StDavid’s Day has always been a special day for the people of Wales. But it has more than its usual significance for one Welsh intermediary. Two years ago, Wayne Pontin launched his much talked about Health Gold Cymru plan on St David’s Day and since then has never looked back. As is sometimes the case with a successful businessman, Pontin, of Cardiff-based Pontin & Stein, keeps his cards close to his chest. He is reluctant to divulge the extent to which Health Gold Cymru, formed in partnership with Royal & Sun Alliance, has penetrated the Welsh healthcare market, but will say that approaching 200 companies are insured with his scheme.
Pontin is an example of an intermediary who saw the potential for PMI in the days when Barbara Castle was health minister. Although at the time the only players in the private health industry were BUPA and PPP, Pontin spotted that more companies were coming into the market.
“It was starting to bubble. BUPA was beginning to build hospitals and there was an obvious need for someone to specialise in PMI. I was in the right place, at the right time,” he says.
The 1980s and early 1990s were boom years for PMI. Pontin saw his workforce rise from an initial three to the current total of 14. His one room in Newport, South Wales, has been swapped for two floors in an office block in Cardiff. And Pontin now boasts of being the biggest healthcare specialist intermediary in Wales.
“I have more clients than anyone else. The majority of our clients are between five and 250 lives but a minority are schemes of 2,500 -3,000 lives,” he says.
But identifying and then benefiting from the rise and rise of PMI has not been the sole reason for Pontin’s business expansion during his 22 years of PMI experience. Cornering the lion’s share of the Welsh market needed a knowledge of what made the Welsh healthcare system tick.
Pontin explains: “The delivery of healthcare in Wales is cheaper. There is a predominance in north and south Wales of religious order hospitals. There are three private hospitals in south Wales, two run by religious orders and one BUPA. The accommodation cost is far lower.
“I could see there was a lower cost base, yet penetration of PMI was the lowest in the country, 5% in Wales compared with say 21 % penetration of PMI in the south east of England.” Pontin’s next, and most crucial, step was to go shopping for an insurer partner who could help him capitalise on an untapped market. A company had to be found which could bring its own brand of expertise to a groundbreaking healthcare venture.
“As an independent intermediary I wanted to be able to enter a partnership with a PMI provider and still maintain independence. I was looking for flexibility and a guaranteed service. It would have been easy to get an insurer to do a scheme and appoint us, but I wanted a partnership so the scheme could grow. And as the bulk of my business was outside of Wales, I could still satisfy all the other providers,” he says.
Pontin explains that a number of providers were approached but he was unable to stimulate any interest. It seemed everyone had forgotten about the existence of Wales.
“There wasn’t much enthusiasm for Wales from the insurers apart from Royal & Sun Alliance which was able to give us unique provider arrangements,” he says.
Ian Hancock, manager of marketing and communications at Royal & Sun Alliance, describes the thinking behind the partnership: “Being Welsh myself, I was akin to the concept and I had an understanding of the locality. Wayne and I go back 10 years, we have a trust and mutual respect for each other which makes a big difference.
“Royal & Sun Alliance already had a good relationship with Pontin & Stein and weren’t entering blind.
“They are one of our top five intermediaries for healthcare and are now slightly special because of the product. This product is innovative because it’s not commission driven. It’s been a learning curve for Royal & Sun Alliance.”
Hancock adds that the partnership has been built on total co-operation and communication since the launch of Health Gold Cymru. And he nods in agreement when Pontin comments that the partnership embodies the idea of “small enough to care but large enough to cope”. But Hancock is quick to point out that Pontin is the brains behind the product.
“We have sat behind a lot of it. It is exclusively available through Pontin & Stein, not through Royal & Sun Alliance. Pontin & Stein control the distribution channel,” explains Hancock.
The partnership has certainly borne fruit, not least through Pontin’s knowledge of his home country and his unorthodox marketing techniques.
“There are 3 – 3.5 million people in Wales. The heavy industry has deserted the country and, in the main, the mining has gone and the steel industry has been decimated,” says Pontin. “It has been replaced by small units, especially in Cardiff, and financial institutions.”
He adds: “There are 48-50 Japanese companies in Wales. I have access to a Japanese interpreter so we did a mailshot in Japanese about eight years ago which was very successful. We now look after about 28-30 of the Japanese firms.”
Despite the international flavour of Pontin’s clients, which include companies as far afield as Brazil and Equador, the Health Gold Cymru plan is rooted in the local community. Pontin explains why: “It is a product which relies on constant negotiation with the hospital providers. We can link and contain costs by this.”
Hancock adds that the high Welsh appeal of the product is not just encouraging existing PMI . policyholders to switch, it is bringing in new people as well.
The client base for Health Gold Cymru encompasses every aspect of society, from the self-employed plumber to staff at S4C, the Welsh equivalent to Channel 4.
But the appeal to the local community is not a cynical marketing ploy. The area has always been important to the company and Pontin & Stein and Royal & Sun Alliance decided to extend their partnership one step further and put something back into Wales.
“We chose two charities very carefully,” says Pontin. “TyHafan is the first children’s hospice in Wales and Tenovus is a cancer charity, devoted to cancer and leukaemia research, whose headquarters is in South Wales.
“We are selling something that is unique to Wales, a health insurance product, and should encourage the growth of health charities. A pound is given each of the charities for every policy sold so the health community should hopefully profit.”
In addition, Royal & Sun Alliance has pledged to give a single payment of £250 to any hospice where a patient has been admitted for long term care following payment of eligible benefit under Health Gold Cymru in recognition of their important work.
So with the dynamism that Pontin brings to the PMI market, and this dedication to the local area, the future looks healthy for the Welsh nation.