ask for more information. The process is slowing up so we’re having to work even harder to get clients’ claims paid. Insurers don’t like to admit it, but it’s a fact. We monitor work flows weekly and our work flows [for the claims team] have increased 40-50% in recent months and that is down to insurers dragging their heels.

▶ Which insurers stand out for you in terms of service?

I think I’d have to name three. We enjoy a great relationship with Chubb. They are specialists at what they do and they do it extremely well. Their claims service is second to none, it’s probably the best we deal with. Their underwriters are good competent professionals, and they like what they like. They are very nice people to trade with and we enjoy that. The same goes for Zurich who are fantastic, very supportive of us, giving us help with training and projects, and we have access to the senior management.

And Aspen, some of their products are very innovative. They really understand risk management and they really want to buck the trend in the way they write policies.

▶ What about the rest?

The rest, some of the service at the moment is quite poor. It’s the usual problems: delays, poor claims service, poor underwriting service, lack of knowledge and experience and especially a lack of decision makers. I’ve been in insurance for 27 years and it appears people are afraid to make decisions now.

▶ What is the company’s approach to technology?

We’re very lucky. The decision was made about five years ago to write our own software. We outsourced the project to an IT company and it launched about 18 months ago. It’s been a great success. It was hard work, we won’t hide that fact, but it‘s very easy to amend, so if systems change or the way we transact business changes we can implement an IT development fairly quickly because we own it. We’re not slaves to an IT software house.

Our industry in terms of IT and technology is incredibly poor. We double-key or triple-key everything, we duplicate work. It would be better if everybody worked off one platform. I don’t see it happening unfortunately, because there are so many insurance companies and so many products. But if I had a magic wand that’s what I would change. The duplication is incredible, it’s almost archaic, and it’s embarrassing.

▶ What can we expect from Centor in the future?

We’ve just started a share ownership scheme. I want all the staff to have shares in the company. Don’t laugh – I would like Centor to be known as the John Lewis of independent insurance brokers, because I want the staff to be owners, having a share in the success. I want us to provide a high level of service and value for money. I just want that whole family feel that John Lewis has. I’m a massive fan of John Lewis, and if I could create that atmosphere here I’d be happy. I want the staff to really feel like they’re a part of Centor.

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