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Monday interview: Brendan Devine, Sure Thing!

Aston Martin fan Brendan Devine plans to grow car insurer Sure Thing! into a big player. Picture:Anthony M DArcy

Aston Martin fan Brendan Devine plans to grow car insurer Sure Thing! into a big player. Picture:Anthony M DArcy

  • by KRISTY DORSEY
 

AS THE owner of an Aston Martin, Brendan Devine understands all the hurdles faced by those with specialist insurance needs, but as the chief executive of newly launched Sure Thing! he intends to make their lives that little bit easier.

“You love your car, you don’t like insurance, so we will make it as painless as possible,” he says.

Devine first shifted gear into motoring five years ago after two decades of working in the broader financial services sector, where he was latterly head of GE Money Loans. He became chief executive of Kwik Fit Financial Services in January 2009, having been tapped up for the post after the sale of GE Money Loans to Spain’s Santander.

By the end of 2010 – when Kwik Fit Financial was sold to Belgian insurer Ageas – the Scots-born executive and his team had grown the operation from slightly more than 400,000 to a customer base of more than 640,000.

Growing a business like that is a matter of giving customers the best insurance deal year after year, Devine says, but this has become an increasingly challenging task. Major aggregators – comparison sites such as Moneysupermarket.com – now account for more than 60 per cent of car insurance policies sold throughout the UK, but consumers are becoming more discerning in their use.

“The customers are a lot more selective when using the aggregators than they were four or five years ago,” he observes. “You get them on price, but it is what you do thereafter that determines whether you keep them.”

That isn’t the only way in which buyers are increasingly savvy. When putting together the business plan for Sure Thing! – which also caters to other higher-premium sectors such as modified cars, those with previous insurance claims, those with driving convictions and young motorists – Devine and his backers commissioned an extensive survey of their target markets. What they found were customers with very hi-tech literacy.

“The market is moving much more online,” Devine says. “Broadband is now widely available, and 4G is coming on, so more people are shopping mobile.

“We are optimised for mobile, and we have made our site very intuitive – it’s very easy for people to buy from us.”

About 90 per cent of the process is automated, with every feature completely accessible from all types of devices. Any problems are handled by the 20 people currently taking calls at the Sure Thing! centre near Glasgow, an operation that could grow to 140 people within the next two years.

Highlighting the success of the company’s systems, Devine notes that just 20 per cent of sales so far have been generated through the call centre. That number was previously expected to be nearer 40 per cent.

“What we have done is we have looked at other great brands on the internet, and at how to mimic that customer journey,” he says. “Apple, Amazon – these are the best in class at the buying experience, and that is what we aim to be.”

The company has been set up with “multi-million” pound backing from Bermuda-based investment house Primary Group. The management team at Sure Thing! also have a minority stake in the business.

Primary invests predominantly on behalf of small and medium-sized businesses involved in insurance and other financial distribution activities. Devine believes having investors from within the sector strengthens the operation, as does the make-up of its management team.

He has surrounded himself with a number of former colleagues such as marketing director Michael Lynch, previously of Kwik Fit, and commercial director Stevie Sutherland, previously of Ageas Retail. SwiftCover co-founder Steve Hardy and Peter Hubbard, chief executive of UK General Insurance, are on the board as non-executives.

As was the case when Devine joined Kwik Fit, the plan for his current project is to grow the operation before an eventual sale. However, there is no set time-frame in mind.

“They probably take a longer view than private equity, so there is not as much pressure there,” Devine says of Primary. “It will just be whenever the time is right to sell.”

In the meantime, Devine says there is ample scope to expand, as most of the auto insurance market has geared itself towards catering for the lowest-risk customers who generate the lowest premiums.

To offset the greater risk in his target markets, Devine has brokered a tie-up with Experian to better weigh up the quality of potential customers.

“We will write premiums down at £300, but that is not what we are concentrating on,” he adds.

“We have looked carefully at the market, which has been driven in the main by credit quality.

“That has left a lot of people out there who are under-served, and that’s where we see our opportunity.”

30-SECOND CV

Job: Chief executive, Sure Thing!

Born: Glasgow, 1967

Education: Trinity High (Renfrew); Paisley Technical College

First job: Packing shelves in the dog food section at Safeway

Ambition while at school: Architect

Car: Aston Martin

Kindle or book? Kindle

Can’t live without: iPhone

Favourite place: Rome

What makes you angry? Bad customer service

Best thing about your job: The people I am working with, and the people in the industry

 

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