With Polaris admitting that imarket has not progressed as quickly as expected, Ben Cook asks if the other commercial lines e-commerce platforms can offer a serious alternative

Polaris recently admitted that its electronic commercial trading platform, imarket, had not developed as quickly as anticipated and that it should offer more products while having more software houses integrated into the system (Insurance Times, 10 January 2008).

So, with imarket falling short of expectations, what alternative e-commerce platforms for commercial lines are available to brokers? Among the options are Broker2Broker (B2B), the Moorhouse Group’s Xbroker, Open GI’s PowerPlace, and Ace Online.

The platforms vary in terms of the products they offer – the available cover ranges from specialist marine cargo risks to shops and pubs, with some of the portals generating thousands of quotes per month.

While some of the platforms pose a serious challenge to imarket, others are seen as having a niche offering, which is intended to complement the imarket portal. With the exception of Ace Online, each of the platforms is backed by a panel of major insurers.imarket’s competition

B2B, which was launched in May 2007, has 500 registered brokers and is set to generate 2,000 quotes this month [January 2008], with a conversion rate of 14%. It offers a range of products including retail, hair and beauty, fish and chip shops, hotels, guesthouses, pubs, and restaurants. Insurers backing the platform include Arag, AXA, Groupama, MMA, Norwich Union and Royal & SunAlliance.

Jason Gandy, chief executive of B2B, says the platform is a realistic alternative to imarket. “It’s available to all brokers, they have access to a wide panel of insurers and there are comparative products,” he says. “We don’t insist on minimum volumes, most of the brokers we work with are at the smaller end in terms of gross written premium – £1.5m and below.”

Frank Gudelajtis, director of broker Nelson Finance, which puts more than 90% of its business through B2B, says he is very happy with the portal. “It’s a one-stop shop, it offers flexibility, the response is very quick and they go the extra mile to help you”, he says. Another benefit of using B2B, Gudelajtis says, is that it offers access to the full market place.

Xbroker, the platform run by the Moorhouse Group, is, like B2B, backed by a number of major insurers, including Norwich Union, Groupama, MMA, Fortis, AXA, NIG, AIG and Royal & SunAlliance. Xbroker.com – which has 3,500 registered brokers – generates 3,500 quotes per month of which around 25% are converted into new business.

The products offered by Xbroker include tradesman public and employers’ liability, contractors, tradesman goods in transit, retailers, let property, commercial vehicle and private car.

Lyndon Wood, chief executive of Moorhouse Group, says Xbroker compares favourably with imarket “It’s a system designed by a broker who understands the customer relationships and who understands what a broker wants from a system,” he says. “We constantly review the sales process and products on offer in line with what we learn from our broker partners – we leverage income to gain exclusive product offerings from insurers.”

Wood adds that the products offered, rather than being off the shelf, are exclusive to Xbroker to assist brokers in building their business.

Mike Chapple, a broker at Oakland Insurance Services, puts 50% of his business through Xbroker and describes the portal as easy to use, quick, and competitive. He adds: “You can print the documents straightaway and can email them to your client.”

Increasing broker choice

“While some of the platforms pose a serious challenge to imarket, others are seen as having a niche offering, intended to complement imarket

The PowerPlace platform – which is run by Open GI – offers a number of products including property owners, shop, travel, personal accident and per capita liability. The portal is currently being piloted for use by the Countrywide Network. The pilot is initially limited to 20 brokers, but it is anticipated that most of the Countrywide Network’s membership of 700 brokers will eventually use PowerPlace, which is backed by AXA, Fortis, Groupama, MMA, Towergate and Zurich.

Simon Hughes, sales & marketing director at Open GI, says PowerPlace is already generating a “substantial volume of quotes”, though he says it is too early in the pilot to comment on how many quotations are being converted into new business.

Is PowerPlace a realistic alternative to imarket? “PowerPlace complements imarket – our aim has always been to give brokers a choice”, Hughes says. “They can trade via imarket and will soon be able to trade point-to-point with a panel of insurers through PowerPlace via Open Trader technology.”

Hughes adds that Open GI is still committed to the development of imarket and continues to integrate commercial product lines with the portal. He also highlights the fact that PowerPlace differs from other platforms, such as B2B and Xbroker, in that it is fully integrated with the brokers’ Open GI software, which eliminates retyping.

Gareth Millard, managing director at Three Counties Insurance Brokers, one of the first brokers to pilot PowerPlace, says he was impressed with the impact the portal – which he describes as efficient and easy to use – has made in a relatively short period.

He says: “We have only been using PowerPlace for a couple of months for our personal accident and travel business yet we have already seen major benefits – we are keen to trade further business lines as soon as they are released by Countrywide, particularly some of the more mainstream commercial products such as retailers and offices insurance.”

Millard also highlights the user-friendliness of PowerPlace. “I am no technical expert but I picked it up really quickly and found the process for quote and buy very straightforward,” he says. “Staff are finding the electronic referral facility extremely useful as personal accident cases which are affected by age restrictions can go straight to the underwriter.”­

Niche player

Ace Online – which has been running for around a year – has 2,000 individual users working at 500 brokers.

The four products offered by the platform are directors’ and officers’ liability, UK commercial excess casualty, environmental impairment liability, and marine cargo – pension trustee liability is set to be added by the end of the first quarter of this year.

Carl Faulkner, head of e-commerce at Ace Online, says: “We receive several hundred quotations per week and we’re pleased with the strike ratio.” He adds that Ace’s target is to get 45% of its renewal book business – in terms of number of policies – onto the platform.

Faulkner says Ace Online’s offering is made up of niche products and consequently is tailored to a slightly different market than that targeted by platforms such as imarket. “We are a specialist player – there will always be big systems doing fleet products,” he says.

Steve Perkins, senior support product technician at Aon, and a regular user of Ace Online [see above], says the platform is quick and user-friendly. He adds: “The underwriting team behind Ace Online is very experienced, so where risks fall outside of the criteria and require manual underwriting by Ace the turnaround is excellent.”

CASE STUDY: Kath Daniel, assistant director in charge of operational management, Smart & Cook

A broker’s choice of software provider can often determine which e-commerce platform they use for commercial lines. Kath Daniel uses imarket, primarily because it is linked to Acturis, which is the software used by Smart & Cook. She adds that she has been using the portal for around 18 months, though only for a small proportion of business. The benefits are the speed and the instantaneous documents, she says. There is a comparative panel and there is the ability to quote on as many risks as possible. Daniel adds that the reason she does not use any of the other e-commerce platforms is that they are not linked to Acturis. She says using a different platform would mean having to key in data twice, once into B2B, for example, then once into Acturis.