Insurance Post

BIA Countdown: Young achievers look back: Q&A with Nichola Williams and Phil Cunningham


As part of Post’s countdown to the 20th anniversary of the British Insurance Awards in July, we spoke to two past winners of the Young Achiever accolade.

Nichola Williams won the award in 2001 for her work in the strategic development of Zurich’s provincial partner channel – a £200m revenue stream at the age of 27. Phil Cunningham, meanwhile, scooped the prize in 1999 for his part in successfully building a commercial motor account in excess of £10m from a broker base not previously exploited in his role at Torch Motor Policies at Lloyd’s.

How has your career progressed since winning the Young Achiever award?
Phil Cunningham, managing director, Direct Commercial: Following the award, Torch Motor Policies was taken over by a competitor, I decided to leave and in 2002 started UK motor fleet specialist Direct Commercial, a UK managing general agent writing on behalf of Carraig Insurance Company (which we also launched in 2002). In 2010 we opened up a Lloyds office writing on behalf of Ascot, and we now write in excess of £50m gross written premium.

Nichola Williams, commercial broker operations director, Zurich: I now head up broker planning and operations for Zurich – it will be my 20th year with the company in September. I’ve been lucky enough to experience a number of different roles across a diverse range of business areas including sales, distribution and marketing, as well as strategy and planning. Back then, I had not imagined working in operations but the vast breadth and reach of the role is interesting and keeps me challenged.


CV: Phil Cunningham

2005 to present
Managing director, Direct Commercial

2002 to 2005
MD, Carraig Insurance Company

2001 to 2002
Consultant, MIIC, advising on phase 2 of the Motor Insurance Database

1992 to 2000
Deputy underwriter, Torch Motor Policies at Lloyd’s

What do you think have been the highs of the industry since you won your award?

PC: We tend to focus on our business, so the highs for us would be 14 years of outperforming our sector average.

Developments in the digital space have enhanced the ways in which we can transact insurance business, which helps deliver an improved experience for customers. There is also an increased focus on professionalism within the industry  – particularly the importance placed on corporate chartered status.

And the lows?
PC: Quite topically, a large number of the awards won on the same night I won my award were won by Independent. The demise of the company and some of the individuals involved must rank as one of the biggest lows the industry has witnessed.

NW: The insurance industry has seen it all over the past 10 years. The collapse of major UK insurer, Independent, which brought about general uncertainty; the economic downturn curtailing growth opportunities; Euro market turmoil impacting profit margins and driving an increased focus on reducing expenses – to name but a few. It has been a challenging decade for the industry.

What were the biggest challenges facing the industry when you won your award? Have they changed since then?
PC: In the motor sector it would be rising claims costs. We are embarking on an initiative involving telematics that we feel will be industry standard within the next five years, and will improve claims costs through earlier notification of claims.

NW: It was a very long time ago but I suspect there were a great many challenges then too.

What challenges face the market now and how do you think it will respond in 2014?
NW:  The opportunities for growth continue to be challenged by current market conditions as well as unpredictable weather patterns. This means a continued pressure on reducing expenses – while optimising operational efficiency and maintaining customer experience.

Who would be your dream BIA music performance?
PC: U2

Robbie Williams

What is your best memory of the BIAs?
PC: Attending with my family.

It was a superb night – not only personally for me on winning the Young Achiever award, but also because Zurich won insurer of the year.

The BIAs are 20 years old this year. What were you doing in 1994?
PC: I was 24, not long out of university starting my career as a junior box underwriter.

Graduating from Birmingham University with a Bachelor in Commerce and starting my first real job at Zurich (then Eagle Star) on its general management graduate scheme.

If you had not chosen a career in insurance what do you think you would be doing now?
PC:  I would have been a racehorse trainer.

NW: My initial career aspiration was to become a sports physio, so I would have probably retrained to pursue that goal if things had not worked out for me in the business world.

What would be the one piece of advice you would give to someone beginning their insurance career?
PC: Complete professional qualifications as quickly as possible, work for a company that enables you to be front line from an early age, develop as many personal relationships as you can and – most importantly – work hard.

NW: Don’t constrain your thinking to career progression opportunities alone – breadth of experience is just as important. There are a multitude of areas you can work in, be it marketing, legal, technical underwriting, actuarial, finance or operations. The opportunities are there if you have the right mix of attitude and ambition.


CV: Nichola Williams

October 2012 to present

Operations director, commercial broker, UKGI, Zurich

September 2010 to October 2012
Head of operations, commercial broker, UKGI, Zurich

November 2009 to September 2010
Head of strategy and operational delivery, Zurich

February 2007 to November 2009
Head of planning and strategy, UK broker, Zurich

April 2001 to February 2004
Sales, distribution and marketing manager, Zurich


If you could give a BIA to someone who would it be and what for?
PC: Raja Balasuriya, reinsurance broker at Aon, for being the most influential person in UK motor insurance market.

NW: There are so many great young contributors to our business that it would be impossible to single out just one. However, [the winner] would [have to] reflect an outstanding achievement in ensuring an excellent broker or customer experience through continuously striving to deliver more.

Finally, the most important question of all: where do you display your trophy?
PC: In my study at home.

NW:  It’s in my office – it makes a great door stop.

This article was published in the 27 March edition of Post magazine. 

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