Outspoken yet self-deprecating, Bollington’s chairman is far from boring, despite his claims. Insurance Times hears from the man himself about the fascinating Groupama relationship and always wearing his heart on his sleeve
Paul Moors is a legend. Known to be fond of a party, he’s never afraid to speak his mind: sometimes at the top of his lungs. Take a recent Biba dinner. As well as being chairman at Manchester-based broker Bollington, Moors is chair of Biba’s North West region, and, flanked by insurers sponsoring the event, he stood up and laid into their service levels – to the chagrin of the insurers and the glee of his fellow brokers.
But today he’s on his best behaviour. Smart and smiling, he’s finally been persuaded to submit to an Insurance Times interview. He’s a little apprehensive and asks several times: “You’re not planning to stitch me up, are you?” But he needn’t worry. Bollington’s results have inevitably been hit by the recession, but it’s still a thriving business, and Moors and his partners Stephen and Joe Wall did well to sell a 60% stake to insurer Groupama at the top of the market in 2007. Besides, while he cultivates that bad boy image, he’s a bit of a charmer by day, with a nice line in self-deprecation.
There’s plenty of business to talk about, but before we do, what about that Biba dinner? He laughs, a little sheepish, then in his distinctive Mancunian accent confesses: “It was my turn to speak and rather than do a speech on education and professionalism, like everyone has for the past 20 years, I decided to talk about the service levels of insurers, and frustrations of the broker in dealing with insurers. Brokers don’t always have a big enough voice in terms of trading matters, because we are at the mercy of our suppliers. As we don’t govern rate of control capacity, we are very much left to do the bidding of others.”
The serious message delivered in swaggering style is characteristic of Moors. Head of the Manchester insurance mafia and one of the big beasts of the broking market, he’s well liked and most certainly well known.
It’s been a long journey. Moors started his insurance career upon leaving school in 1981, taking a job at Sun Alliance. After 12 months of a regular wage, he changed his mind about going to university and stayed in the industry. Unsurprisingly, he crossed the fence to broking, setting up his own business in Stoke-on-Trent in 1992. In 1998, the business merged with Bollington. Moors became managing director in 2003 and, with business partner Stephen Wall, performed a management buy-out.
In 2007, with a solid business that had a number of specialisms, such as care homes and motor trade, to its name, the Bollington boys decided to take the next step. “We had grown by client acquisition, affinities and strategic partnerships,” Moors says. “We were never a consolidator in the true sense, but we found that we were borrowing money to buy businesses. We thought we needed to refinance the business: we looked at listing on AIM, venture capital and insurers.”
The result was a deal that saw Groupama take a 60% stake in the business, with Moors, Wall and Wall’s father Joe holding onto the remaining shares.
Three years on, it’s still the first thing people talk about when Bollington is mentioned. There’s something about the concept of Moors and Wall sat at a boardroom table with the poker-faced French corporate executives that both tickles and intrigues people – though Moors insists most of his staff have never met any of their ultimate bosses.
At the time, Groupama was following the lead of its French cousin AXA by buying brokers; it also snapped up Lark and Carole Nash. Unlike AXA, it has never merged the businesses and many question the sense in it owning them at all, particularly given the drastic changes in the distribution landscape since then. “I think their reasons for doing it were very different [from AXA’s],” he says, a touch defensively. “In addition to developing relationships to assist distribution, they were looking to protect themselves from the highs and lows of the cyclical insurance market.”
Moors is relentlessly positive about his relationship with Groupama – they never interfere, there’s no pressure to place business with them – and insists he sees it as a long-term play, refusing to be drawn by talk of an exit strategy. Although a couple of peers have suggested that Moors and Wall have lost some of their entrepreneurial passion for the business since the sale, Moors says he is happy, and motivated by developing the senior management team and further expanding the business.
Would Groupama consider selling up? There have been a few rumours to this effect, emphatically denied by chief executive Francois Xavier Boisseau. “I’m not aware of any discussion between Grouapama and any other party regarding the sale of the broking businesses,” Moors says carefully. Perhaps a little too carefully, because the next day he sends a follow-up email:
“I reiterate that I have honestly never heard these rumours, either from the City or from within Groupama. Perhaps they don't reach Bollington from the wine bars of Fenchurch Street?” Touche.
So, if there’s no exit on the cards, what about acquisitions? After all, a spending spree was the original intent behind the deal, though the economic crash scuppered that. “We have made a number of acquisitions,” Moors says. “But we were never like Towergate or Oval. We decided we didn’t want to get involved in buying other brokers for the sake of it, but we will if they are strategically right.”
Are they in any discussions at the moment? “We’re always talking. We are in certain discussions, but they are not that well advanced.” Would they look at a transformational deal? “If the right deal came up, we would consider it. But a big part of my plan is to develop our book by client acquisition.”
Bollington has a wholesale and a retail business. The wholesale side is national, the retail side is split into five divisions. The commercial section is very much Midlands and North West-based, while the specialisms in motor trade and care and charity are spread over the UK. And despite a hit from the recession, the businesses continue to turn a profit – £1.85m in 2009, down from £3.35m in 2008.
So, it’s more of the same from Moors. “We’ve become boring,” he claims, before booming “boring Bollington!” and slapping the table with a devilish cackle. There are probably a few who would beg to differ, but Moors is apparently convinced. “We enjoy ourselves, we get on with the job, and we like to mix it up a bit, but we’re more conservative than we used to be. It happens as you get older; you start out as a young man as a communist and end up as a conservative.”
Does Bollington cultivate the image of saying the things others won’t? There’s a long pause as his mind works overtime, looking for a trap. “We have certainly cultivated the Bollington image to a degree, but there's also a natural gregariousness … probably no more so than many other brokers though. I think we do wear our hearts on our sleeve – we work had and play hard. We are passionate about Bollington." Have they ever taken it too far? “No, not all. You don’t get anywhere by bullying or being awkward for the sake of it, and I don’t think we’ve ever had a stand-up row with an insurer. You may disagree with a decision or a strategy, but you move on. You never know when paths may cross in the future.”
It‘s hard to buy Moors’ claim that he‘s become boring, but you wouldn‘t have him any other way. Paul Moors is a broker to the bone and one of the market’s last great characters. A stitch up? Not today. IT