So far, lloyds.com has been simply an online introductory service, but the signs are that it is moving on to a different level. Dermott White reports
Rumour has it Lloyd's is spending £16m on its website this year. That seems rather a lot for what is, officially, an online introductory service that aims to match an insurance intermediary's needs with the services of Lloyd's brokers and underwriters.
But industry talk of big budgets, increased staffing levels, expensive consultants, development plans and "stated aims" all suggest that Lloyd's has ambitious plans for its business-to-business website.
Lloyds.com went live on 1 May 2001. At the time, it was punted as an internet portal that would make Lloyd's more transparent and give brokers worldwide a "clear route to the hundreds of specialist insurance products".
As Lloyd's spokeswoman Caroline Wagstaff puts it: "You might know that Lloyd's is the centre for specialist political risk insurance and know that you want to buy some.
"But in a marketplace of 86 different syndicates how do I find an underwriter who can help me? It was to answer that question that we built Lloyds.com the way it is."
This approach seems to have achieved some success. Apart from picking up the insurance website of the year award in the 2001 Asia Insurance Industry Awards, the site now has 4,750 registered users, which exceeds the 2001 year-end target of 4,500.
Of the total registered, 89% are non-Lloyd's brokers, which, says Wagstaff, indicates that most users are brokers who are unfamiliar with the market and are trying to tap into its expertise.
Some of those users seem to be happy. Robert Poitras, a retail broker and registered user from New York, says: "It's well organised and designed, and its content is informative and concise."
A non-Lloyd's retail broker from Belgium, who declined to be named, adds: "A practical site. Not only is Market Finder a useful tool in identifying appropriate contacts at Lloyd's, but it also offers the opportunity to click through to these contacts' own websites.
"Offering the latest insurance news via the Market Intelligence facility is a great idea," he says.
Wagstaff points out that 70% of the registered users come from the UK and the US - a pattern that is broadly in line with where Lloyd's does most of its business.
"But we have registrations from about 150 other countries, so it's certainly met our target in giving us better global reach," she says.
However, many Lloyd's brokers are not backing the site. Although it allows users to find the details of most registered Lloyd's brokers and underwriters, only 48 out of a possible 142 brokers have listed their expertise. In contrast, on the underwriting side, 69 out of of 86 syndicates have listed their products.
Tom Bailey, the managing director of the European arm of internet-based insurance and reinsurance exchange Catex, says this reluctance to get involved is due to a lack of clarity about lloyds.com's aims.
"What is its business model? What is its long-term objective?
Is it going to be in competition with and a disintermediation for brokers?"
The official line on lloyds.com's aims and ambitions for 2002 sheds no further light on where the site is going ,other than more of the same.
Wagstaff says its aims are to increase registered users to 7,000, to encourage more frequent use of the site by existing users and to get more products listed on it.
But there could be a change of direction for the site. A Lloyd's market participant, who declined to be named, says lloyds.com recently revealed, in a closed-door discussion, that its aim was to become the BAA of the insurance industry.
In the airline industry, BAA provides the physical hub, or the space and the tools, to bring airlines and customers together.
In terms of technology, this means lloyds.com aims to become the pre-eminent internet-based insurance trading platform.
This ambition is supported by sources claiming that lloyds.com has been allocated £16m for investment this year, and that computer technology firm is to develop the lloyds.com system in conjunction with software and systems integration company Logica.
Lloyd's refuses to disclose how much has been spent on its website and the amount set aside for it this year. But there is evidence of action at lloyds.com's offices, with reports that the staffing level has grown to about 20 in the past three months and continues to expand in London's One Lime Street.
Lloyds.com chief executive Ashok Gupta admits to "exploring" ways of making business processes more efficient.
"It was always intended that the current site be the first step and that we explore what else we do from there," he says.
Gupta stresses that lloyds.com is "not in the business of disintermediating Lloyd's customers, either brokers or underwriters". But he adds that generating revenue is an area that he is looking at.
If the plan for lloyds.com is to
create a central set of trading tools, market participants are unimpressed. Insurance buyers and sellers have been able to transact on a common trading platform for several years, through online trading platforms such as RI3K and Inreon.
Lloyd's might argue that its brand name would give its offering authority, but the name often has negative connotations among insurance buyers outside London, because people associate it with losses and antiquated business processes, such as `face-to-face' broking.
"The question is: Can Lloyd's afford to do this?" says a market participant.
"Lloyd's is trying to restructure. We're seeing cash call after cash call for Names.
"Meanwhile, Lloyd's seems to be pouring money down a drain into a dotcom venture."