Posted on Tuesday 5 February 2019 by Ulster Business
Ulster Business speaks to Maurice Boyd and Stephen Carlisle of leading insurance broker ABL Group about its ongoing expansion plans, its top client base and growing the next generation of its workforce
As one of Northern Ireland’s leading insurance brokers, ABL Group is far from standing still.
ABL Group, one of the largest commercial firms here, has already expanded significantly in the last two years, and grown its overall group workforce to around 125.
But it’s still eyeing up further expansion of its existing business, developing its burgeoning team and seeking out fresh opportunities, while maintaining its core focus on the Northern Ireland market.
The firm’s core business is corporate, and it also transacts in commercial – such as small and medium-sized firms – along with personal lines.
It’s dealing with corporate clients across a wide range of sectors, some of whom require complex and bespoke insurance solutions.
Stephen Carlisle is now the man at the helm of ABL – the main business in the overall ABL Group which has its headquarters in Belfast, along with offices in Armagh and Coleraine. He took over as managing director from Maurice Boyd, who now heads the ABL Group as a whole.
“While the overall group is continuing to grow through acquisition, it is key that each group entity shows real organic growth,” he told Ulster Business.
For ABL Group, it’s very much a hub and spoke operation with ABL being the hub and the company’s acquisitions forming the spokes. That’s included ABL Group taking businesses under its wing, including a majority share in Digney Grant Ltd last year.
And in 2016, it completed the takeover of insurance broker McGrady Insurance, funded by Global Risk Partners (GRP).
“We want to promote growth in ABL, in the group and look at acquisition opportunities,” Stephen said.
It’s about growing the firm’s corporate identity, while retaining the customer focus – primarily in the burgeoning Northern Ireland market.
As part of his role, Stephen will be focusing on continuing to build the ABL external and internal brand and also developing and enhancing the company’s current digital marketing strategy.
ABL Group is a business which now handles premiums in excess of £40m each year, across the group’s six offices in total.
One of the company’s strengths is its concentration on Northern Ireland businesses, and it boasts a high level of autonomy, focusing its decisions on what’s best for its long list of clients.
ABL, formerly known as Abbey Bond Lovis, employs around 90 staff – with that number growing to around 125 across the overall group.
Following a management buyout in 2015, the ABL Group has expanded its reach with its acquisitions and headcount. Maurice says that it’s been in line with the medium term plan and we want to grow further still.
He says the company is already engaged in talks with a number of companies.
“We are only interested in businesses where we believe we can make a difference. We can offer support with corporate governance, regulatory matters, finance and HR functions allowing businesses more freedom to service and interact with their clients.
“Acquiring other businesses is part and parcel of our organisation as a group. But while we acquire, we still retain the identity of the businesses which we take on.” And for Maurice, it’s also about finding the right company to partner with.
“There are a lot insurance broking businesses in Northern Ireland but for us it is important we align ourselves to a company which has a similar business profile and we need to make sure they fit with us culturally.
“We understand the importance of local identities and many businesses spent years building their own brand and reputation in their sector and therefore we will ensure that this is retained.”
For ABL, it’s also focusing heavily on its people. “We are keen on attracting good people to the business, but also keen on developing our own people,” Stephen says.
“We spend a lot of time, effort and money on developing the staff internally.”
It’s a view echoed by Maurice and the group as a whole – with the best people helping to feed down to the top level of service which their clients receive.
“Within the whole group, it’s about getting the culture right, and the working environment,” he says.
“We want people to have a good quality environment, and a great place to work. If we look after them, and they are happy in the workplace, then that will flow through to our clients.”
And this year the group will expand on that further with its ABL Group Academy. That will see younger members of the team being given the chance to develop their skills further, through professional qualifications.
“We want to add to our career development opportunities,” Stephen says. “We want people to join us, and stay with us, throughout their career.
“In an effort to improve our service levels to clients, we will continue to upscale our team.”
And with Stephen taking on the role as managing director of ABL last year, Gary Crabbe – who has more than 30 years in the industry – was appointed as director, overseeing the firm’s corporate division.
“The role is an important one, and it’s a great opportunity. I’m now helping to drive that area of the company, and it’s been a very positive move,” Gary says.
The ABL Group has operated in a tough post-recession economy, like hundreds of other companies, but has continued to weather and blossom in a competitive marketplace.
“Northern Ireland has been a tough economy over the last number of years,” Maurice says.
“But from our own perspective, we have been fortunate to enjoy growth in recent years – and that’s something we are very pleased about.
“The company is also keen to attract young people in to considering the profession of insurance broking.
ABL also boasts a hugely experienced workforce – with a significant number of staff working for the business for more than 15 years. “The experience and quality of our people is very high,” Stephen says.
And for the company its business as usual with ABL Group continuing to grow its client base.
“We are always keen to hear from companies where shareholders are looking to execute an exit strategy or where they feel they would enjoy the benefits of being part of a larger organisation. Our door is always open for a conversation,” Maurice said.