Group chief executive further recognises a ‘huge opportunity’ in the broker’s branch network as ‘local businesses still want to deal locally’

A-Plan is aiming to strike gold in the commercial rural sector as this is a “market-wide area” with “relatively little competition”, says group chief executive Carl Shuker.

The broker, which is already known for its work within personal lines, therefore plans to expand into commercial rural insurance through local market penetration and engaging with local businesses, such as farms, small holdings and estates.

Shuker believes this market niche is an opportunity for A-Plan because the insurance industry tends to avoid providing rural cover “possibly because it is not as understood as it could or should be”, as well as the fact that the sector has been “dominated by a single player” – the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) - he said.

However, if insurance businesses want to take advantage of this gap in the market, it’s “really important that the brokers [that insurers and specialists] partner up with have got the knowledge and experience to help insurers grow within that sector”.

He continues: “In the end, if you do a really good job, [the NFU] have got a large share of the market – so, I’m sure we can add to that without causing too much difficulty.”

Speaking exclusively to Insurance Times, Shuker explains that part of A-Plan’s growth strategy is “building relationships [with] our clients and making friends – not in a cheesy, ‘have a nice day’ way, but we create time to get to know them, to understand the risks that businesses face”.

Considering risk, one of the challenges that the rural community faces centres around climate change, Shuker notes. This includes flood risk and storm damage, which are “concentrated in that particular market”.

Therefore, A-Plan is working with rural communities to make sure that it understands these risks and “we put something together that supports them in the event of a difficulty, working with insurers to make sure the covers are in place”, he says.

He continues: “We see the opportunity around us is our local region access – our branch network.

“What we’ve seen through the consolidators in the market is a lot of businesses where they were served locally have now been put into more remote contact centres and a lot of local businesses still want to deal locally – they want good quality advice. So, we see a huge opportunity there.”

Plotting a ‘long-term future’

So far, A-Plan has opened around 35 commercial centres across its network to serve local communities and businesses – this is “going extremely well”, Shuker says.

Furthermore, the group has hired 10 people into its rural business. It also has an extra staff member supporting its platform in Scotland, Shrewsbury, Worcester and Sevenoaks, but “we are looking to hire more people”, Shuker adds.

Part of what sparked A-Plan’s commercial rise is when the business was bought by broker Howden in September 2020. Now, A-Plan’s commercial book is approaching £240m gross written premium (GWP), giving the group a platform to support its rural market ambitions.

In July 2021, A-Plan also revealed its desire to become a top 10 commercial broker by 2024, adding that it was investing heavily in new rural specialist hubs.

In comparison to 2008, when the group’s GWP for SME business was around £5m, Shuker says the group’s commercial and corporate business has “come a very long way”.

He adds that A-Plan’s organic growth on its SME business is around 22%.

Speaking about being acquired by Howden, Shuker says: “[We’ve] got the platform in terms of the branch network, [we’ve] got region access - it was just the people and the skill set.

“The people who have moved over from Howden are really good, nice people – they care about the clients, they care about the result they get to the insurers and they bring insight into our business to enable us to grow.”

Despite “winning” with the Howden acquisition, Shuker admits that the challenge and “big limiting factor” for A-Plan is getting good quality people on board.

He says: “What really matters to us is people who really care about what they do, they really care about the client, because that’s the roots to sustainability.

“If you look after your clients and you look after your insurers, that’s an incredibly important part of the mix too because insurers are essentially trusting you with their capital, so you’ve got to deliver to them what they want.

“You can do things in the short term to grow your business that are not in anybody’s interest in the medium to long term, so we’re building for a long-term future and that’s incredibly important.

“We do not try and squeeze the pips out of the insurer relationship because we want them to be around in five, 10 years’ time too.”

Trust – ‘hard won, easily lost’

But how does A-Plan intend to stand out, especially in the rural insurance market?

Shuker explains that although he believes brokers do not underestimate their competition, it is about “making it personal”. This means being “engaging” and making sure to “listen to your client”, he says.

He continues: “Functionally within the business, we’ve always said you treat every single client who has a claim as if they’re the only client in the world who has ever had a claim because at that point of crisis – they’re the only person that matters.

“So, it’s around being empathetic.”

In his mind, brokers that adopt this type of approach are “in a fantastic position to win against those who are saying, ’let’s go online, let’s put in a call centre and let’s make it more ‘processy’, rather than people oriented’”. 

Shuker adds: “Most brokers understand the trust that clients put in them, most people understand and appreciate it – so, it’s never abuse the trust. It’s hard won, easily lost.”

A-Plan was founded in 1963 and now has around 108 branches, situated in main county and market towns in the UK.

Carl Shuker started his career at A-Plan Insurance in Oxford, 1981. He has held many roles within the business, including deputy chief executive in 2001, and is now the group’s top boss.

Considering his journey in the insurance industry, Shuker says: “The industry goes through a lot of change, so I’ve been around for a while, but still loving it.”