Building on a legacy with further growth on the horizon (Ulster Business)

May 2019

Prestige Insurance Holdings, owner of Abbey Insurance Brokers, is building on five decades of industry foundation and expanding through investment and acquisition. Ulster Business speaks to chief executive Trevor Shaw about growth and the road ahead.

Trevor Shaw has been tasked with building on the legacy of an insurance giant which has been a stalwart of the industry here for almost 50 years.

He’s chief executive of the Prestige group, which includes household names such as Abbey Insurance Brokers, as well as recent additions Autoline Insurance Group and Open + Direct – it’s a business built on strong foundations, but with even bigger aspirations and plans for growth.

And in the last couple of years, it’s grown into an insurance business boasting a workforce of around 700 staff, based across Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain – taking on two new businesses and a majority investment from US-based private equity firm Capital Z.

As part of its structure, it has a number of different companies, Abbey Insurance Brokers and now Autoline, the most familiar consumer brands, along with business-to-business companies, and Prestige Underwriting. The latter is a company which has crossed the Irish Sea successfully and carries out around half of its business elsewhere in the UK.

“The business has been built on the back of diversity,” Trevor says. That means covering a wide range of areas throughout the various businesses under its wing, from personal lines, commercial insurance broking and underwriting, to claims and technology.

Trevor has been passed the legacy of a business which is almost 50 years old, while understanding the responsibility to the 700 employees to help take the company forward and continue ongoing investment.

He’s been with the company more than eight years, coming in to assist founder and former chairman, George Storey, to help plan out and develop the future of the business.

“I worked closely with George in such a way that he had comfort to pass on leadership to me over that phase,” he said.

The flagship consumer business in the Prestige group remains Abbey Insurance Brokers. It’s been around since 1973, and has built on being a dependable and respected brand in Northern Ireland over five decades.

“Abbey has continued over so many years because of the consistency of supply. We have evolved into a business which has a reputation across Northern Ireland for service, and for being competitively priced.”

Trevor says a lot of strength in the company remains its relationships with people – dealing with customers and retaining their business, thanks to the quality of service and product offered.

As an insurance broker, working with a broad and trusted panel of insurers, to search their best deals, Abbey is going up against the raft of comparison sites popping up across the UK. Trevor says one of the biggest challenges is educating consumers that a broker effectively does the same as these online aggregators but customers have the ability to pick up the phone and deal with any issues directly with an expert local team.

Looking at growth overall across the group, Trevor says: “It has been very good in the last couple of years, starting with the acquisition of Open + Direct in 2016.

“We are very strong in retaining business within the group. To keep driving ahead, we need to keep reinventing how we deal with the consumer, and future-proof the business through digital innovation.”

And last year, US-based private equity fund Capital Z took on a majority stake in the business. With that, the company has found key backing which will help it take on additional businesses over the coming years.

Some of the latest acquisitions have not only expanded Prestige’s offering and workforce, but added another raft of experienced leadership to complement the business. It has just completed a deal to acquire insurance business Autoline Insurance Group, a deal which sees two of its senior management team joining the Prestige Board.

“We identified Autoline as an innovative business which was similar to our own, with a good mixture of both personal and commercial lines,” Trevor says. “We wanted to significantly develop our commercial broking and identified how well Autoline were performing in that space. The management team are also very culturally similar to ourselves.”

Julie Gibbons was formerly operations director with Autoline Insurance Group before the acquisition and has joined the Prestige Board as group broking director.

“Autoline would have had a reputation for innovation, and we have had a real focus on the people who work for us,” Julie says.

“We were at the point where we knew we were growing significantly, but needed investment to do that. This is why joining the Prestige group and having the backing of Capital Z really helps that.”

Taking up the post of chairman is Phil Bunker – an insurance industry leader, and former managing director of LV.

“Phil has unrivalled credentials in the sector and has a wealth of direct experience in mergers and acquisitions in some of the biggest insurance names in GB. This is invaluable and his expertise brings the support and motivation our team needs as we look at ways to continue to grow the group,” Trevor says.

With Trevor in the role as chief executive, he’s joined by Paul Hanna as chief financial officer, who’s been with the Prestige group for 12 years and an experienced senior management team.

“We’ve been through a major period of change, and I feel very comfortable about the strength of the team around me,” Trevor says.

Another of Prestige’s advantages is having a business based in the Republic of Ireland – alleviating some of the concerns which could arise around the UK’s exit from the EU.

Trevor says one of the next steps is eyeing up owner-managed businesses which may not have a succession plan in place and look to acquire those which fit well within the company ethos and culture, as well as being able to help add an additional string to Prestige’s bow.

Julie Gibbons says her new Prestige board position should be a strong indicator to other potential partners entering negotiations. Coming from the frontline of an acquisition, she has experienced the company’s ethos and is able to see the business benefits of joining forces.

The advantage which Prestige can offer to potential acquisitions is allowing a small business access to its huge infrastructure and framework, in areas such as finance, compliance, HR, audit, marketing and sales.

Then there’s its claims management business, assisting customers through their claim journey, and Covernet, a Prestige company which provides software platforms for the insurance industry and something which Trevor says has been “pivotal” for the overall growth of the Prestige business.

“It has given us an advantage over our competitors,” Trevor says. “In each and every instance we have tried to find ways to learn and develop each element of the customer journey within the business, as opposed to outsourcing to a third party.”

Looking forward, Prestige continues to expand its wholesale offering in the UK, but the Republic of Ireland contains a huge level of opportunity for growth, according to Trevor.

“Our key objective in the Republic of Ireland is to make acquisitions, and while we are particularly keen on the growth of commercial, equally we would like to pick up personal lines business, and we are looking at online trading brokers in the Republic.”

While the business landscape across Northern Ireland is in something of a state of flux, given the political issues at home and across Europe, Trevor believes his industry continues to thrive.

“Our responsibility is to modernise – to keep putting our customer first, assist them through their insurance journey, and to be open-minded and forward-thinking as to how we service their needs,” Trevor says.