If there was an insurance award for the "man for all seasons", Neil Utley would be on the shortlist. Despite being only 37-years-old, he has been the marketing director and then deputy managing director of Halifax Insurance (now Provident), run its broking chain Colonnade and been chief executive of the direct writer Privilege.

But his rise up the career ladder tells only half the story of his achievements so far. In each of these positions, Utley can let the statistics speak for themselves.

None more so than at Privilege, which during his time at the helm became the fastest growing insurer in British history.

"I was given the objective of building the business up for flotation," he says.

"We took the book from £15 million up to £100m in just under four years."

At Halifax, the number of policyholders grew from 180,000 to 600,000.

Utley has now taken his talents to Lloyd's of London where he is the chief executive of the retail division of Cox Insurance Holdings.

Internet innovation
Already, Cox has made headline news after striking an exclusive deal to sell insurance on Freeserve – the giant internet service provider which has 1.4m subscribers and is growing all the time.

It is a deal characteristic of Utley, who has built his career on innovation.

"The internet is a tremendous opportunity but has not really been exploited up to now," he says.

"Nobody has been wholly successful at selling insurance on the internet, largely because of how complicated we make it for people.

"We design sites with an insurance mentality.

"Most of the sites are simply an insurer replicating a telesales quote system and expecting someone in their living room to buy a policy by answering 40 questions.

"In reality that same insurer would put a telesales operator through two months of training before they are let loose."

Utley is confident that the Freeserve site, at insurancecity.com, has avoided these pitfalls and will be the most consumer-friendly and successful on the market.

However he is quick to point out that the direct arm is just one side of the business and – despite his success as a direct writer – he places brokers first in the pecking order.

"The last thing I want is for brokers to think I am more interested in the direct arm of the business," he says.

"When I first came into the industry, I was reading articles about the death of the broker.

"Ten years after, I am still reading the same stuff, but the broker market has far from disappeared.

"There have been a number who have left the industry, but the ones who are still there have become bigger and better."

Base of 5,500 intermediaries
Indeed, Utley's first acquisition at Cox was to buy the marketing company Holmans for £6.7m, which he quickly points out is more than he has spent on the internet.

Putting Holmans alongside the syndicate Equity Red Star, 218, Cox now has an agency base of 5,500 intermediaries.

It gives some indication of the size of Cox which Utley feels has hidden its light under a bushel.

The insurer is in the top ten of personal lines insurers in the country with 1.25m policies.

However, Utley believes Cox's real strength lies in its underwriting skill, and points out that the personal lines syndicate is the only one never to have made a loss for its names in 30 years.

"We have an edge over many composites because of the way people progress up the ladder here.

"In most composites, underwriters jump from one area to another to get promoted – this does not happen in Cox.

"For instance, our motorcycle underwriter has only underwritten for that market and has 35 years experience.

"This means he knows the cycles and when to contract and when to expand.

"This sort of in-depth knowledge cannot be replicated."

Soaring costs
However, he shares little of the same optimism for Lloyd's. While pointing out that Lloyd's has many strengths, such as the worldwide licence, he is quick to add that costs must come down. A grumble that is echoed throughout Lime Street.

Despite this problem, Utley is confident that Cox has only been lacking the right marketing strategy in the past, hence his acquisition of Holmans.

He now intends to promote more cross-selling and promises brokers that there will be some exciting new developments in the near future

These developments are certain to be his own work. Utley, a Yorkshireman who lives near Halifax with his wife and two children, stresses that he insists on being his own boss and having the freedom to deploy his entrepreunurial style as he sees fit.

He started his career at Midland Bank and developed many of the lifestyle products, such as Orchard and Vectra, which have now subsequently come back in vogue.

But he moved on when the bank was taken over in 1990, and spent a year taking an MBA at the world respected Ashbridge College.

It was a pattern he repeated at Privilege after Peter Wood sold his share of the company.

"When a company gets taken over, as many people in the insurance industry know, the focus is trying to amalgamate two different operations and cultures," he says.

"My style is being innovative and entrepreneurial which takes a back seat after a take-over."

Staying put
Even at Privilege, Utley points out that Peter Wood left him to run the business.

"Peter was always there for advice and expertise, but was not intrusive in the business," he said.

While no one would rule out any insurer being taken over during the current economic climate, Utley says that he personally is unlikely to be moving for a long time. "Anybody who thinks I would be moving again in a few years time, just needs to see my share options," he says.