Zurich's official launch in Northern Ireland was a more sombre affair than the company doubtless planned.

An impressive turnout of more than 150 intermediaries arrived at the Culloden Hotel outside Belfast, to hear why Zurich is re-branding its Eagle Star portfolio in the province.

But tough trading conditions meant some brokers needed some convincing of Zurich's message that change was needed.

The giant insurer explained that from October 1, it plans to combine the best elements of its Eagle Star motor and home products under the Zurich Solutions brand in Northern Ireland.

Thus, Zurich's Car Solutions policy would include added value from free breakdown cover provided by Green Flag, legal advice and uninsured loss recovery. Home Solutions provides £40,000 of automatic cover, free business equipment cover and the option of family legal expenses protection.

These changes, to be fully introduced by April 2000, are intended to appeal to Zurich's target markets of homeowners, over 50s and motorists under 25.

David Roper, Zurich's director of sales, marketing and IT, gave a speech which stressed the company's international clout and plans to double its 50,000 policyholders in Northern Ireland. But brokers had more pressing concerns. One broker wondered whether Zurich's home insurance would extend to rented Housing Executive (publicly-owned) homes. Zurich said Eagle Star's book would transfer to the new business adding, that its home insurance was mainly aimed at owner occupiers.

Donald Davies of Edwin & Davies & Co, relaxed the atmosphere by drawing attention to the sensitive connotations in Ulster of Green Flag. "We are very fond of flags here," he said. "But you may have to change yours to the Orange/green flag."

He also said that despite Green Flag being in the province since 1971, it was not well known, and would benefit from a higher profile.

Keeping Eagle Star's nil interest policy for monthly paid premiums was another concern for brokers.

Roper said he took on board brokers' concerns, but made clear that Zurich would probably introduce an added charge for policyholders who choose to pay their premiums in instalments as opposed to a lump sum.

A representative from one of the largest broker firms in Northern Ireland, Hughes & Co, asked whether Zurich would offer favourable terms to the larger end of the market.

Roper, however, dodged that particular minefield saying it was a matter for his bosses to decide.

After the presentation, intermediaries gave their views on the state of the market to Insurance Times.

Many Northern Ireland intermediaries are small family-owned firms, or are limited to one town. At the other end of the scale are a handful of giants which dominate the market. Northern Ireland has close to 50 broker firms, according to BIBA, which may amount to over-capacity for a population of 1.5 million people. Although competition is limited to only a few direct insurers, it remains fierce. In an effort to reclaim market share, it is reported that some smaller intermediaries are planning to challenge the larger brokers by co-operating over marketing and advertising.

Premiums meanwhile, are said to compare favourably with the mainland, though some brokers complained of high rates for motor business.