UKGI managing director tells Insurance Times how having a charitable purpose ‘brings out the best in us’ as the insurer eyes growth in ‘areas where we have pretty low market penetration’

Ecclesiastical Insurance is a business with a strongly defined sense of corporate social responsibility.

Founded over 130 years ago as an insurer for parish churches, the group has grown to encompass a wide variety of specialist business lines, including religious buildings, while retaining the charitable ethos it was founded on.

The insurance business is owned by the Benefact Group, which rebranded from Ecclesiastical Group in March 2022.

The newly named group is itself owned by the Benefact Trust, a registered charity that uses the profits of Benefact’s companies to contribute to charitable causes.

Richard Coleman, UKGI managing director of Ecclesiastical Insurance, tells Insurance Times that while the insurance business is not itself adopting any changes following the rebrand of its parent company, the group’s new brand identity has allowed Ecclesiastical to parse its “what” and “why” more effectively.

Coleman explains: “The way I think about it is that Ecclesiastical is my what – it’s what we sell as an amazing specialist insurer. Benefact is my why – it’s why we sell what we do. We generate all our profits to give them away.”

The recent rebrand also helps to clarify that the wider group is a financial services organisation – previously, the shared names between the insurance brand and group could have created confusion for customers.

The distinction between the Benefact Group and Ecclesiastical is vital for another reason, adds Coleman: “99% of our day at Ecclesiastical is spent being the best specialist insurer that we can be and doing the best possible for our clients – brokers don’t choose us because we’re owned by a charity, they buy from us because we are deep specialists in what we do.

“The people we compete against are the household names of the insurance market, so we have to be really good every day and give maximum value to customers.”

The best way to earn profits as an insurer, thus generating more money to give to charity in Ecclesiastical’s case, is to provide the best service and keep customers happy.

Having charitable ownership does shape the company’s decisions, however.

Coleman explains: “[The ownership] does make us think and act ethically – we look for ways to pay a claim and want to make sure we are holding ourselves to high standards.

“That second layer of [charitable] purpose, that why, brings out the best in us. We put out some good financial results last year and there is nothing quite like knowing where that goes.”

Ecclesiastical doesn’t control which causes its donations contribute towards – these decisions are made by the Benefact Trust. However, recent donations have included the release of £1m in emergency funding for charities providing support to people affected by the conflict in Ukraine.

Richard coleman

Richard Coleman

Modern insurer

Last year Ecclesiastical Insurance underwent a rebrand itself, in which the logo and “feel” of the brand was modernised. Coleman says there was even consideration around changing the brand’s name to something more modern, but this was decided against.

“[The name] does imply faith-related insurance and we do much more than that, with faith insurance the smaller minority. But the name itself has such deep heritage in the industry,” he says.

“There aren’t many insurance company names that go back to the 1800s in British insurance anymore and it has a real resonance with brokers, so it was an easy decision to keep it.”

Coleman is keen to emphasise that while the heritage of the Ecclesiastical brand is important, the company is now “a very forward looking, vibrant organisation”.

For example, the company has recently invested in its underlying digital systems and has incorporated technology into some of its risk management systems.

This includes the launch of Ecclesiastical Smart Properties in July 2021. This proposition uses a wireless sensor within buildings to learn what is normal for that property in terms of moisture, temperature and other risk factors.

In heritage buildings, a specialist line that Ecclesiastical serves, a persistent leak can cause major damage that leads to expensive repairs. With the Ecclesiastical Smart Properties sensor, however, a text message is sent as soon as a risk is detected, allowing any damage to be checked before problems compound.

“Our traditional strengths are really married with innovation”, explains Coleman.

Building specialist understanding

Some of the lines that Ecclesiastical insure are highly specific, including heritage buildings, fine art and faith insurance.

Building and maintaining the specific expertise needed to be able to advise customers on these lines of business means drawing on the know-how of long-serving staff and partners.

Coleman provides an example from the heritage building line.

“One of the most powerful things we do is insurance and risk management together – as a proportional headcount, we probably have more risk managers here than you’d see in many insurance companies.

“They’ll share risk improvement [information] with the customers, but they’ll also help us, as the underwriter, understand the risks represented by those buildings.

“We obviously have a deep understanding of how they’re made and, in particular, how to value them. That’s a really difficult thing for customers to understand, but we have a specific expertise built up over the years from handling claims and from underwriting risks that means we understand how much it costs to rebuild a heritage building.”

This expertise means that Ecclesiastical is aware that when a heritage building burns down, for example, the first thing to do in many cases is preserve any surviving historical artefacts as quickly as possible.

“This might mean we have an archaeologist on-site to make sure we’re preserving [artefacts] as well as we can,” explains Coleman.

“That’s our decades and centuries of experience, but I would also highlight our very strong partnership between risk management and underwriting as one of the key things.”

Charitable goals

The Benefact Trust is the fourth largest charitable corporate donor in the UK, although the firm has aspirations of becoming the largest. This goal is contingent on the continued success of Benefact’s brands, including Ecclesiastical.

Coleman explains: “Becoming the country’s largest corporate donor is a real rallying cry for us internally. We do want to grow all parts of the Benefact Group and that means we’re looking to grow the insurance business.

“We have areas of the business where we have very strong market positions – things like heritage – but we have areas where we have pretty low market penetration and a great opportunity to continue growing.”

Real estate, high net worth and the schemes market are areas of interest for the insurer. However, Coleman emphasises that Ecclesiastical must first and foremost focus on providing high levels of service.

He says: “It’s great to have a big aspiration, it’s great to want to be top corporate donor, but you take that in a series of steps by making sure you continue to deliver to your customers and brokers, day in and day out.”