Mid-market broker aims to blaze the acquisition trail at its own pace

M&A can often appear as more of a sprint than a marathon.

Once private equity or venture capital gets involved, brokers often feel the heat to get a healthy M&A pipeline going, with a steady conveyor belt of acquisitive announcements throughout the year.

But it’s not always that straightforward, as Clear Insurance’s chief executive Howard Lickens found out. 

The 18-year old broker was bought by private equity firm ECI in July 2018, and the Brokerbility member has since tallied 25 acquisitions, including Warwickshire-based broker Morrison Insurance Solutions in September. 

But Lickens told Insurance Times that it took 364 days to nail his first acquisition after securing private equity backing.

”We weren’t under any particular pressure and they [ECI] knew the reasons for the delay, but frankly I’ve asked the management to back me and do this, then you get to 364 days and the first one hits the finishing line.

”It would have been embarrassing if that one had fallen over. We want to do what we say we’re going to do. You don’t want to go to the board meetings every month and say ‘we still haven’t done that deal’.” 

Deals in the pipeline

Despite the initial growing pains, Clear has a “nice pipeline”, Lickens said, with two acquisitions currently in due diligence at the time of writing. They may all turn to deals, or none at all, Lickens quipped. 

One has been in the works for 2-3 years, while another is expected to have been processed in 2-3 months. In one extreme case, a deal took 16 years to complete, due to the seller wanting to gain the maximum value out of the sale. ”You never know how long it’s going to take”, Lickens said.

The plan is to grow the business through acquisitions. Clear now has 25 under its belt, ranging from one-man bands to businesses of 40-50 people. But at the same time Lickens is seeking to grow the business “sustainably” and not interested in a quick acquisition to “make a quick buck”.

Lickens took a swipe at some of the consolidators who grow enormously very quickly without looking after the businesses, the vendors, clients, or staff. ”Our whole approach is we look after all the stakeholders”, he explained.

He criticised the “Donald Trump zero-sum-game approach”, whereby you end up with clear winners and losers. ”I don’t regard life as being like that. The world is a little more complicated,” he said. 

Lickens added that when it comes to M&A, Clear looks for long-term successions where people can become part of its business in a ”gentle” way.

”It’s very old school. We probably wouldn’t buy a business if we didn’t think the culture was reasonably consistent with ours. There will be plenty of people who don’t think our way and who don’t like the way we do things, but we don’t buy them.

”We buy businesses who we think could mix with us full stop something you could integrate reasonably. For example, we’ve just bought a business this year, lovely brokers, we’ve known for a long time. I’m yet to meet a member of their staff who I wouldn’t be happy to spend an evening with.

”There are plenty of brokers out there who see the world that way for whom it’s not about ’how can I make a quick buck’ It’s about how ’can I be useful and committed to clients and staff’. There’re plenty of people who think like that. So we will restrict our interest to acquiring those ones.”

The buoyant M&A market has inevitably led to inflated prices for some businesses. Lickens said that although he thinks prices are slightly higher, the margin hasn’t changed that much for the types of businesses Clear targets. I.e, ones that are well-established and already fairly profitable.

However, he is seeing disproportionately higher multiples paid for larger businesses. 

”There is this view that the bigger you are the multiple must be bigger. It’s not entirely clear why just being bigger means you must be worth a bigger multiple, but that’s the case. So there’s a lot of value to be had in the smaller ones which has been our main hunting ground.”


Having private equity firepower behind it certainly makes life easier when it comes to being able to grow acquisitively. Lickens admitted that before the deal, there was always the challenge of ”where is the money coming from?” Having that disappear has been a huge benefit, the broker chief admitted.

But with that financial freedom comes increased pressure. “We’re clearly going to have to be a bit more rigorous about measuring what we’re going to achieve with the acquisitions,” he said. 

”It will be fine if we get it right, but it will be painful if we don’t. At the moment we’re still the good guys. We’re doing more or less what we said we’d do, and they’re [UCI] are very supportive.

”I guess if we start screwing things up and we don’t hit our numbers it will be a slightly different experience, he concluded.

Clear acquisitions to date

  • 2019  Morrison Insurance Solutions  
  • 2018  John Ansell & Partners
  • 2018  Genavco
  • 2018  Robert Alexander
  • 2017  MPW
  • 2015  Emson
  • 2015  Hibbert
  • 2014  Heartland
  • 2013  Steveni Kessler
  • 2011  Bryant Kesek
  • 2011  McHale Heaney & Marketline
  • 2010  Foster & Lamb
  • 2009  Southern
  • 2009  Houlder
  • 2009  Lynas Vokes
  • 2008  Highway
  • 2008  APL Protection
  • 2007  The National Solicitors Network
  • 2006  Burgess Potter
  • 2006  Kempster Lobo
  • 2004  Bloomsbury
  • 2003  James Dove
  • 2002  Milbourne
  • 2001  Stephens & Partners
  • 1999  Reid & Co.