Insurance Times and sponsor Close Premium Finance, brought together the broker elite to determine the best brokers in Northern Ireland

Insurance Times left Britain for our final Regional Broker Awards to visit the dynamic city of Belfast. In Lonely Planet's recent guide to the hottest global destinations, Belfast is described as "hip, historical, happening".

And the vitality of the province was reflected on the night, with brokers taking time out from their busy schedules to attend our awards ceremony, sponsored by Close Premium Finance.

As usual, Grant Thornton analysed regional trends and the scale of consolidation in the region was underlined by brokers' responses. Almost 80% of respondents indicated that they had been involved in mergers and acquisitions over the past year.

Interestingly, on the night, brokers were split about the benefits of working cross-border. Some brokers did not do business directly in the Republic, but others worked extensively south of the border and dealt with the variations in regulation and currency.

And, although brokers unanimously agreed that applying for FSA authorisation had been reasonably straightforward, three-quarters of those surveyed said they had experienced adverse effects as a result of the new regulatory regime.

Hughes & Co won the Largest Broker in Northern Ireland Award. Jim Bowers, partner at Hughes & Co, attributed the

broker's recent success to "hard work and keeping ahead of the competition."

Bowers also paid tribute to Hughes' employees: "All our staff are insurance trained. They are good quality and loyal, and we reward them accordingly."

And, despite having made three significant acquisitions over the past 18 months, Hughes is lining up other prospective purchases.

Bowers added: "Only 20% of our business is commercial and we need to see that grow by about a third. That might take a couple of years to achieve. We're going to have to acquire a commercial broker in the next 12 months and we have identified a couple of potential acquisitions.

"We discovered there were certain areas we weren't getting support geographically and over the past 18 months we have picked up three smaller brokers in Londonderry, Magherafelt and Lisburn. Customers in Northern Ireland have a local mindset and like to do business with people they know."

Bowers was also hoping for a turnaround in rates: "The soft market is no good for anyone. I would like to see an increase in rates."

And as for the challenge from direct and affinity players: "We can't stop Tesco and Direct Line coming in, but we have seen it before and we're big enough."

Abbey Insurance Brokers won the Fastest Growing Broker in Northern Ireland Award. Dennis Storey, partner at Abbey, commented: "I would attribute the award to our staff. We have a very committed team of people who have worked hard in a very competitive market to grow our business at every level. We operate on 15 different sites so it is very important that all staff work as a team to provide a high quality consistent service to all our customers."

David Dempster, account executive at Laing Markey Lyness, collected the award for Most Efficient Broker.

Norman Spence, managing director of the commercial lines broker, which has operated in Northern Ireland since 1973, commented: "The award is due, in no small part, to the commitment and expertise of the staff in endeavouring to provide a high quality but cost effective service to their clients in an ever increasing competitive and regulatory marketplace."

Spence also expressed his gratitude to the broker's existing clients for their continued support and loyalty as evidenced by Laing Markey Lyness' above average client retention rates.

Marsh's Peter Kelly attended the awards and gave an insight into the broking scene in Northern Ireland. He said the Northern Ireland insurance sector is characterised by a high proportion of private family-owned businesses.

Once the owners have reached their late fifties, they often look at selling up, unless they have sons or daughters interested in carrying on the business.

Kelly also highlighted that Northern Ireland "lags behind the UK market slightly. There isn't as much capacity in Northern Ireland and when the market turns, this is the first place capacity drains from and the market hardens here much more quickly than in the rest of the UK".

In terms of personal lines, Kelly said private motor rates have traditionally been higher in Northern Ireland due to the jury system that tended to award higher payouts to claimants. Bowers agreed: "The cost of claims in Northern Ireland is higher than everywhere else in the UK due to the legal system that pertains here. Legal costs are higher and personal injury awards are higher."

The FSA's Arrow visits have reached the province, with client money now a major focus. But Kelly is sanguine: "There haven't been any problems so far".

We look forward to visiting the regions again next year, when we're planning to return bigger and better than ever. Watch this space for more details.