Posted on Wednesday 8 February 2012 by Ulster Business
Insurance has proved to be anything but a boring business for Sam Geddis.
The founder of Adelaide Insurance Services admits he got into a sector traditionally viewed as being populated by men in grey suits somewhat by accident, but says he’s rarely had a dull moment over the past 20 years.
“I think we have a great story to tell,” he says, showing me around the company’s busy Boucher Road offices. “Not many people dream of going into insurance when they are young but as you can see there is a real buzz around this place, it is a vibrant environment.”
Adelaide celebrated its 20th anniversary in December 2011 with a black tie event at Stormont for clients, staff and VIPs which Sam could not have imagined in early 1991.
Back then he was an employee of motoring group Charles Hurst, who, having successfully established the company’s warranty business was looking for a new challenge.
Sam happily reveals that the idea for an in- house insurance company originally came from his wife Gloria, who was working as an insurance agent at the time.
Charles Hurst was initially not convinced of the plan’s merits, but after a trial run in which Adelaide sold 50 policies in a month, it soon recognised that being able to provide insurance to customers buying new and used cars would be a valuable addition to its business.
“The idea behind it was that we were providing a service to customers. We were more expensive in most cases but the service provision made us different,” explains Sam.
Hursts already had good relationships with a lot of the big insurance companies on the claims side through their body-shop business and it developed those relationships further after establishing Adelaide as a subsidiary.
Initially Adelaide acted as the broker for the car company’s dealerships and it quickly added motorcycle insurance to its offering. It then began opening branches around the province and just three years after a standing start the business was generating £7m in premiums. That meant Sam didn’t see the next development coming.
“We were on the crest of a wave and I was one of the managers to be given special recognition by Charles Hurst at the end of 1995. Then, in February 1996 we were suddenly sold,” he says.
Charles Hurst was bought by Lookers plc and Adelaide was purchased by Woodchester Finance, which became Cornmarket Group Financial Services in 1998.
Around that time peace in Northern Ireland looked more concrete and direct insurance writers started flooding into the market, targeting customers by phone. Without Charles Hurst, Adelaide had to stand on its own two feet and took the difficult decision to centralise in Belfast, closing all of its regional branches and making the brave – if at the time highly controversial – step of introducing premium rate tariffs for people calling for a quote.
A year later the company turned its focus to providing car, home and motorbike insurance to affinity groups and niche markets, believing that this would help it improve customer service and increase growth.
“We went back to basics and became experts,” says Sam. “We decided we needed to know more about less and began specialising and tailoring our products. That was our salvation. It is a model that has worked for us.”
Today, Adelaide insures around 27% of all teachers in Northern Ireland and 20% of all motorcyclists.
Its ability to arrange preferential rates with insurers means its customers now include The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, the Ulster Teachers’ Union and the Institute of Advanced Motorists (UK-wide).
In May 2008, it was appointed the official insurer for AMiE, the leading trade union and professional association for leaders and managers in schools and colleges across the UK and in June last year secured an agreement with the London Neighbourhood Watch Association to promote car and home insurance to its 2.4 million householder members throughout Greater London.
“Normally people buy insurance on price but we try to tailor policies for particular organisations. For example that could mean adding in malicious damage for teachers who might have their car attacked while at school, but without them having to forfeit their no claims bonus,” says Sam.
Customer service has always been a high priority for Adelaide and Sam says this continues today, with the company recording a mid-90% retention rate for customers.
“We do not have a call centre we have a service centre,” he explains. “One outcome of the Troubles was that service standards in Northern Ireland were frozen in time and as a result are much higher than what many companies offer in Great Britain. Our customers in GB like us because we call them for a chat when it is convenient well ahead of their policy renewal date.”
Sam does not take all the credit for making Adelaide a success story, noting that his core management team – which comprises Operations Manager David McKendry, Sales Manager Lewis Murray and Marketing Manager Nichola Pearce – have worked together to grow the business since 2007.
Adelaide moved into its current premises at Boucher Plaza in 2000 and as employee numbers grew it had to expand the offices in 2006 and again in early 2011.
To enhance its competitiveness the business also invested heavily its IT infrastructure, which resulted in Adelaide becoming a paperless office.
It currently has 72 staff, up from 43 three years ago and the firm has provision for up to 120 at its offices.
Sam sees no reason to believe it won’t need that extra space and is keen to ensure that it is a workplace that engages staff and gives them opportunities for development, as well as involvement in charity activities outside of work such as walks to raise money, giving blood and signing up to the donor register.
“We are creating employment and creating security. You spend a lot of your life at work and so we want to have a culture where people enjoy coming to the office and spending time with their colleagues outside of work too,” he says.
In 2011, Adelaide was among a small group of businesses to receive Business in the Community’s coveted National Big Tick award for its motorcycling and young driver road safety initiative programmes.
The company’s commitment to road safety started after one particularly bad year when the firm realised it had insured 8 of the 13 motorcyclists to die on Northern Ireland’s roads.
In 1997 it began working with the Police Service of Northern Ireland to promote BikeSafe, a programme which provides a free assessment of motorcyclists’ riding skills.
It also got involved with the local arm of the Institute of Advanced Motorists through the launch of a scheme for young drivers called Roadwise.
Sam says he is proud that it was the company’s commitment to road safety that then led to a partnership with what would become its largest customer.
Adelaide and the IAM set up their first insurance scheme for members in 2005 and the relationship developed rapidly, culminating in Adelaide being appointed the IAM’s sole UK insurance provider for members’ personal insurance in 2007.
It won that business over an established GB-based motor insurer, which provided the spark for Sam to realise it could compete successfully for other affinity group business around the UK. Adelaide had first provided insurance to customers in Great Britain in the late 1990s but it wasn’t until 2006 that it began offering its services UK-wide and a year later it offered motorcycle insurance in the Republic of Ireland.
“Up until then we had seen ourselves as a Northern Ireland company,” he says. “It is a common attitude among businesses here – we are still too provincial in the way we think in Northern Ireland. But I don’t know what we are frightened of.”
Geddis believes Adelaide will be able to find many more groups for whom it can demonstrate to underwriters viable reasons why they deserve preferential insurance rates.
Adelaide’s own claims statistics over the past five years show that IAM members are better drivers, and the London Neighborhood Watch members, by definition, are more security conscious, he notes.
Sam’s current focus is a market the size of two million potential customers with attributes that allow preferential insurance rates. “We’re after small slices of big cakes and we know the markets are there. In the last five years the company has quadrupled its business and our intention is to increase it five fold over the next five years,” says Sam.
“We have to start having big ambitions. Even with our growth plans we’re probably only going to be medium sized in the UK market – in football terms at the top of the Championship or bottom of the Premiership, the top 20 or 30. But our future is certainly bright.”
The upheaval in the insurance market due to increased claims costs and the credit crunch in the Republic of Ireland might suggest uncertainty, however Geddis remains confident.
Talking to him, it is apparent Sam is a man who is emotionally involved in his business and he clearly has no plans to go anywhere else himself.
“I don’t see any reason I should retire early,” he says with a smile. “Why would I leave when the company is now getting to a size that I can really get my teeth into!"