Interview: Phil McNeilage: Strictly roots

Phil McNeilage is UK chief executive at Cunningham Lindsey-main

Despite a brief soujourn in Jamaica, Cunningham Lindsey’s UK chief executive Phil McNeilage has spent the majority of his career with one company. He talks to Post about the changes occuring at Cunningham and the challenges ahead

It wasn’t long after Bob Marley died in May 1981 that Cunningham Lindsey’s UK chief executive Phil McNeilage arrived on the Caribbean island of Jamaica.

McNeilage was a trainee adjuster with Graham Miller at the time, on a soujorn from long-term employer Ellis & Buckle. He spent two eventful years in the land of reggae and saltfish, a spell that saw him handle claims for both Marley’s widow, Rita, and country music legend Johnny Cash.

On the side, he even found time for the odd game of football with Marley’s son, Ziggy. “It was a culture shock, but it was a fantastic experience. I loved travelling, and I still do,” McNeilage says.

Having passed his associate of Chartered Insurance Institute exam with Ellis & Buckle, McNeilage chanced his hand with an application for the Graham Miller role, before returning to his previous employer two years later. “I had had enough of Jamaica then, but I was also given the opportunity to re-join Ellis & Buckle, and I knew it would give me a good platform to finish the rest of my exams.”

The Scot returned to Jamaica in 1987 with a team from Ellis & Buckle to assist after the island was hit by a tropical depression – a one-week trip that he says ended up lasting for an additional six weeks. “I said to the board at the time that they had always said foreign travel wasn’t off the agenda for Ellis & Buckle – so let’s prove it,” he recalls. It must have worked – “We got 15 weeks’ worth of work out of it,” he recalls.

McNeilage admits he has been bitten by the travel bug, so it is perhaps surprising to note that he has been living in the South of England for 15 years. He cites opportunities presenting themselves within his employer as the reason for this, with the vast majority of his career so far being spent at either Ellis & Buckle or Cunningham Lindsey – two companies between which McNeilage engineered a merger in the late 1990s.

Changing tactics
If the Cunningham Lindsey UK leadership were a football team, he explains, it would be one in which players can swap roles and adapt to new responsibilities, although he denies a comparison with the Total Football strategy of Johann Cruyff’s famous Dutch team, which saw players consistently switching positions and roles.

“If the agenda changes, and the tactics change, then the role changes and so does the application. I think that [flexibility] characterises the culture of the top team,” he says.

Phil Mcneilage CV(Click here to see McNeilage's full CV)

Which is fortuitous, because there’s certainly plenty of change going on at Cunningham Lindsey. The adjuster has brought in a new global chief executive and a new chairman in the shape of Jane Tutoki and former Lloyd’s CEO Richard Ward, respectively. The arrival of Tutoki generated a minor storm at former employer AIG, who effectively dropped Cunningham Lindsey globally – but McNeilage prefers not to be drawn on the topic.

The appointments are part of a broader redrawing of Cunningham’s executive team, with Rupert Travis, international CEO, being handed additional responsibility for the new Global Specialty Markets team, while McNeilage takes on the global leadership of new third-party administration service In Trust.

Ward, Travis and McNeilage will all spend most of their time in London, with McNeilage keen to point to opportunities for the trio to bounce ideas off each other – but he adds that their defined roles should prevent stepping on toes.

“We have got quite separate roles, but we work together for a common goal as investors in the business,” McNeilage says. “There’s very little overlap, but there is scope for us to spark off one another, and spend more time each other’s company coming up with ideas.”

This new mood of creativity seems indicative of a loss adjusting business keen to adapt to a changing market across all its territories.

In the UK, those changes have seen Cunningham Lindsey dealt high-profile blows in the form of panel reviews at Aviva and Ageas, both of which left the adjuster with a reduced role.

However, McNeilage points out that while the former review saw more adjusters introduced to compete with Cunningham on several panels, his firm also secured a sole supply role on Aviva’s home panel. Equally, while Ageas dropped the firm from household claims, it retains a role in both commercial and subsidence claims.

“Our retention and growth in the domestic space has been very strong,” McNeilage counters, though he contends that an atmosphere in which policyholders increasingly seek online reviews of their insurers has changed attitudes.

“There is an appetite for an even more flexible model to respond to the reality of this ‘Trip Advisor’ world,” he says. “At least one insurer is asking clients to rate them online, and in a social media-driven world, customers have every right to expect a very good quality service in return for the premium they pay and the trust they place in their insurer.

“There is definitely a quest in the market to really focus on the customer, to understand those needs and to align the service to meet those needs.”

Where Phil Mcneilage has workedThe need for a realignment of customer service has been amplified by what McNeilage describes as an “extraordinary” winter, with his adjusting business continuing to handle flood claims generated by the downpours over and around Christmas 2013 and New Year 2014.

McNeilage pays tribute to the work of his own staff in tackling the surge of claims, but admits there are lessons to be learned, with some applicable to the whole industry. “The big challenge is to find a way to work more collaboratively with insurers so we share resources and work together. Insurers need us to be out in force when they receive a 500% increase in claims and a quadrupling of complexity, yet want to use us less in peace time.

“I respect the reasons for that dynamic – and it’s not about moaning or getting the violin out – but we have to work out how we bring to market a flexible model that responds to that reality.”

Existing flexibility
McNeilage says Cunningham Lindsey already has a number of arrangements in place to allow it to rapidly increase staff numbers in the case of future surges, while staff have already had extra training to allow them to better manage recruits who don’t work for the adjuster every day.

“As the market becomes more selective in its application of loss adjusters, especially in the domestic space, it’s incumbent on us to come up with a solution that meets that reality,” he says.

Particularly in household claims, the overall picture is one where insurers have become more discerning in their purchasing of services, McNeilage adds, with greater scrutiny applied to which claims require an adjuster.

At the same time, the Cunningham CEO adds that insurers are becoming ever more keen to retain existing customers, and are open to new ways of dealing with claims – a role he says adjusters can help fulfil.

“There is a quest among insurers to improve retention. They work very hard to attract business and want to retain their customers, so it is our job to adjust our business approach to suit what the customer wants.”

Five words to describe Phil McneilageMcNeilage describes the movement as an “exciting dynamic” in the market, and notes that his firm has responded by seeking new ways to empower staff and allow them to better understand the needs of policyholders.

“There’s a genuine desire on the part of the market to offer the premium-paying customer something better than [what] they’re getting already,” McNeilage says.

“But I don’t think the customer is looking for an à la carte service all the time. If you really listen to what they’re looking for, it might be a simpler service we can deliver. And my ambition is to empower our staff so they select the choice that the customer best needs from the menu,” he adds.

It’s the kind of staff development the Cunningham Lindsey boss gets excited by. In fact, McNeilage cites the launch of Cunningham’s management development programme, which allows staff to meet people from other parts of the business and learn more about the wider world of insurance, as one of his prouder achievements in his time at the adjuster.

As a holder of ACII qualifications, as well as a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Loss Adjusters, McNeilage adds he is also keen to see as many of his staff as possible progress through further learning.

“We’ve invested heavily in getting more and more of our people qualified, and supporting them to get qualified, because they’re busy with their day jobs,” he adds, paying particular tribute to Cunningham’s learning and development team in developing apprenticeship opportunities.

“We have a young staff who demand a level of investment, but we derive a return from that. You get what you put in, I think,” McNeilage says.

It is not all about training, however – McNeilage also notes the firm has spent £10m on its IT infrastructure over the past three years, though much of it has gone on what he describes as “under-the-bonnet” work. Technology, he argues, will allow for faster, more collaborative decision-making in future claims, while also easing the work of adjusters.

“It’s not an easy job, especially when they’re under pressure,” he admits, but he also warns against too much focus on hardware in what he maintains is fundamentally an industry of personal relationships. “These are only tools for people.

“Any IT application is merely an enabler, and most of all, the central thing is a great conversation with someone who is empowered to make the right call for the customer.”

So, will McNeilage fan rumours of acquisitions in a market that increasingly looks to be consolidating? Chief UK rival Crawford & Co has already acquired construction claims adjuster Buckley Scott earlier this year, while US giant Sedgwick entered the UK with the acquisition of VRS Vericlaim, a deal announced following Post’s interview with McNeilage.

Phil Mcneilage hobbiesSedgwick backer Stone Point also holds a 10% stake in Cunningham Lindsey, and McNeilage told Post he remains assured of the desire from his investors to spend on purchases that will add to his business.

The Cunningham CEO notes professional indemnity claims as being one such area where he may seek to do a deal, while he also boasts of recent spends to build a forensic accounting ability for fraud management.

“We are fortunate to have the firepower and also the immediate advice to help us quickly evaluate opportunities,” he says, teasing that strategic business development director David Aiston is also working furiously. “We have a few things bubbling under the surface, but I couldn’t possibly talk those about right now,” McNeilage says.

Relationship longevity
The Scot further demurs when questioned on the long-term future of that financial support. The deal that brought CVC in as the adjuster’s largest investor in 2009 also retained the stake of Fairfax – a backer for 24 years – while senior management also retained a substantial stake.

“There’s a longevity to those relationships. But it’s the private equity lead partner’s shout on when it’s right to exit or change the financial deal,” he shrugs.

“My responsibility and sole focus is on running the UK business, developing In Trust, and supporting my colleagues in South Africa. The outcome – whatever we do further down the track – will be best served by paying attention to the day job. Looking beyond that to what we may or may not do is not on my agenda.”

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