No hiding place in the village

The insurance industry has deep roots in the Manchester soil. The world’s first insurance institute was established here. And the city remains a crucial hub in the UK’s wider insurance market.

Without wishing to be drawn into the traditional rivalry between Birmingham and Manchester, the venue of this year’s Biba conference is probably the UK’s second-biggest insurance centre.

But, in common with the wider Manchester economy, the city’s insurance scene went through dark days in the 1980s.

Swinton chief executive Peter Halpin came to work in Manchester in the early 1990s. During the previous decade, the city centre had lost insurance businesses as companies like Allianz and HSBC were lured out to the new business parks springing up in areas like the regenerated docklands of neighbouring Salford.

City heart beats again

But the city has fought back, says Halpin. “Manchester has changed beyond recognition. It has benefited from the investment that was needed to support the Olympics and Commonwealth Games.” The city centre is buzzing again. Allianz returned from Salford Quays six years ago to take new offices overlooking Piccadilly Gardens, the city centre’s main public space. Most recently, Marsh has concentrated its Manchester operations in a new building round the corner from King Street, the heart of the Manchester ‘insurance village’.

“Companies realised that they needed to be in the centre of Manchester,” says Brit north-west regional manager Maureen Owen.

Allianz north-west regional director Alex Stuart agrees. “The availability of quality office space has helped, but I always think that if you want to be a player in the market, you have to be close to the market.

“It’s important to be close to brokers if you want to build and maintain close relationships with them. If you are in Salford Quays, you have to get into a car or a tram, which puts you at a disadvantage.”

As the map of the ‘insurance village’ shows, most of the UK’s key insurers and a host of brokers can be found within a few blocks.

Bollington head of commercial Chris Patterson says: “Every insurance company thinking of where it needs to operate and make some money will come to Manchester.”

While Bollington itself is based in neighbouring Cheshire and has strong links with London-based insurers, Patterson says the vast majority of the firm’s business is transacted in Manchester: “There’s nothing better than picking up a load of files and meeting four or five underwriters in the city.”

Village thrives on honest banter

This tight concentration, which makes it more likely than not that brokers and insurers from rival firms will bump into one another in the street, gives a distinctive flavour to relationships in the city’s insurance market.

“It’s a small, close-knit market, which means that you stand by your reputation,” adds Owen.

Patterson says there is a lot of banter between the city’s brokers.

“Viciously friendly” is how Stuart describes relations within the city’s insurance community.

“While national brokers are strong, there is a large number of independent brokers in Manchester. It’s an honest market,” he says.

However, the concentration of both insurers and brokers has its downsides, acknowledges Patterson, who says Manchester is both over-broked and probably over-insured.

Insurers agree. Owen says: “There are people who are hungry for business.”

“Customers have a lot of choice,” says Stuart.

Manchester and its hinterland have suffered during the recession. Stuart says that hitting the target for the important first quarter has been a hard battle, although one that Allianz has won.

But it is clear that despite these hiccups, many who work in the Manchester market would go nowhere else.

They would agree with Brit’s Owen, who says: “I feel proud to be part of the Manchester market.”