Danny Walkinshaw took a trip to Manchester to see how Brit’s new regional trading floor is bringing brokers and underwriters face to face

Who says café culture is for the Continent? Last week, Brit Insurance threw open the doors of its Man-chester office and invited brokers to pull up a pew, sup on a latte and open their hearts.

The Manchester launch was the latest in a string of events around the UK, with Brit Insurance and rivals such as Royal & SunAlliance showing that, even in today’s technology-driven times, there is no substitute for doing business face-to-face.

With the advent of outsourcing, call centres, electronic trading platforms and increasingly hectic working schedules, personal contact has become ever more elusive.

For many brokers, particularly in the regions, a brief encounter with a relationship manager is the closest they come to meeting the insurers who underwrite their business.

Do these regional launches signify a backlash, or are they simply paying lip service to the ideals of a bygone age?

In Manchester, the brokers certainly seemed happy, as the champagne flowed and cricketer Mike Gatting arrived to entertain 100 of the North West’s leading brokers in Brit’s modest surroundings.

The trading centre is a long way from Lloyd’s. There are no high-tech escalators, and, instead of row upon row of boxes, there are a couple of sofas and a coffee machine.

But it’s the work that gets done here that counts, and the area has everything you would need to get a deal done, plus a few home comforts, such as the wide screen plasma televisions and computers with free internet access.

In this relaxed atmosphere, it would be no surprise to see brokers kicking back on the sofa, taking off their shoes and sipping coffee while pondering over a case with an underwriter. That’s a far cry from angry phone conversations and error messages on computer screens. ‘

‘ One of the great advantages of introducing these informal, face-to-face centres is the prospect of quick decision making. Brokers go to underwriters for decisions, and can expect decisions to be made promptly. They don’t even need to make an appointment.

Simon Cooter, Brit’s UK distribution director, was hit with idea for the centre when popping out for a coffee himself.

“When I joined Brit in March I was immediately struck by how much the café (Café 55) in the ground floor of our offices in Bishopsgate was used by our underwriters working with brokers, and it is vibrant,” he says.

“The open door policy is another symbol of our trading mentality and the way we operate in the regions

Simon Cooter, Brit Insurance

“When you go in, there is a real buzz to the place and a real feeling that business is being done. And the feeling was we’ve got that there, so let’s replicate it around the country.

“It is just trying to make it easier for [brokers and underwriters], providing an area where they can come and do business.

“We think it is another symbol of our trading mentality and the way we operate in the regions.”

Brit says the centres also demonstrate its commitment to the broker channel in the face of changing distribution models.

Ray Cox, Brit underwriting director – UK division, believes it is a unique approach. “Other insurers have talked about having an open-door policy but this is not in response to what others are doing – that has not been on our radar,” he says.

“This is us saying we are a broker focused company and we do business through the broker channel, we don’t do business direct.

“We believe that the way forward in this business is to have really strong relationships with people and part of creating a strong relationship is creating an environment in which you can work most effectively.

“This should increase the number of occasions that we actually have a three-way relationship with broker and client. There is nothing more powerful than being able to hear from the insurer directly or the insurer being able to deal with you.”

Cox adds: “It is really about building trust at a three-way level.”

As they tucked into Brit’s champagne and got Mike Gatting’s autograph for the kids, Manchester’s brokers were looking forward to developing th

Perhaps a few even dropped in for a much needed coffee the morning after.

What the brokers say

Peter Mitchell, head of the Manchester office and partner in Lockton, said: Just to have somewhere where we can sit and talk is an excellent idea. We do lots of business in London why should I have to get on a train to London when I can come here? The art of trading is lost in IT, so it is great to have a place like this.
Gavin Ruben, a director of Manchester based Bridge Insurance, said there were often barriers between brokers and Insurers and hopes a dedicated trading area will improve the relationship. The market is that difficult we just have not had time to put things in to perspective. It can sometimes be a nightmare trying to get hold of underwriters, but this is a great idea and it doesn't complicate things.
Mike Stalker, Manchester broking director for JLT, was looking forward to getting quicker decisions. He said think it is a great idea, it is a people business. We are looking for decisions from underwriters, and this will help decision-making on both sides. It will give them the ability to understand the risks and the difficulties that they are facing.