In a world of closures, mergers and acquisitions, it's rare to find someone who has come into a company in the insurance industry as a trainee and ended up running the business. Such, however, has been the destiny of Clive Nicholls.

Now chief executive of loss adjusters and risk managers GAB Robins UK, he joined the company 20 years ago as a liability adjuster, taking on the top role in November 1999 after the company was bought by US-based Brera Capital Partners.

GAB Robins is one of the big international players in this market, with a staff of more than 1,000 and income of £50m of the global £250m of the US company.

So how did Clive Nicholls manage to stay ahead of the corporate rat race and finally get to the top within a single company?

He says: “We have fantastic loyalty within Robins. We have staff who have been with us for many years. What Robins has been able to do for me is provide a succession of different jobs, so I have not had to move. It has been a zig-zag career, rather than a linear route.”

He adds: “The most successful companies are about people. Most of our business is face-to-face and we are being entrusted with clients' customers. The better people we have, the better we can be as an organisation.

“People should be allowed to maximise their potential. People don't have to worry about what they say to me, provided they are constructive. I don't want ‘yes' people around me.”

To prove his point, he and the rest of the Robins executive team now embark on an annual roadshow to talk to staff and listen to their criticisms and suggestions.

Robins is making a particular push in the provincial broker market. While the company has been serving this market for many years, Nicholls says it is essential to develop relationships at local level. This they are doing through an extensive office network.

But, he adds, they have not gone down the road of operating “inside a big aircraft hangar”, but conduct their business through ten dedicated staff assigned solely to the provincial broker market.

While their local broker business is principally commercial lines, they handle private lines business as well – a division Nicholls once headed. They also work with banks and building societies which Nicholls sees as being like brokers. “We make sure we are delivering on behalf of the different distribution channels,” he says.

“We're also making sure we are increasingly at the centre of our clients' worlds. It is far more than just loss adjusting – it is about claims management and providing a service to clients.”

Knowing the business
“We are taking our knowledge of claims going back 130 years and deploying that expertise on behalf of clients. How do we provide that service? Through knowledge,” Nicholls says.

“We capture that information which enables us to use that knowledge to improve the profile of client risk and to manage that risk when something happens.”

Robins spent two years developing a sophisticated software database risk management system called Eye with data management software company Cognos to help profile client risk. Nicholls is very proud of its achievements, being a quantum leap in the business of risk management.

He explains: “Eye is like a Rubic cube, in that you can move it around. We're now using it to run our business by offering it to clients through a web portal.”

Eye is an online portfolio of claims knowledge management solutions. It gives clients an interactive insight into their business – instantly.

It also provides interactive reporting and analysis of the cause and effects of claims across a customer's whole product lines, allowing them to assess risk more accurately. Nicholls sees it as a big improvement when, as a trainee loss adjuster some 20 years ago, claims were logged by hand in a large register.

He says: “Technology, for me, is an enabler and not an end in itself. It provides information at the right time and for the right people. It is about improving the profile of a particular risk.”

He has been particularly pleased that old clients have returned following the collapse of Independent. He explains: “If a risk went to Independent, part of the deal was usually to place the loss adjusting business with its own loss adjusters, PCS.

“Moreover Independent, in particular, were prepared to write Y2K business, whereas other insurers were not. We lost some business as a result. However, many of them have now returned to us, and we are delighted that they have renewed their confidence in us.”

Big involvement
Robins have been involved in most of the big rail disasters, including the Selby crash, the 1999 Paddington rail crash as well as the IRA bombing of South Quay in London's docklands in 1996.

It is particularly strong in liability loss adjusting, with a team of more than 30 specialists, and still expanding. Robins has also won a keen battle to be part of the Axa loss adjusting panel.

As Nicholls sees it, in a world in which customers are becoming more demanding, the personal touch is still the cornerstone of good business practice. He believes in practising what he preaches.