Liverpool’s insurance community has shrunk significantly over the past decade, losing firms to both London and Manchester as a result of greater centralisation. However, there remains a strong broking presence in the city, serving local and global markets, and it retains strength in the wider financial services community.
Added to that, it has this year been chosen again as the host city for the Airmic conference and the International Business Festival - a sign that the region is seen as a serious contender on the international stage.
While most agree the market has little in the way of unique claims to fame, its cheap, great transport links into London and huge regeneration mean many hope it can lure insurers back to line its streets again.
Post spoke to several insurance firms based in the city on why they have stayed, how their business has changed and what the market has to offer to the insurance industry.
What is the advantage of being based in Liverpool?
Ruth Lawrence, partner, Hill Dickinson: For a significant number of classes, where you physically do the work matters less to insurers than the quality of the work you do. If you’re dealing with the larger composite insurers, if they shout you need to be able to get on a train and get down there. The larger independent brokers will have a client base around the country although they will have a stronger preponderance in the northwest. The smaller brokers are looking after a more local client base – they want local visits from their brokers and are prepared to pay for that.
Troy Johnson, director, Griffiths & Armour: Longevity of staff. The average employee duration [at this firm] is 12 years. That’s been bolstered over the past few years with 26 graduates. We recruit many graduates who are Liverpool University alumni or from Liverpool originally – there is a direct link for them to see our appeal because we are rooted in the community.
Kate Banham, committee member, Chartered Insurance Institute: Business rents are a lot cheaper than London or Manchester. There’s a really strong financial services community here – some of the larger companies will have a financial advisory arm, an insurance brokerage arm and an accountancy arm. We use everyone’s best skills. We refer quite a lot of clients to each other.
Do you mainly serve the local market?
Charles Hurst, managing director, Coulter Hurst & Company: Coulter Hurst has traditionally concentrated on property business throughout the northwest region. However, the acquisition [by Stackhouse Poland] brings a realisation to make the most of our potential. The added weight from being part of a top 10 UK independent broker has enabled us to widen our client proposition and gives us access to more markets.
Peter Hesketh, director at Wrightsure Insurance Services: We now operate very much as a group in conjunction with our fellow companies Wrightsure Services, based in Essex, and Wrightsure, in Hampshire, with each member of the group serving its local region and indeed, the UK as a whole. While we serve the Liverpool area and have made inroads into the local SME market for example, we remain predominantly a regional office, specialising in the commercial motor sector. We have clients throughout the north of England, the Midlands, Wales and Scotland.
Karl Garcia, director, County Insurance: We focus on non-standard fleet business and a lot of our business comes from outside the city. We’re not the most competitive in Liverpool. Now that we are listed on Go Compare we’re getting quotes from the Shetland Isles to John O’Groats. In Liverpool city centre there are a lot of your old school commercial brokers that have been there for years and years. But brokers nowadays don’t tend to focus just on local stuff, because local stuff is not going to keep you afloat.
Johnson: We are very proud to be headquartered in the city and while we’ve also got regional offices throughout the UK, Liverpool remains the hub for core service delivery. We serve everyone from local SMEs in the city all the way to bluechip multinationals. For the past five years we have also been the UK partners for Assurex Global, which is a global partnership for risk and insurance placement – this puts us on a pedestal alongside our multinational peers and gives us the credentials we didn’t have previously.
How has the market changed in the past few years?
Hesketh: When we first established ourselves in 1983, there were probably about 12 major insurers with offices in Liverpool, and in many cases these offices would be acting as ‘mini head offices’ to smaller branches in locations such as Cheshire, North Wales and the Lake District. However, with the succession of mergers and acquisitions and ‘centralisations’, which have been a key feature of the entire industry over the past 30 years, there is much less direct insurer representation here these days. So – as has been the case nationally – the number of brokers has reduced.
Lawrence: There used to be significantly more insurers here. When I started you had Norwich Union, Sun Alliance and a number of other large firms. As a purely Liverpool firm 20 years ago, our work would have come very much from the local Liverpool market, but it’s a good few years since there were strong insurance offices. For a good part of the past 10 years there’s been a limited insurer presence in Liverpool. From the claims point of view it was all part of the drive to centralisation. Aviva moved a lot of staff to Scotland, as did Ace. Over time we’ve seen those local offices close – particularly some of the claims functions. The work now tends to come from panel appointments. From a defendant law firm point of view, particularly in Liverpool, there’s very little work you can get from the local market. The exception is the brokers, Griffiths & Armour in particular. We have a long association and work closely with it. In reality it doesn’t matter if we weren’t in the same city but it’s built up from a historical connection and it helps the relationship if you’re just round the corner.
Johnson: Five or 10 years ago it was more of a local market but now it’s become a UK market in an international marketplace. From a regional perspective, it’s not as important to be proximate to your clients because of the technological developments that have taken place.
How does the Liverpool market differ from London or other regional markets?
Lawrence: There’s always been a strong disease bias – things such as asbestos – but that is not unique to Liverpool. The claims we see from the city are the same as any large city. Liverpool has always had a reputation as the slip and trip capital. There has always been a strong claimant market. You’ve probably got a disproportionately high number of defendant firms for the size of the city because of that.
Hurst: Local underwriters based in the North West demonstrate a degree of autonomy, which allows local knowledge to influence the judgement of insurers and allows more flexibility and understanding. Liverpool is also strong within both commercial and residential property sectors. London does rather stand alone as a worldwide insurance centre, not least owing to the presence of Lloyd’s. But while Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, for example, would lay claim to a greater number of regional insurer branches I don’t believe the Liverpool insurance market differs much – if at all – from other regional markets. Most business from all regions still, ultimately, finds its way to London in one form or another.
Hesketh: For logical enough reasons, the city always historically had strong links with the marine insurance sector – and while the marine-orientated Liverpool Underwriters & Marine Association remains a healthy association, the fact is that a fair proportion of its members are these days based in Manchester, for example. While not having any particular insurance speciality these days, Liverpool does remain something of a vibrant insurance community with a strong local Chartered Insurance Institute branch.
Hurst: The market is very much broker dominated within the corporate arena. Direct insurers concentrate more on personal lines, as well as the smaller SME combined/package office type policies.
Is the tide turning as far as insurers basing themselves in Liverpool is concerned?
Lawrence: You’ve seen law firms and claims moving people out of London and into the regions and Liverpool has a lot to offer there. I don’t think you’ll see insurers with head offices in Liverpool but you may see a lot more insurers moving support functions.
Johnson: There’s a lot of regeneration going on across the city and a lot of money being spent. We’ve seen brokers increasingly looking to take advantage of the region. Time will only tell if the insurers follow. Ten years ago the regions were looked down upon a little, but that’s changing.
Banham: In 2007 a lot of companies were moving to Manchester and London, but what’s nice is they are starting to move back. Liverpool has been put on the map by things like [its hosting of] the International Festival of Culture. The profile [of the city] is growing, so we’re seeing companies returning to Liverpool.
Eamonn Flanagan, analyst, Shore Capital: There is clearly a significant amount of money now being invested in the area. There is talk of a major Chinese redevelopment of Birkenhead and that can only be good because you’re bringing money, finance and capital in – and with that you will bring all the associated stuff like brokers and intermediaries. There is a huge amount of funds under management in the region. Until last month we had four stockbroking businesses in Liverpool. People realise you can’t just sit in London and expect to get business from Newcastle and Manchester and Liverpool without feet on the ground. It doesn’t really make a difference where you are now with a smartphone or a Blackberry. You don’t need to be in an office in London.
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