The recent rebrand which saw the introduction of WF Risk Group Limited (WFRG) to the insurance market marked a natural next step for the group, given its rapid expansion in recent years. Discussing the rebrand, WFRG’s MD Richard Willis (pictured) highlighted the carefully planned acquisition spree the group has been undertaking, and how this has resulted in it inheriting a variety of brands across the UK and Ireland.
The move made sense as a chance for the group to cement its evolving international reach and reputation, he said, as well as an opportunity to offset the confusion generated by its previous name (Willis & Company Group), given its similarity with Willis Towers Watson. The branding refresh has allowed the group to align its roster of companies under a new moniker, one which was carefully chosen to reflect both its internal culture and its extensive scope and scale – which includes eight offices and over 140 staff.
“Earlier this year, we bought [Generation Underwriting Management] which is an MGA, so we were starting to run into not just a branding issue but also the fact we’re not simply a retail play but also wholesale and also an MGA play,” he said. “So, we’re really trying to make everybody – our insurer partners, intermediary partners and customers alike – understand the various businesses under this one brand, one concept and this one family team.
“And our culture is still very much that we are a family-owned business. The executive team is made up of my dad, who’s still working in the business and is in here every day as executive chairman, and myself and my three brothers… We’re bridging the gap between the big private equity-backed consolidators and family businesses that are organically acquiring… ‘Organic acquisition’ is our term for what we’re doing – where it’s not so speedy as that backed by private equity money but it is [steady].”
Exploring WFRG’s acquisition strategy, Willis noted that success breeds success and the positive experience that acquired businesses have had as part of the group have been key to finding new opportunities. Nowadays it can seem that acquisitions fall under two categories – deals involving three of four mainstream consolidators or smaller local sales on a partnership-based approach. However, he is confident that the group is offering a unique and healthy alternative, with its international slant but strong cultural focus.
Looking to what the future holds, he said, WFRG is continuing to look for new acquisition opportunities. It is aiming to make deals with businesses sub the £10 million GWP mark and, without being prescriptive, its focus remains mainly on the retail space given that these tend to be more aligned to its current model.
“We have a lot to offer them and more of a story, and that will likely make those businesses want to go with us rather than the big consolidator who may ultimately end up paying more money but who will achieve that purchase with a process that is very different to ours,” he said. “I think that’s why we’re uniquely positioned in this space. Because we are a traditional retail independent brokerage, we have a lot in common with all those businesses and our message resonates really strongly.”
Willis emphasised that the group prides itself on offering a boutique offering across the board, in terms of looking at every acquisition completely differently, rather than using one single model – something that also sets its approach apart. This focus on the individual nature of strategic growth extends beyond its acquisitive drive, he said, and WFRG is always in the market for good people. He also highlighted that the consolidation drive of various multinational firms may, in turn, creates talent acquisition opportunities for other firms as individuals may not wish to become part of these larger businesses.
“We’re a growing independent family business,” he said, “and from our perspective, we feel we have an offering that can compete with everything. We’re of a scale now in terms of our competitiveness to do deals - but we’re small enough to be boutique, to be bespoke in our offerings… So, we really feel we’re well-positioned to provide almost all things to all people.”
Willis noted he joined the family business in 2002 when it operated at a much smaller scale, and the question that was always asked was “can we compete with the big boys when we go after decent size accounts, mid-market accounts, or even bigger corporate accounts?” And as long as the answer was ‘no’ that meant exploring what was missing from its proposition and finding ways to plug that gap without losing the USP of its bespoke, high-level service. It is this focus and drive that has evolved the business to where it stands today, he said, and it will continue to craft its strategic development going forward.
“There’s certainly no shortage of opportunities, which is actually the best thing,” he said. “Being based over in Belfast, sometimes you feel like you might be disconnected from the rest of the market in terms of opportunities, but we’ve obviously got ourselves into a space now where we’re well connected, and a lot of opportunities are coming our way. So, we’re being given plenty of choices, both in terms of which deals we would like to go for and which ones we want to pass on.”