Philip Gennoy is the driving force behind Allianz Cornhill's underwriting academy. Alison Boyle asks why he felt it was needed

When Allianz Cornhill launched its underwriting academy last May the aim was to improve the technical ability of its underwriters. It believed that any enhancement in this area would lead to an improvement to bottom line results.

Allianz Cornhill's combined ratio for 2000 was 115.9%, which currently places it in 28th position in a ranking of the top 40 insurance companies. Perhaps not quite the performance you would expect from a top ten insurance company.

Yet nearly a year after the launch of the academy a return on investment of 2% claims ratio improvement is forecast and it has become the first and only in-house training scheme to be accredited by the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII).

One of the faces behind this initiative was human resources executive Philip Gennoy, who was amazed when he joined the industry three years ago by the lack professionally qualified people.

He now wants all underwriters at Allianz Cornhill to be professionally qualified and to create a training environment that not only improves staff retention, but attracts high calibre people into the company. He explains why......

Why did you set up the underwriting academy?
When I joined Allianz Cornhill three years ago, my role was to train and develop staff and to recruit more people. To do that, you have to understand one of the key jobs - underwriting. What became clear was that our level of technical training had become less than ideal and we had trouble recruiting.

Was your underwriting not up to scratch?
If you ask other companies, they will all say they are having difficulty attracting and retaining high-calibre people.

Allianz Cornhill has had some years of lean profitability, and senior managers felt this was not entirely unconnected to our underwriting. We stepped up training because business needed improving and some individual underwriting situations could have been better

Does that mean the academy training has increased your profits?
The more we can improve underwriting, the more we are going to improve our bottom-line results. We are now seeing improved profits and better underwriting practice.

It could also be linked to changes in the business and recruitment of better people, but the combination definitely includes underwriting.

How do you set standards for your underwriters?
We identified core competencies by talking to staff, but we have also taken into account what people would do in other companies. To do that, we recruited a lot of people - some senior staff - from other companies before we launched the academy.

In addition, we aligned ourselves to the CII, which has a clear view of what standards should be. A lot of our work has been alongside it.

Really? There are some people in the industry who do not believe the CII is prepared for the challenge.
When I started, only 25% of our underwriters were professionally qualified.

Here is a business that says its core business is underwriting, yet 75% of underwriters - who can spend the shareholders' money - have no professional qualification. This was not an unusual figure across the industry. You then have to question the professional body that stands for the industry. When I asked people why they were not professionally qualified, the CII and its reputation was often quoted as the reason.

Why have you aligned yourself to it then?
This time last year, the CII was reviewing its role under the chairmanship of Bob Scott. Basically, you have to ask, do you want underwriters to be more professional and to be qualified? The answer is yes. Which is the only body that can provide that? The CII.

Do you think professional qualifications are the way forward?
Our statement of intent is that we want all of our underwriters to be professionally qualified.

Many companies have spent a lot of time developing their own qualifications. This is a wasted effort.

You need a transferable qualification that is recognised by the whole industry. The only body that can provide that is the CII and it has a lot of work to do. It is undertaking a review of its examination structure and I have been asked to sit on that group along with a number of other companies.

What about those people who are better at training on the job than taking exams?
It is an interesting debate about how much you assess in the workplace and how much you set exams for.

The CII is addressing this problem, and it will take some months to complete. I think there will still be a place for some sort of technical examination and also more about assessing how people operate in the workplace. Our underwriting academy works on both principles.

Will a company have to put a lot of time and effort into workplace assessment?
What we discovered with the academy modules was the importance of line managers in helping and coaching their people. This had a major impact on the success rate, but there are substantial differences across the company.

What we are doing now is targeting line managers on the degree of success they have in developing their people. It is a bit of a shame, as it shows that unless you are using "carrots and sticks", then people do not do these things. It is a bit short-sighted because a manager should see that giving people better skills helps them do a better job.

Have you lost any staff as a result of your increased focus on learning and development?
We have as many openings for underwriters as we can find good underwriters. We can't have enough good underwriters. The only people we would not accommodate are those people who say professional qualifications are a waste of time.

When we have been recruiting we have come across this attitude. We just say they are not for us. Our retention rate is more than 90% on underwriters, it was a lot less than this before the academy. But, as well as retaining good underwriters, our aim with the academy is also to attract good people, especially graduates.

How can the academy help in attracting graduates?
To attract talented graduates, the industry needs to shake off its grey suit image. Insurance has such a fantastic array of jobs and offers international careers yet, we struggle to get people to recognise us.

So we need something to attract them. And because we are raising our standards and saying that people have to continue training and developing and have to become professionally qualified, we are attracting people we have never recruited before.

We have just set up a graduate scheme just for underwriters and now have 24 graduates on that.

Has the Allianz name helped?
Definitely. There is a war for talent and you have to make yourself attractive. Being an international company helps because you do not want to tell a talented graduate they have a job for life in Bristol.