It's hard being a commercial lines broker in Cornwall. Rowett Insurance is fighting with technology and training. Michael Faulkner reports
Tourism is booming in Cornwall. The Eden Project has proved to be a big draw, alongside more traditional attractions such as St Ives and Rick Stein's Padstow. But the glossy image masks a county with high unemployment, low investment and poor infrastructure.
Cornwall is a tough place to be a broker. Particularly a commercial lines broker.
Meet Glyn Rowett - a commercial lines broker based in Cornwall. Rowett Insurance was set up 15 years ago in St Austell. Initially, the business was mainly personal lines, but has gradually gained a commercial bias, developing niche areas such as farms, motor trade, solicitors and taxis.
Originally a sole trader, Rowett now has 28 staff and four other offices in Devon and Cornwall. In 2002, the company's premium income was £4m, having seen growth of 20% in two years. Rowett has set his sights on achieving a premium income of £5m in 2004.
Rowett has a colourful background. He began his career as a Lloyd's shipping agent, moving on to ship chandlery - selling ships' ropes and engine parts - and then to the restaurant business.
His move to insurance came when he started to work at a broker's office during the day, while working in a restaurant at night. Eventually, he decided to concentrate on insurance because "it was easier".
One of the main problems that Rowett faces is the lack of industry in Cornwall. "In the past, you needed to be outside Cornwall to make money. The profit margins were higher outside the area," he says.
He has therefore invested heavily in technology. In the past 12 months he has spent £150,000 on a new IT system. The company has also launched two award-winning websites: one to cater for the local area (www.rowett-insurance.co.uk), the other to promote the company nationally (www.insuredonline.co.uk). And there are currently three more under development: for motor, travel and household insurance.
Rowett is pleased with the websites' performance so far. In the year that the national website has been online it has brought in a premium income of £250,000. By 2004 he would like this to be £500,000.
"Many brokers set up websites, but then forget about them. We do a lot of work to manage hits," he says. "It is important to handle the websites properly and take advantage of leads. For instance, we now have £200,000 of business in the Rochdale area. We wouldn't have had this without the web."
Investing in training
One of the tools that Rowett uses to increase traffic on the local website is the Client Purchasing Group. "It allows commercial clients to market their companies' services and products to a wide audience. This helps to increase our traffic, as people browsing locally for goods and services navigate through our site," he points out.
A further problem that Rowett faces as a result of being in Cornwall is the lack of a local insurer presence. The nearest insurer is over 140 miles away, in Bristol.
This distance gives rise to difficulties in getting experienced staff. "There are no insurance companies training people," says Rowett. As a result, the company has had to invest heavily in its own training.
"We now have our own in-house training programme, monitoring individual and company training objectives, with bite-size computer learning."
The lack of insurer presence has also put great pressure on the local insurance institute, which has suffered through lack of support and no president.
"I was aware that the institute would become vital given the likelihood of compulsory examinations under the FSA.
I campaigned to local brokers with the result that six new council members were recruited and two new vice-presidents were found."
Growth, whether organic or by acquisition, is a major part of Rowett's business plan.
"We did a strategic review and decided the business needed to grow to remain viable. Size does matter; you won't survive if you are small."
In the last 18 months the company has purchased two brokers, and is seeking to make a further acquisition. "We need another if we are to get to our 2004 target," says Rowett.
He is upbeat about forthcoming FSA regulation. "We will be ready. We have a new training and compliance officer and who will keep us on track with GISC and FSA rules.
He is buoyant about the region's future too. "It is getting a lot of European funding.
"Cornwall will boom," he says.