With seven insurers committed to imarket the future seems rosy for e-commerce, but there are some dissident voices. Caroline Jordan reports

News that seven major insurers are scheduled to have products on imarket by the end of year should be welcome news for brokers. With many feeling the pinch from regulatory costs, making savings through technology has never made more sense.

But, will the e-commerce portal provide a complete panacea? Certainly all seven supporting insurers - NIG announced its entry this week - are upbeat about progress so far.

And as for the software houses, it appears they are all singing off the same hymn sheet.

Acturis has been quickest off the mark. Last month, Groupama went live with Acturis to launch its Optima Shop product - the first insurer and software house to become imarket integrated. It means brokers can trade directly from the Acturis back office system directly to Groupama via the imarket infrastructure.

Then, last week, Allianz Cornhill announced it was now providing a retail product, Complete Retailer, also with Acturis via the portal. It says it will be ready with more products in coming months.

Although there are only two competing products currently live on imarket, insurers are maximising the hype.

According to Ken Hutchinson, e-commerce manager for Groupama: "This is a fantastic coup for Groupama and Acturis.

"Through agreed imarket standards we were able to test the product and integrate with Acturis very quickly, ensuring we could bring this product to market ahead of our competitors. We are delighted our brokers will be the first to reap the benefits of electronic trading in its truest sense via imarket."

Meanwhile, Geoff Moylan of Allianz Cornhill enthuses: "For too long we have been faced with a multiplicity of systems and paper that has constrained insurer's ability to trade effectively in the commercial lines marketplace.

"Imarket has succeeded where some previous initiatives have failed and now provides the market with a single common systems language. We now have a real opportunity to change the way that we trade, driving efficiencies and cost savings to the benefit of both insurers and brokers."

Unsurprisingly, Acturis was keen to be in on the action. Its co-chief executive, Theo Duchen, says: "The important thing for Acturis brokers is that this process involves no additional effort. Brokers simply add the risk information into the Acturis system as they do currently and a competitive auto-rated shop quotation from Groupama is instantly available."

As for the Allianz Cornhill deal, he says: "Allianz Cornhill is a forward thinking and innovative insurer that has always been at the forefront of our insurer integration initiatives. Imarket is genuinely moving from dream to reality and this is indeed an exciting time for brokers."

With such gushing praise, it would seem imarket is set to offer a complete panacea for brokers looking to place small commercial business in a cost effective and fast environment. And, with such strong words from those who have already gone live, it would seem there is pressure for the other supporting insurers to launch their products online too.

But, according to AXA broker development manager Colin Calder: "It was never a race. Our approach is slightly different in that we will have a comprehensive suite of products ready to launch by the end of the year, which will be connected through to imarket through our Business Risk portal.

"Everything is going to plan and I would say that almost uniquely, everyone is working well together. It won't be long before the other software houses are connected up too."

Meanwhile, Simon Cooter, Royal & SunAlliance's (R&SA) small business and e-business director, says his company will go live by October, if not earlier with a shops product followed by offices. "They will link directly to Enterprise - R&SA's small business platform. providing a seamless connection for brokers."

He says R&SA will have its first combined policy on imarket "within months" of the insurer going live on imarket.

But he adds it would not be fully automated, unlike the simpler package policies "The next 12 to 18 months, as the industry goes live on imarket, will be a good opportunity to enable e-trading and give better service. The challenge is to be super slick for simple business. The quality of insurers' back office systems - such as turning around quotes - will be the differentiating factor."

Competition between insurers is one issue. It is no secret that the software house market is populated by more than a few characters with big egos and is notoriously competitive. But, to date, there does indeed appear to be an entente cordiale between the main players.

Peter Knowles, strategy and marketing director for imarket, says: "We don't publish timelines and we have non-disclosure agreements in place. Apart from this, it is not helpful for us to be critical of the software houses."

He adds that it is in the software house's interest to integrate as soon as they can, since "they make money through transactions".

Technology complete
Knowles points out that the technology for imarket is basically complete, stating: "You can think of it as a railway. We have built the track and platform but it is now up to people - and by that I mean the software houses and insurers - to run the trains."

It is also up to brokers to act as passengers - but are they all as excited by imarket as some insurers appear to be?

Ian Mantel, principal of Manor Insurance Services, says: "I resigned from the imarket broker forum because, while I support the concept wholeheartedly, I felt it was not living up to promises from insurers. I believe it will remain more efficient for brokers to visit insurers' extranet sites individually, as frankly, this will be quicker.

"The current imarket system is unwieldy and there are too many questions. Instead of streamlining these, insurers have put in far too many. For example, they now want to know about levels of police response to an alarm system. This is not a typical question on an online proposal system and brokers may well not have this. Insurers may be worried about business being done electronically that is binding, but the end result is that in its current form, this system is not friendly for brokers to use."

Most insurers say brokers are more than ready for imarket. Calder goes further: "I would say they are more than ready for imarket - they are crying out for it."

Dave Smith, head of market management for Zurich Commercial, says: "If we think that EDI took around 10 years, then we have come an enormous way with imarket. Most brokers are more than ready to start using the technology. They don't want more chatter, they want to see products go live and deliver by the end of the year."

Norwich Union's Phil Nunn says: "We'll be on board too by the end of the year - we want to make sure it works first. The roll out is going well to date though."

Mark Coverdale is chairman of the imarket intermediary user forum and says the proposition will "revolutionary and it will not be long before the standards developed with insurers will become the benchmark for the method of transmission of risk information for all non-EDI products".

He admits this is a bold statement, given that the business currently being transacted on the portal is low, but counters: "Imarket has managed to get its six [initial] sponsoring insurers to agree to common protocols and data standards for a wide range of non-EDI products and to develop a secure infrastructure in a very short space of time. It took many years to establish the brokernet protocol for motor EDI."

He says the software houses are currently integrating the technology and says he is delighted by the fact that insurers have not been "bogged down and stymied by intransigence on establishing the necessary common protocols". There has been very little slippage on the project time at all.

Mantel says: My message to insurers MMA and Fortis, which are likely to be thinking of signing up, is to make sure you know what brokers think before you commit. Until the processes are easier then more brokers will continue to use individual extranets, even though going to one place is of course far easier."

Knowles concludes: "We have 1,800 broker firms registered and we are in talks with other insurers who I would expect to sign up. This is set to become the norm for transacting commercial insurance." IT