After making 20 acquisitions in the last two decades, the broker’s M&A strategy has a clear ’purpose behind the growth’, says chief executive
Paul Anscombe is wrestling with train delays when he speaks to Insurance Times.
But while the Seventeen Group chief executive’s morning commute may have been disrupted, his ambitious plans for the rapidly growing broker are on track.
CCRS, which is a commercial lines broker, has grown into a £12.5m gross written premium (GWP) business since it was set up by managing director Neil Campbell in 2008.
Broker Scotland, established five years later, specialises in property insurance and handles around £4.75m GWP.
Meanwhile, Anscombe - a self-proclaimed broker “from day dot” - initially worked for banking and wealth management group Investec back in 1993. He later became sales and marketing director at Lark when it acquired Investec’s insurance business in 2002.
In 2005, he then moved to become managing director of James Hallam, which at the time was a “fairly small business” that turned over a “couple of million” in commission income annually and employed just over 20 staff, Anscombe says.
Seventeen Group has subsequently grown out of James Hallam, which remains the “biggest part” of the business and is its core broking brand, Anscombe adds.
The group, a non-trading and non-regulated holding company that owns James Hallam and MGA Touchstone Underwriting, has certainly been on a buying spree over the past two years.
The firm’s most recent August 2022 purchases are not, however, Seventeen Group’s first foray north of the border.
It set up an outpost in Glasgow just over a decade ago, then acquired a couple of businesses in Dumfries, which then became the home of the firm’s Scottish business – this had grown to house 50 staff prior to August’s acquisitions.
Those existing staff will remain in the market town, which offers a lower cost base than Glasgow, which is where their 30 new colleagues from CCRS and Broker Scotland will remain.
However, these latest acquisitions give Seventeen Group an opportunity to establish a higher profile in Scotland’s central belt.
Anscombe says: “Part of the attraction of CCRS is that Glasgow, along with Edinburgh, is the principal business centre [in Scotland], so we felt we needed to be in the heart of it.”
He says the way that Seventeen Group is expanding in Scotland reflects the approach that it has already taken in other regions, like the south west of England.
In 2019, for example, Seventeen Group bought Plymouth-based Walker Persson and Spargo, which has now rebranded as WPS Hallam.
Seventeen Group subsequently acquired TIS in Torquay and opened a new base in Penzance, both of which now operate as “satellite” offices to the company’s south west hub in Plymouth, Anscombe explains.
The company now has specialisms in about a dozen areas, with the acquisition of CCRS bringing in two fresh lines of expertise - a facility for vehicle dismantlers and strength in the public sector.
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“That adds new strings to our bow,” Anscombe says.
He adds that the company will now look at whether it can roll out some of these specialisms into other UK regions. To start, it will now introduce its specialist broker Everards’ hospitality and marine expertise into the Scottish market.
The advantages of independence
Being an independent broker, run by directors who are all insurance brokers, gives Seventeen Group’s businesses a competitive advantage over consolidators that are owned by banks or private equity houses, Anscombe says.
“These private equity-backed businesses can morph from one organisation into another different ownership,” he explains. “To be a true independent is what our clients want and what our staff want.”
This continuity offers “huge benefits, particularly in a Scottish market that has seen a lot of recent takeover activity”.
Anscombe continues: “You don’t have to go too far in terms of size to go way up the rankings, which is sad for Scotland as a market, simply because there are fewer brokers.
“That’s the negative side, but the positive side is that [this] creates an opportunity for an independent business to put its flag in the ground and build.
“We’re not going to try and run around and buy up every business for sale in Scotland, but if the right individuals or acquisition becomes available to strengthen [our] proposition, we would absolutely look at it.”
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While Seventeen Group has now made more than 20 acquisitions over the past two decades, the group’s M&A strategy is based on seeking firms that complement its existing strengths and add value, Anscombe says.
As an example, he explains that Seventeen Group is currently looking at opportunities that would supplement one of the firm’s existing specialisms.
“It’s not all about buying up everything that becomes available in the market,” he continues.
“It’s not a model based purely on acquisition. There’s purpose behind the growth.
“We don’t have a plan to put a flag in every town in the UK. The reason we have a dozen offices across the UK is related to specific businesses. We don’t have a presence in the Midlands or in Manchester.
“It’s all about finding the right quality individuals and businesses that support a strategy, rather than just saying we’ve got to acquire something in Birmingham because we’ve got an office there.
“That’s not the way to grow.”