Accident insurance giants tried to drive us off the road - but we survived and thrived
Crash Services fought off legal threats in the early days and has now reached its 20th year, as Yvette Shapiro finds out
Sometimes in business it takes sheer bloody-mindedness to survive. And back in the late 1990s, that was what helped Michael McKeown to keep his new company afloat. Crash Services, celebrating its 20th year, is now thriving in the hands of Michael's sons, Tony and Jonathan.
Michael, a former insurance broker from Keady in Co Armagh, set up Crash Services in 1996 after spotting a gap in the Northern Ireland market for an accident management service.
A small but growing sector in Great Britain, it was a new concept in the local insurance industry at the time: free of charge, centralised handling of motorists' claims after traffic accidents.
In short, motorists hand over the burden of making a claim to the management service which supplies them with a temporary vehicle and then recoups the costs from the insurer.
"After a long career in the insurance business, my father knew that Northern Ireland people like to deal with Northern Ireland people, rather than companies across the water, e specially when they're the innocent party in an accident," said Tony (40).
"It was a very hard concept to introduce. My father went to insurance brokers and repair garages, using personal contacts to build up the business on a case-by- case basis. It was a slow-build."
However, the powerful, multi-million pound UK insurance industry wasn't prepared to stand idly by while this new breed of 'middle-men' made money from claims management. A series of legal challenges were mounted which took some years to resolve.
"The insurance industry tried to suppress the market for claims management," said Tony.
"Effectively, they stopped paying and about two-thirds of the claims management firms in the UK went to the wall. It was the sheer bloody-mindedness and determination of my father that kept our company going. He had a strong team around him and he kept going."
By 2007, Newry-based Crash Services was handling around 2,000 cases a year. The turning point came when the company began to advertise directly to the public. In the past decade, it's grown by between 7% and 12% per year. It now handles 5,000 cases annually and employs 70 staff across three offices - the Belfast branch opened in 2010, followed by a cross-border base in Dundalk the following year.
"The market in the Republic is not as developed as it is in Northern Ireland and we're exploring opportunities there," said Tony. "It's slow growth south of the border - 85% of our business is still in Northern Ireland and we're a big brand here, the biggest locally-owned accident management service. We put a lot of emphasis on brand and service, keeping it consistent.
"About 40% of the business comes directly from the public, the rest from trade partners like insurance brokers and repair garages. We also have large corporate customers, like Value Cabs and Fonacab, and several other fleets.
"Over the years, we've had approaches to buy us out but we've always resisted. My father felt strongly that he didn't want to put the business into the wrong hands. Our ethos has always been about the local market.
"The business is still family-owned, although we have a strong board of directors, a mixture of family and non-family."
Crash Services has diversified with an accident and breakdown service, launched seven years ago.
Initially marketed through insurance brokers and repair garages, the firm has just started selling directly to car owners.
Tony added: "There's been a good uptake and we expect to see growth in that market.
"We have six of our own breakdown recovery vehicles on the road in the greater Belfast area, and we sub-contract in other areas."
Tony believes that technology will bring new opportunities for growth, saying: "We're looking at the development of black-box technology, in-car telematics, which provides data on how the car is driven plus it can automatically alert emergency services and insurers when there's an accident.
"Currently, this technology has to be retrofitted to cars but we think it will take off in a major way now that manufacturers are starting to bring out cars with telematics already built in.
"We've spent 20 years building a strong business, now it's about looking to the future and being ready for opportunities for growth."