Dynasties are usually founded on wealth, power and expensive commodities, such as oil or gold. To date there have been few in the insurance industry.
But tucked away in Bristol, one healthcare company has bucked the odds, and is now a thriving modern business which has never lost sight of its family origins.
In the managing director’s chair at BCWA sits Martin Wren, whose grandfather, James Tudor founded the company in 1926. Wren is somewhat nonchalant about his grandfather’s achievements: “He must have been mad to do it,” he says.
But mad or not, the scheme Tudor set up flourished, and when Tudor’s son-in-law and successor, Geoffrey Wren, was due to retire it was his son, Martin, who was approached to become the new managing director.
Wren says he never had “any particular ambition” to work in the insurance industry, and far from being groomed to take over the family business his father actively discouraged him from following in his footsteps.
But in 1976, when his father retired after 40 years with the company, Wren found himself in the driving seat.
Before that Wren had trained as a lawyer, then worked in the printing and packaging industry. He says his change of mind was brought about by the “enormous potential” he could see in the healthcare market at this time. But Wren is keen to play down the BCWA family ties. “It is unusual, I suppose, that the company has been run by one family for so long,” he says, “But we don’t make a song and dance about it.”
In fact, Wren does not strike you as the kind of character to make a song and dance about most things. He is quietly spoken and polite, indicating an older style of managerial practice. Rather than brash, dynamic-sounding soundbites, Wren prefers a gentle preamble through the company’s history and place in the market today. One point he is keen to emphasise is BCWA’s position as a non-profit making company.
He says: “Although I don’t remember much about my grandfather he was a real philanthropist. With no NHS the voluntary hospitals that existed then relied on the contributary schemes of the time to provide effective patient care.”
Traces of this ideology are still evident today. Wren says: “There are no fat cats in this company. Surplus underwriting profits are ploughed back into BCWA to improve both products and services for our customers.”
This has been a long-established ethos at BCWA. But the issue has become a subject of much debate recently with the flood of building societies and insurance companies demutualising last summer. Wren adds: “In today’s market I think companies like ourselves have a very important role to play. We can add real value for the policyholder. I do believe there are enough opportunities left in the market to provide a little extra for our customers to ensure they do not feel exploited or treated as just another statistic on a piece of paper.”
BCWA’s 170 staff are all based in James Tudor House in the heart of Bristol. Wren’s office has the air of a gentleman’s club. He sits behind a large dark wood desk, tapping his cigarette into the ashtray in front of him.
Perversely for a health insurer, smoking is one subject that immediately animates Wren. “It is one of my hobby horses,” he admits. He is dismissive of the “PC lobby” who have tried to make smokers social outcasts, particularly in the US. “It is enough to put you off going to America,” he says.
He adds, somewhat waspishly: “The US seems throw up every evil under the sun in technicolour. And the one thing the PC lobby decide to clamp down on is smoking!”
To survive in today’s markets BCWA know that they need more than an ethical outlook and old-fashioned regard for their customers.
James Tudor House was purposebuilt for the company two years ago. Beneath the hushed boardroom a hubub of activity drives the company. The modern, open-plan offices house the sales teams, claims staff and support staff.
Over the past four years there has been considerable change at BCWA. Most notably, the company changed its brand name. Rather than being known as the Bristol Contributory Welfare Association it was decided BCWA was a snappier name and certainly easier to fit on letterheads.
As Philip Fowles, BCWA’s marketing manager, commented: “The Bristol Contributory Welfare Association sounds like somewhere you would queue up to get a cup of tea.”
With the change in name came the launch of several new products. Wren says: “We are loath to change anything unless we have a good reason for it. This does not mean we are stuck in the mud. We try to listen to our customers and provide the products and services that are required. We do not believe in stuffing our portfolio with as many policies as possible. This only serves to confuse the customer.”
Wren says as a result of this practice the company has built up a reputation in the market as a solid and stable company. Wren adds: “We pride ourselves on offering quality service and products at competitive prices. We do not want to be seen as shoddy in anything we do.”
One of the main reasons that BCWA gets such good feedback from the intermediairy channel is its “consistent strategy” says Wren. He is dismissive of competitors who “chop and change” their approach to the healthcare market on an almost annual basis.
Without naming names, Wren notes that there has been a fair amount of “public backtracking” by certain companies over the past year. “The debate over moratorium underwriting and the clash between direct and broker sales channels have been just two recent issues where we have seen some U-turns lately,” he adds.
Wren is reluctant to predict how the private healthcare market will fare under a Labour Government. “It is very difficult to read the political crystal ball at present,” he says. “But at least Labour do not seem to be a threat to the private sector.”
He points to a number of recent reports which indicate that the public expect the NHS service to shrink over the next few years. One in particular indicates that by 2007 most people expect they will have to pay fees for GPs. He adds: “If these changes are brought about it will certainly present opportunities for private health insurers in the future.”
Looking back, Wren says he made the right decision when he switched careers to join the insurance industry. He says: “I got a lot of satisfaction from knowing we are helping people when they are at their lowest.”
He adds: “The healthcare market has changed a lot since I took over the job in 1976. There have certainly been a few challenges along the way.”
It has been a challenge at times to move the healthcare market forward. “With rampant inflation in the cost and frequency of claims, premiums have risen. Inevitably some customers will drift away. But it is a challenge to persuade them that continuing with what is really an expensive insurance cover is in their best interests.”