Meet the high street broker from Hove who handles risk for Lennox Lewis and a casino in Antigua as well as writing West End musicals. Jason Woolfe reports

THE smell of the sea and crying of the gulls have long made Brighton and Hove a refreshing change from the drudgery of the City.

As London's playground by the sea, its relaxed feel has offered inspiration for artists and attracted business people looking to unwind.

There's a strong bias in favour of small businesses - 71% of the 11,600 local businesses employ less than five people - and the city hosts England's biggest arts festival, when hundreds of local artists open up their homes to the public.

Prosperous ground for a regional broker? Oh no.

"If we had based our market on local people when we opened up, we'd be out of business by now," says Robert Starr, principal of Seico Insurance Consultants.

But far from going out of business, Seico's client base is growing at 20% a year.

So how is it done?

"For local brokers to survive they have to realise the world has become small and insurance companies trade worldwide. All they are doing is looking for clients and it's our job to provide them."

And Starr finds them far beyond Seico's high street office in Hove - only about 30% of its clients can be considered local.

He is currently quoting for 133 properties in Wales and a housing association in London.

The diversity of clientele is stunning. Already on the books are artist Lucien Freud, boxer Lennox Lewis and more than 100 other top sportsmen and women. Their connection with Hove? Nothing at all.

The most extreme example is a casino in Antigua. In keeping with its relaxed approach to convention, Seico is a father-and-son business in which the father joined the son.

Edward Starr had previously been a bookmaker. An old racing contact had got in touch to say he was running a casino in the Caribbean, so Seico set up the cover, placing it through another broker in Miami and an insurer in Barbados.

The global arrangement was put to the test just three months after Seico placed the cover.

A hurricane hit the island causing widespread devastation and half a million pounds of damage to the casino.

Starr, who was roused by a phone call at 3.30am, got the assessors round the same day. The client was delighted.

Starr says: "Any broker can do business anywhere if they take time to research the market. You don't need to be Aon."

More relaxed
But the Brighton connection does help attract some clients, such as Freud and Lewis.

"Their only connection with the area is that they come to Brighton to enjoy it. We make a point of knowing who's doing what and where, and we make contact with them.

"We invite people down here and they enjoy it. They're just less stressed."

Among the more local clients, there are a few themes that betray Brighton's influence. A healthy clutch of music studios and theatres found premiums fairly stable throughout the recent rate hike elsewhere.

Prices for about 200 boat owners were also resisting the upward trend.

Less fortunate was one boss of a self-drive hire fleet whose premiums from Norwich Union rocketed from £12,000 last year to £60,000 this year.

Unable to take the strain, the business collapsed.

Starr says: "Norwich Union said it didn't want the business any more and the client went out of business - it was heartbreaking.

"It was probably never a £12,000 risk in the first place, it was probably more like £25,000, but it had undercharged him for so long it hadn't been profitable so it wanted it all back in one go."

West End world
Starr says not all insurers had taken such an inflexible approach to the capacity squeeze. Smaller companies in particular, such as NIG, had been more ready to talk.

About 80 clients need bed and breakfast or hotel cover, which was delivered a temporary upset when Royal & SunAlliance turned away from the sector last year.

But Seico found an appetite for the risks at Lloyd's, although premiums were 30% or 35% higher.

When not building up the 11-year-old business, Starr keeps busy writing musicals. With three complete shows to his credit, he is working on getting his latest collaborative venture on to the London stage.

Based on the story of Guy Fawkes and called Remember! Remember! the show needs a cool £5m to get it up and running.

It was performed by a professional cast for showbiz insiders in February to generate interest and now Starr and co-writers Rob Piatt and Jasper Kent are raising the finance needed.

Sir Cliff Richard is reading the script for a possible role and whatever the world of insurance broking may bring, Starr's sights are set on the bright lights of the West End.

"Fifth November 2005 is the 400th anniversary of the plot," he says, "It simply has to be in the West End for that. I can already see the fireworks going up from the theatre roof on opening night. I live for that day."