When Aston Lark Ireland was unveiled to the insurance market with Robert Kennedy (pictured) as its CEO, the move was hailed as a “significant milestone” marking the start of an ambitious plan to become the broker of choice for the Irish market. Kennedy, who first joined Aston Lark last year after stints at Aviva Ireland, RSA and Aon, noted that while the business has enjoyed steady growth both through organic and acquisitive growth, it has no intention of resting on its laurels or taking anything for granted.
The group boasts a healthy slate of acquisitions, each made during the tumult of COVID, which includes its purchase of Dublin-based Brassington Insurance, Kildare-based Brady Burns & Associates and Dublin-based Principal Insurance Ireland DAC. The business has several other deals in the pipeline for completion, as well as a number of ongoing conversations with possible vendors, Kennedy said, but it is being highly selective in who it chooses as partners.
“We’re not looking for growth for growth’s sake,” he said. “Using the knowledge I have from managing the broker channel for Aviva Ireland I know the brokers that are of scale and substance in Ireland. I know which brokers treat their employees well, look after their customers really well and treating their insurer partners with respect. So, applying that filter [narrows] down the list of brokers we would want to partner with.
“And essentially it’s those that share our values that we’re looking to have discussions with. And [when] that point comes at some time in the future, where there are no further brokers that share those values, that’s the point at which we will stop acquiring. But we are certain that we’ve got plenty of road left to run before then.”
In terms of what Aston Lark Ireland has to offer prospective vendors, Kennedy highlighted that the approach of the business is to help its acquired firms and to aid them in their continued evolution. Early conversations the team have with any potential partners, therefore, always hinge on showing how the group can help the selected broking firm drive their turnover and reach, and help free the time and energy onboarded teams would otherwise have to dedicate to time-consuming tasks around compliance and finance.
Also, he said, the group is passionate about the role of the local broker, and is not looking to close any branches as it expands, except where dual locations might lend themselves better to a more collaborative office space. This is something that resonates very well with prospective vendors, as does its objective not to make anybody redundant through its dealmaking. It is this proposition that he believes sets Aston Lark Ireland apart and will help it along the road to becoming the broker of choice in Ireland.
“I’d say we’re really at the start of that journey,” he said “but it’s definitely our aim, our ambition. And if we look after our people really well, and look after our insurer partners whose performance is so important to us as well, but most importantly, if we look after our customers really well and raise awareness around all the different things that we can do for them - if we do all of that right, as well as acquiring likeminded brokers along the way, I think we’ll be in a great position to deliver on that ambition of being the most trusted, independent insurance broker in Ireland.
“We have a long way to go in that journey. It’s only very much in its infancy, which is the exciting part of it, but we are on our way.”
Acquisition-led growth is only one part of achieving that ambition, he said - organic growth is also integral. Kennedy highlighted that, year-to-date, its core business has seen double-digit organic growth. It’s a real focus, he said, because the group’s business model revolves around properly integrating and embedding acquired firms into the Aston Lark Ireland family and supporting their continued growth and development.
“Bringing these businesses into the fold can be slightly complicated in Ireland, as some of the businesses are on one software platform and others on another - so there’s an ongoing exercise to evaluate what platform we should all be going into the future,” he said. “But there is a huge focus on organic growth [as seen by] our ‘Just Ask’ campaign that we run to try and encourage referrals across the whole business, so there’s an incentive there for all the teams.
“We’ve got ambitious plans for Ireland, not just in terms of M&A, but also in terms of how we can grow the business, as we get bigger. That could be through getting better deals from insurers for our customers, or indeed, refining those propositions we have for some of the sectors that we’re really focused on.”
At the heart of accomplishing strong organic growth and crafting a unique value proposition for potential vendors is having the right team and Kennedy paid warm tribute to the entire Aston Lark Ireland set-up. The business has been very lucky with the acquisitions that it has completed to date, he said, which have added a huge amount of talent to the group.
“Our success to date is definitely down to the team,” he said. “I may be conducting the orchestra, but the heavy lifting absolutely comes down to the team… From HR, to finance, to compliance, to marketing - there’s any number of people I could list out who are doing incredible work to get us to where we are today. We’ve been very fortunate, myself and Mark [Nolan, CFO Aston Lark Ireland] to have inherited these fantastic people and it’s been brilliant working with them over the last 18 months and seeing them in some instances doing things at a more senior level that they possibly would have before. So to see them blossoming while doing that has been really rewarding for us.”