This time it’s personal

Mark Cooper from Royal & SunAlliance is convinced that his new website will change the region’s attitude to home insurance. Andrew White reports.

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By  Andrew White Published  April 9, 2006

|~|Mark-Cooper-200.jpg|~|SPEEDY: Cooper says e-insurance is much easier.|~|Mark Cooper from Royal & SunAlliance is convinced that his new website will change the region’s attitude to home insurance. Andrew White reports. Insurance salesmen have always come with smiles, but Mark Cooper is positively beaming. “We’re here to help people,” he says. “We’re here to give people peace of mind, and help people get back on their feet.” As business development manager for Royal & SunAlliance (R&SA) in the UAE, Cooper is keen to extol the virtues of his group’s new website. Fasterquote.ae is the first site in the Middle East to offer personal insurance online, and arrives at a time when the insurance sector in the region is booming. Last August, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of the Department of Civil Aviation at the Government of Dubai, predicted that the UAE’s insurance sector would double by 2010, and that the market would benefit from sustained annual 15 to 20% growth. “The UAE boasts the largest number of insurance companies in the GCC,” HH Sheikh Ahmed said. “The advent of international companies following 2004’s government decision to open the market to foreign competition means that the sector has entered a new dynamic development phase.” As one of the world’s leading insurance groups, operating in 130 countries, and providing general insurance products to over 20 million customers worldwide, R&SA would be expected to be at the forefront of this development. The firm has a 50-year heritage in the UAE, and its Asia & Middle East Region is headquartered in Dubai. Additionally, the insurer’s regional presence includes operations in China, India, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and a regional office in Dubai. However, for R&SA, in the 12 months to 31 December 2005, net written premiums for personal insurance operations in the Asia & Middle East region were down to US$60 million, from around US$120 million the previous year. On the commercial front, net written premiums were also down, albeit to US$148 million from US$154 million in 2004. Cooper, understandably, is quick to accentuate the positive, and place R&SA’s new brand in the context of options currently available to would-be policyholders in the UAE. “Buying insurance over here can be a nightmare,” he says. “You get very few people who can actually help you, that’s the first problem. Secondly, because of the restrictive hours and the different work practices over here, that’s where fasterquote makes the difference. “You can now go online 24/7, get your quotation, or quote-to-buy, and your coverage is immediate,” he continues. “You get an email straight back saying ‘thank you for registering with fasterquote, your coverage is effective today, and the documents will be with you within 48 hours’. That is a fantastic differentiator, and we’re really going to push the market.” He acknowledges that the Middle East insurance market is evolving quickly, as the UAE’s boom attracts hundreds of thousands of expatriates a year to Dubai and the other emirates. As such, R&SA must adapt, and to maintain its core strengths as a commercial corporate insurer, while also offering greater personal insurance opportunities. “We respond to the customers,” he says. “What we’re now seeing in the UAE specifically is a massive drive on retail, driven by huge numbers of people coming out here, setting up out here, and buying houses - which they weren’t doing three or four years ago. So basically there’s this growing demand for what we call personalised insurances: your house, your car, and your pets, for example. “If you have a house in the UK and you don’t have home insurance, you’re mad, whereas people out here just don’t seem to have it,” he continues. “So now you’re getting this massive influx of people and they’re requiring and demanding these products. We’re not diluting what we’ve always done, which is corporate, but we’re adding to our services.” Cooper has been with R&SA group for over ten years, having joined the firm’s graduate scheme in 1995. He worked for one of the group’s subsidiaries on the Isle of Man, before R&SA pulled out of the life market worldwide. The firm’s strategic shift, and oft-documented problems, saw Cooper relocated to corporate head office in Berkeley Square, London. There, he gained valuable exposure to the group’s international operations, before choosing to move to Dubai. “I came out here for a year, four years ago,” he remarks, dryly. “In those years since I’ve been here, we’ve seen a massive transformation in Dubai,” he continues. “The group has shrunk, so therefore the profile of UAE has got bigger in group terms, plus the organic growth of the business has put it on a higher pedestal, so it’s a good place to be right now.” Whilst he is keen to promote R&SA’s personal insurance push, Cooper remains mindful of the corporate business that underpins the group’s expansion throughout the region. “The biggest driver of growth is still corporate,” he stresses. “At the end of the day, all these buildings you see coming up need insurance, all these cranes you see need insurance, all these massive projects that you see require insurance, which is really what our bread and butter is on a global scale. “With fasterquote.ae, we’re just looking to make it easier for people to buy insurance – it’s not a shift in emphasis,” he reiterates. Fasterquote is, however, a first for the region – and a brand for which Cooper has high hopes. He admits that the website is aimed predominately at the UAE’s expatriate community - and particularly those from Europe who, he claims, have around 90% internet penetration. “Insurance is still seen as a largely un-Islamic thing – if your house burns down, so be it, it was meant to happen,” he says. “Generally in the Arab world, insurance has less than one percent penetration. “The demand’s not been here previously, and historically the internet usage here has been low,” he explains. “It’s only now that you see this massive growth in all sectors – in business, in tourism, and in people buying property here. It’s a massive demand that wasn’t here a few years ago, and on top of that you’re seeing a massive increase in boats and yachts, and the volume of cars on the road. We’re simply responding to the evolving demographics and demands of society. “Our customers need it,” he maintains. “Personalised insurance policies are very simple products, so you only get a competitive advantage by doing something different. What we’ve done is provide an online portal that allows people 24/7 access, allows people to get quotations, and allows people to buy products online. It offers convenience, and as Dubai expands and grows, that is what will differentiate us from our competitors.” As R&SA promote their personal insurance portfolio throughout the region, Cooper is keen to concentrate on a select number of classes, such as motor – “it gets people on to the site, and people need it” – and home insurance, among others. “We also see a big need for pet insurance. It’s estimated that there are 120,000 cats and dogs resident in the UAE, and we’re not talking strays, we’re talking as pets.” The high level of liquidity and disposable income in the region has also led to growth in demand for travel insurance. “There are a lot of people going away for short breaks,” grins Cooper. “Emirates and Etihad are booming, Virgin are coming here – and people are going on holiday, so they need travel insurance.” “If we were to ask 450 questions of everyone who signed on, we'd kill the site,” shrugs Cooper. “The whole idea of the site is to be fast, and provide a quote.” The new website, it seems, is designed to talk hard and fast. In fact, it appears that the 21st century insurance salesman doesn’t even need to get a foot in the door - you may find he's already inside. ||**||

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