Norwich Union's broker strategy has been studied and refreshed in the year that John Kitson has been in charge, so what is the outcome? Michael Faulkner reports
John Kitson declares: "I'm on the game." He then stops and quickly qualifies the comment. "I mean in the game", referring to the implementation of Norwich Union's (NU) broker distribution strategy.
It's a typical 'Kitsonism', one of many that peppers the hour-long conversation and which jumps at almost breakneck speed between broker acquisitions, e-commerce and NU's position as one of the big beasts of the insurance industry.
It's been just over a year since Kitson took on the role of intermediary director at NU – one of the biggest jobs in the insurance sector – after George Berrie's brief stint in the role.
And it has been a hectic year, during which time Kitson has been looking to stamp his mark on the broker market. "If you're not busy in UK financial services, you're doing something wrong," he comments, then adds: "Do I look pale?"
One of Kitson's first moves was to take stock of how NU was seen in the market. "We needed to step back and look at how people feel about us," says Kitson.
The results of that survey were to some extent hardly surprising: NU was variously seen by brokers as big, traditional, "selfish" (in that it would cherry pick the best risks), old-fashioned and expert.
It was the perception of selfishness and the view of NU as being rather staid and stuffy that Kitson homed in on. "I want us to remain big and we like being experts," says Kitson. "We want to be traditional yet more modern, and I want us to be more commercially savvy."
With this in mind, Kitson has been refreshing NU's image and commercial positioning, bringing the company more "up-to-date in terms of product, flexibility and advertising".
The progression, in the company's branding is already evident, with Kitson's style easily apparent. There's the new and rather blokeish slogan: "We know what's what." Certainly more contemporary compared to the marketing messages of many of NU's rivals.
And more recently there has been the advert offering the services of on-site 'bonus' underwriters, presented in the form of a lonely hearts ad and appearing around Valentine's Day ("Wanted: broker needing quick decisions and a helping hand. Willing to travel. Own tea bags").
In terms of addressing NU's "selfishness", Kitson says he has tweaked the company's risk acceptance criteria to be "broader and more flexible".
Previously, brokers with large books of business with NU could still find some risks were turned away because they did not exactly fit NU's criteria – unsurprisingly a source of frustration. "We want to be aware of brokers' portfolios and be more understanding," he says
A further change, claims Kitson, is that NU is also subtly returning to certain markets from which it had once withdrawn. "We have expanded our appetite in property owners' to include European property," he says by way of example.
This development will continue in 2007. One such area is the high net worth personal lines sector, where NU currently has its Tapestry product.
"We are miles away in high net worth from where we want to be," Kitson admits. "With our brand and expertise it gives us opportunity to expand in this area."
Other areas of development will include NU's micro and small business offerings, and specialist lines such as marine engineering.
But Kitson adds: "We have a way to go to become a savvy, nimble beast."
Service is another area where Kitson accepts NU is not performing as well as it should be. "The ethos of business should be really good [in terms of service]. But overall performance is not where we want it to be; we are in the top quartile of an average market."
To address this, NU has been investing a lot in technology to provide "slicker systems". Last year between £25m and £30m was spent on e-commerce infrastructure relating to brokers, with the same amount to be spent this year.
"We are moving mountains to get to the front of the queue in e-commerce," says Kitson.
When Kitson first took over the reins as intermediary business director he admitted to some reservations about whether trading platform Imarket would be successful. One year on, he freely admits to a change of heart.
"I am surprised how much Imarket has developed in the past nine months," he says, almost shocked to hear himself say that. IT