The man at the helm of BGL Group – home to six different businesses, multiple brands and the world’s most famous meerkat – talks about being a different sort of chief executive for a very different sort of insurance company

Don’t tell Peter Winslow that personal lines broking is dead. He sits at the top of the BGL Group, home to more than ten broking brands including Budget, ibuyeco, and yes, of course, Compare The Market (CTM).

Last year, the group posted a 24% rise in profit to £54m for the year to June 2009, a figure Winslow reckons was “tempered” due to the recession, though many a rival would have been envious. There’s further growth on the cards, launches into new sectors, and, yes, more of those adverts.

So how has BGL bucked the supposed decline in personal lines broking, not to mention the recession and soft market, to turn such impressive profits? Winslow says it’s about being different, and being diverse – which is interesting, because these are two qualities that come to mind when you meet the man himself.

Well-spoken and smiling, with a vaguely military bearing, Winslow is far from your typical broker chief executive. In fact, this is really his second career. He trained as a chartered accountant, and after stepping into general management, eventually became chief executive of the publisher Harper Collins.

He smiles nostalgically as he recalls: “It was like being in show business really. You were publishing Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography, the likes of Jeffrey Archer …”, he winces and trails off.

Later, Winslow says that his five years at Harper Collins were the most formative of his career. But despite the glamour, he left in 1994 following what he frankly describes as “a disagreement with the chairman that was only going to end one way”.

Not your average business

So there you go: different and diverse. Upon finding himself between jobs, Winslow decided he didn’t want to go into another publishing role, having already reached the pinnacle, he felt. Luckily, he bumped into some South Africans with a growing insurance business in the UK, who wanted to employ someone with a proven track record of running a large company, yet knew nothing about insurance.

“They thought if they got an average insurance professional, then they would get an average insurance company,” Winslow says. “And their world had never and could never be described as average.” So Winslow joined up to the BGL?Group as deputy managing director in 1995, taking on the top job when his boss emigrated to Australia in 1997.

And what’s he been up to since? Well, quite a lot actually. The BGL Group is huge. And because it is split into six operating units, several of which house a number of brands, it can be difficult to get a sense of the business as a whole.

Winslow breaks it down thus: CTM; Junction, its thriving affinity business, which has just signed another banking deal, yet to be announced; Fusion, the call centre business that services the other arms of the group and runs its own P&L; Frontline, the broking business that houses such household names as Budget; motorcycle specialist and market leader Bennetts; and finally ACM, the claims business. “Clear?” he laughs. “Clear as mud.”

Strength in numbers

It works though. Diversification is one of the group’s greatest strengths, and must give it some clout with insurers too. Has the success of CTM affected insurer relations, given that many believe the aggregator market is driving prices in personal lines down to unsustainable levels?

“They provide something the consumer wants; so as long as they continue to do that, they are here to stay,” he says reasonably, and it’s difficult to argue. He also bats away questions about the lack of advice offered by aggregators compared to living, breathing brokers with a practised hand. “Just look at the screen,” he says. “It tells you what’s included. It’s a very transparent model.”

Claims are another potential sticking point for BGL and its insurer partners. ACM makes money from referral fees, Winslow admits, and says he will be keeping a close eye on the progress of the Jackson Review, which earlier this month recommended a ban on the practice.

But he is keen to point out that BGL does not engage in conditional fee arrangements or the after-the-event market also condemned by the report.

In fact, when the furore against such practices gathered steam in the insurance market last summer, he wrote to the chief executives of all BGL’s insurers, explaining exactly where they made their money from claims. “We provide a damn good service for which we are paid, but we wanted to make it clear that we are not in the business of claims farming,” he says.

Despite the breadth of the business, in the public eye at least, there is only one face to BGL: Aleksandr Orlov, the extremely loveable – or extremely irritating, depending on your point of view – meerkat from the CTM ads, which have been a runaway success. Love ’em or loath ’em, there is no denying their brilliance, and the role they have played in establishing CTM at the top of the aggregator market.

But is the huge marketing spend required for this kind of presence sustainable? “I don’t see why not,” Winslow says, though he won’t be drawn on the company’s annual marketing budget. “As long as the business continues to make a profit.”

Manners cost nothing

He reckons consolidation among the top four aggregators is relatively unlikely, because he can’t see what would drive it, but confesses to be at a loss as to how some of the smaller players survive. Winslow won’t be getting his chequebook out any time soon though; BGL has largely grown organically, and intends to continue doing so. That’s not to say that new ventures aren’t on the cards, however. He hints intriguingly at a move into the life market.

Winslow is very pleasant to talk to, well-educated, interesting and articulate. He’s also very polite, which is important to him. “It’s really important, and everyone here knows I think that,” he says. “Why shouldn’t you hold the door open for someone, or say good morning? It just lifts people.”

BGL does have a positive atmosphere. “It’s not a cult,” he says. “It’s the cult of being normal. The reason that our culture works is that it’s built on how people want to be; most people are normal. The trouble is defining it. Helen Fielding [author of Bridget Jones’s Diary] wrote that normal people don’t carry an axe around in the back of their cars,” he stops and laughs.

By this standard at least, Winslow is certainly normal. But by any other he, and his thriving business, are far from it. IT

For more, click: BGL Group spies opportunity to enter life insurance sector