With Property Protector about to celebrate its crystal anniversary we sat down with Partner Sean Neal who has been there from the start, to discuss the importance of finding your niche, how strong relationships can make or break your business and how a favour for an underwriter turned into a huge success story.
It’s fair to say that Sean Neal has a considerable amount of experience in the insurance world behind him. Having headed straight into broking when leaving school, Sean has three decades to fall back on and over half of that has involved Property Protector, the scheme that was launched to the network by CP Walker in 2002.
“I joined CP Walker in 1998 to look after the development of the commercial book, which had a huge amount of property owns business, says Sean. We had business with various insurers so I looked for a way to consolidate this. It was in 2000 that CP Walker started to consolidate, “before consolidating was fashionable!” says Sean. “We had the help of the Broker Network Underwriting Room – which long standing Members may recall used to sit in the old Broker Network offices in Harrogate. There were several insurers in the room including AXA, and a Lloyd’s syndicate called Charrington’s. With the help of our BDM, we were able to work with Charrington’s to put a delegated authority together.”
Sean explains that this was before the wider industry had got on board with buy to let. “It was before ‘buy to let’ started to grow in earnest and back then property owners business was still quite niche.” says Sean. “The Charringtons Underwriter put us in touch with a business that was similar to ours – Townsend, which has since become part of the Glendinnings family. Townsend was an accountancy practice / insurance brokerage; and of course we’re an estate agents / insurance brokerage, so we worked in a very similar way. In July 2002 we started to transfer the property business from their binder onto ours.”
Sean explains that he was led by the underwriter as it meant that they could work more efficiently, and they never actually intended to go into wholesale. “After four or five weeks the penny dropped and we realised that if we could do this for Townsends, we could do it for everyone!”
“In the first month we wrote £35K of business, and we knew then that we were on to something special.”
Their Network BDM assisted with marketing the product, and by 1st October the team had set a soft launch in motion. “It was a quick turnaround but the product was already there, so it was simply a question of telling people about it,” says Sean. “We were pretty blind to how it would pan out, but we thought that we’d have a go. In the first month we wrote £35K of business, and we knew then that we were on to something special. All of the Members at the Network seemed to like it – there were only around 100 Members back then, so we were a really close knit community; and it just seemed to strike a chord. We offered a reasonable commission of 20%, and it just took off and went crazy. So what began as a favour for our underwriter turned into a huge success story that knocked everyone’s socks off! At the end of our first year of trading we’d almost hit £500,000 GWP.
“In 2004, after becoming a Partner Insurer, it was time to build a team to continue to develop Property Protector, and with Richard Holmes and Dan Ford joining the business over the next two years, we continued the success. We now have a team of nine working exclusively on the scheme.”
At the time Sean explains that there was a particular BDM who worked on recruiting new Members to the Network, called Ryan Squire. “He was one of the people who waved the flag for us in the beginning as he used to use our scheme as a tool to recruit new Members, telling brokers about this exclusive product that they’d have access to if they joined the Network,” says Sean. “He was a great promoter for us. So four years ago when we needed another Business Development Executive to promote our products, we could think of no-one better than Ryan, and we were delighted when he joined the team.”
“A really big win for us was when Zurich joined the panel. Having a big name like that on board showed us that we’d really made it.”
A decade and a half in business has made for some memorable moments for Sean and the team, Sean remembers. “A big win for us was when Zurich joined the panel after a few years. Having a big name like that on board showed us that we’d really made it, and it had a huge impact on our business as well.” And Property Protector has been courted by other big names, too. “One of the nicest moments was when another big insurer approached us to ask if they could be involved. We were happy with our relationship with Zurich so we declined, but it was a big tick to have been approached – it showed us that we had that recognition from the industry as the insurers knew what we were doing and wanted to be a part of it. It was a big pat on the back.”
“You need to know that what you’re offering is relevant to the market.”
With such a successful suite of products under their belt, we wanted to ask Sean what tips he and the Property Protector team would offer for other brokers who were interested in setting up a scheme of their own. “The biggest thing is to know your market. Because there are two strands to our business – the estate agents side and the brokerage side – we have a particular depth of understanding of our market which has proved incredibly valuable. It really helps if you’re a specialist in your market and can offer that level of knowledge. You need to know that what you’re offering is relevant to the market. When the buy to let bubble started to grow lots of carriers jumped on the bandwagon, but many of them got their fingers burnt because they didn’t have the relevant experience and knowledge. I’d also really recommend creating a niche product that no-one else is offering, with wording that is exclusive to you, so that you can carve a space in the market for yourself. Finally, it’s vital to have the right team in place, so build a decent team around you so that you can build those strong relationships.”
Over the past 15 years, Sean has seen the broking world shift considerably. “It’s nothing like it was,” says Sean. “There are fewer players in the game now; 15 years ago there were more insurers with different appetites, but since there has been takeover after takeover through the years we’ve lost a lot of that variety. It’s cost effective for them, but not always good for the consumer,” says Sean. He goes on to say that developing technology has played a big part in changing the broking landscape. “We still do things the traditional way at Property Protector and don’t force anyone down the online route – we do things differently.
“I think that personal touch is really important.”
“On a broader scale though technology has changed broking enormously, and I feel it’s played a part in making the focus more price driven rather than cover driven. You used to be able to have much more of a conversation with underwriters on this small class of business, but that’s not really cost effective any more so you don’t see it as often. I think that personal touch is really important though – throwing all of the details into a computer isn’t always the best option. That said, technology has brought a lot of benefits with it too – we’re working on introducing a new IT system in October to streamline our admin. We’ll still do things the ‘old fashioned way’, but the new IT system will just make everything that bit easier.”
So what’s next for Property Protector? “We launched our new Solutions product in July, which is going really well, and we’ve got another two or three in the pipeline over the next 12-18 months,” says Sean. I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag but they will be much more niche and exclusive. We have a new carrier on board in the form of SompoCanopius, who joined us in June; and we’ve signed another five year deal with Broker Network which is fantastic.”
“Our relationship with the Network is as strong as it’s ever been.”
With strong relationships being such an integral part of Property Protector’s success, Sean says that the team are looking to get in front of as many Members as they can and continue to make those connections. “We’re also here to offer in-house product training for Members who may have new members of staff on board or who are trying our products for the first time,” Sean adds.
Sean goes on to say that being part of the Network has played a big part in Property Protector’s journey. “The Network has helped us enormously. Whether it’s with capacity or helping us to negotiate in difficult times, the Network has always been there. I don’t think we would have had the same focus outside of the Network to have built the schemes up in the way that we did, as being able to market to that core nucleus of Members is great; then you’ve got the help of the BDMs and other proactive assistance from the Network to help you along. Our relationship with the Network is as strong as it’s ever been.”