Who will win the battle of the Networks?
A war is coming.
The battleground may be distribution, but its armies will be the networks.
At least, that is, if you believe the hype. The reality is that the fascination with confederations of brokers is nothing new.
Towergate’s acquisition of the jewel in the proverbial crown, the Broker Network, merely confirms what the market already knows, and knows only too well: for consolidators, networks are the perfect conduits for distribution of products both old and new, and useful levers for driving up commissions without the slings and arrows of slogans like “tied-agencies” and “lack of local service.”
The princely sum, therefore, that Towergate paid – £95m, or four times Broker Network's brokerage – should not come as a surprise, even if certain rivals may choose to feign it.
After all, as Broker Network chief Grant Ellis says, valuing a business is not so much about size (though it clearly helps) but about profitability and potential instead.
His new owners would doubtless agree. And indeed, as far as the business case for buying a network goes, they have already said words to that affect.
In October, speaking at Biba’s regional conference in Leeds, and less than two weeks after its blockbuster acquisition of Open International (which includes Countrywide), Towergate chief executive Andy Homer declared that networks, in partnership with the consolidators, would be the future.
The problem is, he added, that there would be only room for three or four.
His comments were subsequently (and somewhat ironically) echoed by his new network chairman, the aforementioned Ellis – who also be happened to be speaking at the same event, on the subject of “To sell or not to sell?”
Considering Homer’s omen, and the obvious clout of a Towergate network offering, it is perhaps a little surprising to see newer players, such as the Purple Partnership and Ten Insurance, piling into the fray.
The older protagonists, meanwhile, are stepping out of the shadows, and ramping up the rhetoric.
Whether their boasts turn out be empty will be interesting to see, but it is clear that both Willis and Axa have left themselves wide open to attack should they fail to meet their lofty goals.
Layton Blackham Business Solutions has said it will become the largest network in the UK within three years, while Willis’ chief Brendan Mcmanus has said that he plans to at least double the Willis Commercial Network – if necessary, at the expense of Broker Network.
It sounds easy enough and, crucially, with the vast majority of brokers still not signed up to a network, there could yet be room for the larger players to avoid coming to blows.
In the meantime, though, it seems entirely natural that the courting process should involve a little mud slinging.
Consequently Ellis, reeling from successive blows relating to “broken emotional contracts” has emphasised an important point – loyalty. The fact is, If you're getting a good deal – let alone a better one – members will opt to stay.
“You cannot trade members like cigarette cards,” Ellis says.
Referring to members moving between networks, his remark that "not much movement is expected either way" is less evocative, but is far more telling.
For now at least, there appears to be room for everyone in the network race.