When Barry Woodward, chairman and managing director of loss adjuster, Property & Casualty Services, asked me to join the company to set up an operation in France, I leapt at the idea. I had been in love with France since the age of 11, and although we didn't study insurance at school, French was one of the few subjects I mastered. (Rod is a trilingual Member of the Institute of Linguists.)
I joined PCS in May 1999 and opened for business in Paris later that summer. Business has been very brisk, particularly since the catastrophic storms that swept through France just before Christmas last year. We have expanded our Paris operation and recently opened an office in Lyons. The plan to take a British-qualified chartered loss adjuster with fluent French and recruit local staff seems to be working. The new injection of British style into the already competitive French market is paying off.
The loss adjuster's counterpart in France, the expert sinistre, has quite a different mission from his confrères in the UK; he is appointed by the broker, not the insurer. Then he tends to look at the facts, report back to the insurers and leave them to make a settlement offer and handle recoveries. To succeed in France we have to offer a bit extra. The added value that our British methods bring are being appreciated. We are first on the scene and, before negotiating a settlement, we collect all the evidence, scrutinise the policy wording and give an opinion. Also, our vigorous pursuit of the recovery has taken people in France by surprise.
We have developed a niche market in adjusting losses for British businesses with operations in France, as well as for British property owners with homes over here. The recent storm damage highlighted some interesting difficulties for British insurers. Our experience shows that their obligations under French legislation need skilful handling. Also, British insurers need to be particularly careful with policies covering holiday homes. For example, we have encountered difficulties handling claims on policies sold by well-meaning UK brokers to clients who have bought property in France, without realising the differences in cover that French legislation demands.
Recently, we were asked to adjust losses suffered by a British operator of campsites in rural France. Over 150 mobile homes were badly damaged. We worked hard with the insured to find a speedy solution to the claim, accelerate the repairs and ensure that loss of income for the forthcoming holiday season is minimised. We also paid visits to the brokers and the insured at his headquarters in England to ensure the procedure went smoothly. Files were kept in both languages.
We have also handled some more exotic claims. Recently, I was called to an exclusive haute couture fashion boutique just off the Champs Elysées, frequented by the Sultan of Brunei and Prince Alt-thani, among others. Three armed and masked men terrorised the three shop assistants and made off with £100,000 of clothes. The claim was settled swiftly.
Setting up the company from scratch in France was another unusual experience. I arrived with no home and no bank account. You need an address before you can have an account and – you guessed it – you cannot rent a flat until you have a bank account. As a citizen of Europe, I have the right to freedom of movement and work, but in France a carte de sejour, or permit to stay, is a must and they do not give them away without a fight. I am constantly amazed at how easily I am waved through by officials on production of my carte, whereas my UK passport often provokes a long and careful study. Registering the company and signing the lease on the office was pure Kafka.
Insurance claims have fascinated me for 25 years and each day brings a novelty. Here in France, the spell is even greater.