Academy's Richard Beaven on building a very different broking group

Ex-Brightside COO lifts lid on venture with Normand and McCafferty

Academy's Richard Beaven on building a very different broking group

Insurance News

By Jen Frost

If Academy Insurance Services (Academy) was not already on your radar, it should be now.

The broker is set to act as the starting point for ex-Swinton CEO Gilles Normand and ex-Brightside COO Richard Beaven’s bid to build a broking group with a difference. They’ve bagged backing from investor Blixt and are gearing up to add to the business, with former Brightside CEO Brendan McCafferty onboard as chair.

Just over three weeks in, and Richard Beaven (pictured), Academy COO, appears positively bursting with excitement at, in his own words, being “back in the saddle”.

“I feel that I’ve never really been the entrepreneur, I’ve always worked for other people, I’ve never really been at the helm and been able to do everything in terms of the way you would like to have done it,” Beaven said.

Having stepped away from Brightside in 2021, following its sale to Markerstudy, the COO took a few months of what he describes as “genuine time off” before easing into consulting gigs - but felt a pervading sense that “undone work” remained, he told Insurance Business.

It was over a timely lunch with friend and former Swinton colleague Normand that a plan was hatched to unleash the pair’s entrepreneurial side.

“We sat over lunch, and just literally, I said to him, ‘you know what?’ – and he said, ‘are you thinking about doing something?’” Beaven recalled.

Beaven’s response was an emphatic ‘yes’, but he felt strongly that any venture needed to be something different.

“We’ve tried very hard, forever, to push the needle, whether it’s being more inclusive or being more customer centric, and some of the things that have been a bit missing,” Beaven said. “I felt that there was still more we could do.”

Fortunately, it quickly emerged when the pair pulled out slide decks that Normand was on the same page. 

“Frankly, you could put those two decks together and merge them and it would be one,” Beaven said.

Pushing the ‘needle’ and taking a ‘simple view’

Both plans took a “simple view”: with around 2,000 brokers left in the market, owners they spoke to had been left scratching their heads over how to relinquish control without giving up on their firm’s legacy.

As Beaven puts it, they were asking: “How do I get some value out of this business I’ve created without killing my baby?”

Pile on recruitment challenges and an ever-increasing pile of regulatory demands, and some broking leaders have been feeling the pressure to take some kind of step back and have been looking for options to do so outside of more traditional consolidators.

“We thought, you know what – this is us; we could go into this space and find businesses and build a group,” Beaven said. “We can be flexible with the vendor… we need the people – it’s desperately hard to recruit people – so we can make the people thing work.

“And if we can find the right platform business in the sense of everything, not just technology, and get that right, then it will then be easier to bring in new business into this well-formed and well-running platform.”

Enter, Academy. The firm, said to have 60,000 customers and to do business countrywide, was already primed for acquisition, having geared up for a deal in the previous trading year. As per its company accounts, prior to the sale Academy itself was feeling the recruitment and regulatory pressures that Beaven and Normand had identified others as experiencing.

“We really liked the management team, we really liked the business, and its foundation was strong enough that what we need to do is modernise, which we will do and invest,” Beaven said. “That then gives us the platform for the acquisition of other businesses in the ilk of Academy, and more book buys from the smaller broker in town that’s got a few thousand policies and wants to retire – and that’s the thinking.”

Normand has taken the CEO role, with Beaven slotting in as COO and McCafferty as chair. Neil Turner has remained on board as Academy Insurance managing director.

Why Academy won’t be Swinton or Brightside mark two

Beaven, Normand and McCafferty may all have personal lines broking pedigree behind them; however, as Beaven tells it, Academy will emphatically not be Brightside or Swinton mark two.

“I’ve run aggregated broking businesses of personal lines car a lot, you know, it’s a fool’s game, and everybody thinks they’re going to win,” Beaven said. “And it’s getting harder and harder to do so as everyone knows, so we don’t want to be mass market, personal lines predominant.”

Instead, the “sweet spot” is more complex personal lines, in addition to small SME customers who have both business and personal needs. On the larger business side, the firm will not look to compete with established London players in the big complex specialist space – “that’s a silly place for us, and not where we want to be,” Beaven said, but will target clients that want “a fabulous service”.

“We’re an advice-giving business across all of what we do today, which is unusual,” Beaven said. “And that’s really where we want to play.”

Data is set to play a vital role, with brokers sometimes shy or uncertain around how to make the most of this, else hampered by “old fashioned systems”, according to Beaven.

“A lot of broking businesses have been run excellently on the basis of just having been around a long time, knowing everything that moves, and therefore having a very good gut feel – and that’s OK,” Beaven said. “But this is now all about data; it’s about data and people.”

The importance of culture, credibility and customer-centricity

Beaven and his top team have also thought keenly around the culture that they hope to build with Academy, with hopes that the business will join a growing roster of insurance B corps, which are held to a more rigorous set of ethical standards.

“[It’s about] really making it happen so that we are clearly a business that genuinely wants to attract people from all walks of life, wherever they come from, whomever they are,” Beaven said. “We’re not an all-boys club playing golf, we are a diverse, inclusive business that wants to attract talent of difference, and everyone’s treated safely under a meritocracy and the best will have an opportunity to grow as we grow the business.

“I know everyone says that, but it’s in my DNA – I was probably the first openly gay CEO in insurance full stop 20 odd years ago, so it matters to me.”

With customer centricity high on the regulator’s agenda, Beaven said he is set on building a different dynamic with insurer partners.

“A lot of the conversations that have been going on between brokers and insurers are about money: How much are you going to give me in commission? And how much are you going to stop fraudulent customers coming into my portfolio?” Beaven said. “That’s been it – not ‘look at all these complaints’, ‘look at your service on claims’.

“We want to make it clear to our partners that that matters and we are not going to have conversations just about whether we can get one more percent of commission – we want to say ‘actually, you’ve wasted loads of our time because your call centre has been out of service for six months and our people are spending an hour trying to get through to help our customers. That’s not good enough’.”

As for the wider market, “we don’t think many people are doing that,” Beaven said. “We think they’re still sending out the blokes for a nice lunch and seeing whether they can squeeze a bit more money out.”

Keeping customers and staff top of mind is not intended to be a barrier to profitability or growth.

“How we behave towards our customers is really important,” Beaven said. “And doing that in a way that of course, delivers value to shareholders – we’re not going soft, we are showing it can be a virtuous circle.”

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