Interview: Trak Global CEO and co-founder Nick Corrie

Nick Corrie

A decade into its journey, Trak Global is finally ready to break the US on the back of an acquisition and £40m plus private equity raise. CEO and co-founder Nick Corrie tells Jonathan Swift about why he prefers to get on and do things quietly than spout 'power point telematics' at events, and how a bounty of patents mean it is well tooled for a trans-Atlantic assault.

It might not have made the headlines garnered by rival trans-Atlantic telematics businesses True Motion and especially Cambridge Mobile Telematics, but Trak Global, in the words of its CEO and co-founder, is now at the “starting line” in terms of having a crack at the US.

This might sound strange given the business is ten years old, but Nick Corrie comments that until recently it did not have the resources to try and break America, despite quietly establishing itself as “probably the biggest usage based insurance technology provider in the UK”.

But with the acquisition of distressed Canadian telematics business IMS and more recent investment from UK private equity firm Three Hills Capital Partners, Trak Global is very much ready for the second chapter of its growth.

Wind back to its origins and Corrie reflects on how his time working in claims, for credit hire company Swift Rent-A-Car, a business that was acquired by Helphire in 2005, set him on the telematics path.

“So we were chasing ambulances with vigour. And in 2007 I just stopped and thought if an insurance company knew about the claim before the ambulance chaser they would be able to save claim costs. So the journey for Trak started with that premise,” he continues.

Getting the bottle to do a start-up

“Eventually I got the bottle to do it in 2009, because it does take  a lot of bottle to give up a well-paid job and convince the family to put your savings into a start-up.”

The original plan was to design a technology platform that would allow insurers to know - in near real time – when a claim had happened. But that proved to be quite difficult, especially as Corrie puts it “for a poorly capitalised, non-invested start-up to go round the major insurers and tell them ‘what you want to do is this’”.

He continues: “And now looking back I wonder, ‘why did I ever believe we would be able to sell our goods to large global insurers?’ So by 2010 we pivoted in two ways.

“One, we started selling the core technology platform to what we now call future mobility and mobility providers, but back then were known as car hire companies; and that created a capital base to support us.

“And the other pivot was triggered by the fact that every time we went to have a conversation with a claims department we were frustrated that they did not seem to understand how the technology could be deployed. So we started [young driver telematics broker] Carrot. We basically used the money we made from selling connectivity to the world of mobility to fund it.

Corrie on which telematics model will win out

Nick Corrie breaks down the telematics market into one which is characterised by five different types of sensor models.

The first is the hard-wired professionally fitted boxes which he believes “underpin the UK market” and are aimed at those customers paying £1000 premium a year.

The second involves on-board diagnostic sensors that are sent by post and the customer plugs it in, which saves on the professional fitting cost.

In terms of mobile connectivity Corrie identifies two models here, one he calls ‘pure app’ whereby the phone becomes the sensor; and the second he labels “a half way house,” whereby you stick a dongle on the windscreen that links to the mobile device.

The final model involves getting data directly from the manufacturer, which he notes has “not got level of fidelity [to allow us] to do scoring”.

He adds: “We have deliberately taken a pragmatic view that we don’t know which one going to win [so we do all five]. We are pretty sure professionally fitted boxes aren’t going to win because it can’t; it has an economic disadvantage.

“We are pretty sure embedded technology with motor manufacturers isn’t going to win. But [alternatively] it is perfectly possible those could win because if you look at motor manufacturers, Tom Tom and the aftermarket sat nav providers should not exist. But they do because motor manufacturers have a tendency to over value their own tech solutions.”

In terms of Trak Global Corrie claims the business has half a million connections, the most nascent of which is motor manufacturers which is tiny.

However if you put apps and dongles together he estimates its business is split a third each between the other sensors models.

The birth of Carrot

“Things came full circle, and by 2013 people were looking at Carrot and going ‘so that is how you do telematics’ and asking if they could copy it; so we won some tenders and got some volume through that.”

The combination of the mobility solution – especially with a growing list of blue chip clients - and Carrot, meant that Trak Global began to get the credibility it desired from insurers leading to significant wins with the likes of RSA’s Smart Wheel offering and Zurich.

Which brings us to the end of chapter one, where Corrie confidently asserts Trak Global has a pre-eminent position in its home usage-based-insurance market, and the management are admiringly gazing over the Atlantic pondering: what next?

“We had been looking to break the US, but had always bottled out because each time we thought about it, we reckoned this is going to costs millions and we were under capitalised to do it,” Corrie continues.

“But we were generating cash and had a bit of scale, and at the point we really needed to do something to break the US, we saw IMS were in a bit of trouble. So supported by HSBC, which allowed us to borrow some money, we bought it out of receivership on an asset based deal.”

Corrie explains IMS was burning £3m to £4m of cash at the time it took over, was massively cash flow negative and was in a “real mess”, but adds “the basic core of the business was really good and solid”.

CV

2009 to present

CEO and co-founder, Trak Global

2005 to 2008

Director, Helphire

1996 to 2005

Board member, Swift Rent-a-Car

1991 to 1996

Flight Lieutenant, RAF 

The folly of a private chef

Among the expensive pitfalls Corrie points to at IMS was the fact it had five lawyers on the payroll, as well as a private chef.

“When we first went to meet before this all happened it had a private chef who cooked us lunch. But when the management came to meet us I rather pointedly got Tesco sandwiches just to let them know, ‘you can’t have a private chef in a business of your size’,” Corrie quips.

One of the major attractions for acquiring IMS was the number of patents it owned, 130, especially as this had been one of the expected barriers to Trak’s US aspirations.

“One of the things we thought about before we went to the US organically was patents. I was conscious about the fact it was a much more litigious environment and I was concerned about being a not so well capitalised player with lots of lawyers looking at us. It made sense to look at the patent landscape and I came away thinking IMS owned most of the relevant ones and whatever we planned to do would be heavily in breach of them,” Corrie reminisces.

“It made me pause, look at the IMS website and decide whether they are the kind of people who might sue me. And because it was a Canadian business, trading mostly in the US, I could not get any financials. It was really hard to work out if it was bigger or smaller than us if it ever did decide to sue us.”

The series of events that led to Trak’s acquisition of IMS – as with many deals – happened through a series of chance events that saw Corrie go from an extreme low to a new high in the matter of days; starting with an unsuccessful major tender that had proved very labour intensive.

Hobbies 

  • Riding bikes
  • Open water swimming  
  • Flying and generally being a plane spotter 

Five words to describe himself:

  • Passionate
  • Loyal
  • Fair
  • Tenacious 
  • Competitive 

A bad week gets worse … then better

“We lost it to IMS, but did not know it at the time,” Corrie comments. “We had this slightly miserable strategy day [in June 2018] were I said ‘we can’t go to US because of patents; and we just spent a fortune on a contract we worked six months trying to win, and lost’.

“We were feeling a bit miserable about our prospects and I went home and I had received an email from someone at IMS and I thought ‘I’m about to get sued too. This about to make a bad week get worse’.

“But what it was in fact was a message asking ‘do you fancy buying IMS?’ And I didn’t open it until later that night, but in it it said it had just won this contract [we’d bid for].

“So I got on the phone to the adviser and he came in on Monday morning and by September [three months later] it had gone pop. But we had got ourselves exclusively into the data room at that time so we were ahead of the process - and this is a $30m business that suddenly ran out of cash - and I am on the phone to HSBC asking for a sum of money, and in three weeks.”

Corrie reflects that there were quite a lot of people interested in IMS, helped by the patents it owned, including big insurers. Once inside he found what he describes as the “corporate hubris file” of previous offers and that the last one it had turned down was for several hundred million Canadian dollars, yet Trak got it for a tiny fraction of that.

In relation to the prospect of losing good staff through the sales process, Corrie comments: “We were in quickly enough – and I was virtually living in Toronto - which meant we could eyeball the decent staff and let them know there was equity, bonuses and a good life beyond this. We did a lot of town halls, talked to people and got them some new offices.

“We obviously lost some. There were some good people who I fought to keep and we couldn’t. But we kept most of those we wanted and some of those we lost we could not afford anyway.”

Private equity move

Having acquired IMS Trak Global moved onto securing the necessary funds for it to realise its full potential, and it soon found it was an attractive proposition for investors.

Not least helped by the procession of major deals that rivals had struck including Wunelli [bought by Lexis Nexis in 2014], Ingenie [bought by Qunidell in 2014 ], The Floow [invested in by Fosun and Direct Line in 2017] and Insure the Box [bought by Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance Europe in 2018].

“We competed the purchase of IMS on 14 December 2018 and had toyed with the idea of doing a concurrent private equity process, but came to the conclusion we had too much turnaround stuff to do that it would kill us and we had enough capital to run and sustain the business,” Corrie continues.

“We were not worried about running out of cash, we were worried about the investment level we needed to bring the two businesses together, to really grow in the US and so on 7 January [2019] we started the private equity process. And we exchanged on the 30 June and went public on the 26 July.”

Commenting on the success of Trak Global and other telematics firms in finding investment, Corrie says: “One of the key reasons Three Hills invested [over £40m] in us is because large pools of capital are finding it harder and harder to find good homes where they get two to three times return that hasn’t got an edge in terms of a carbon footprint or another downside.

“Things like social media are now considered bad places to invest because of the harm it does; online gambling, pay day lending - there are lots of places you can make a ton of money but there is increased scrutiny.

“The PE guys are being asked more social and governance questions about where their money has ended up and so we were considered a massive tick in that outcome box because if we do a good job people crash less - and their insurance is cheaper.”

Under the radar

Reflecting on its standing today Corrie comments that if Post did a poll of readers to name top ten most successful telematics service providers that operate globally, it would not figure in the top 10.

However, he estimates that it stands third in the US, behind True Motion and CMT, and is the biggest in Germany through IMS’ relationship with Allianz.

CMT has certainly set the bar in terms of TSPs given its $500m investment from the Softbank Vision Fund, a number that Corrie is still trying to come to terms with. He estimates CMT’s EBIT is substantial driven out of its relationship with US insurance giant State Farm and that it must be given scale of Softbank’s investment.

“But wiser people than me have said the level of investment in CMT is more akin to it becoming a carrier than a TSP, because of its potential scale,” Corrie adds.

“It has one product, it never changes it. It is one size fits all, and so it does that one thing well at scale. If you read its internal press stuff at the time [of the investment] it has this pithy story of a billion cars being insured in the world of which only about 50 million have got tech. So the latent market is potentially 950 million vehicles which is why it might have won over the big picture thinkers. But [the figures] are hard to get [my head] around and when I go to the US they are all just as perplexed as me.”

In terms of other geographies outside the Americas that might interest the newly minted Trak Global, Corrie adds mainland Europe, especially Italy as the biggest overall market, is interesting because it has a free trade agreement now it owns the Canadian business IMS. Since car insurance has been mandated in Mexico that could be another territory it considers.

However, while he adds there are some “interesting things” in terms of telematics developments in the Far East, Trak Global plans to keep its capital focused on Europe and the Americas for the time being.

Telematics evagelists

Which brings the final and biggest question: when and if could telematics become a mainstream insurance product?

In response Corrie refers to one of his biggest bug bears, the telematics evangelists who turn up with regular occurrence at insurance events predicting the impending sensor revolution.

“I call this power point telematics,” he explains. “Where someone gets up at a conference and explains how it all works, but it is all bullshit. I prefer to build real telematics in the real world, which really benefits customers and has sustainability. I spend most of my time worrying about building a sustainable business. I don’t want to build something that is flash in a pan.”

He continues: “A lot of people have stood up at conferences and said ‘telematics is coming’ and in this self-serving consultancy and conference world they draw these pictures of how big it is going to be. But these things don’t take three years, they take ten. Most insurers believe over the next ten years they will have some sort of data sensor involved the pricing of their insurance.”

In terms of how it prefers to operate, Corrie concludes: “We’re not throwing around stuff on social media. I am bothered about hubris and I don’t want to be on every conference podium shouting about what we are doing. We just want to quietly get on with it.

“I wanted to be capitalised to have a crack at the US, and we have now got ourselves to first place on the starting line so we can now compete with True Motion and CMT. We’re in a world where we have the scale and reach to do that. And it is ten years of hard work but it is entry into a game, and that is all it is.”

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