Keeping the Faith
Specialising in covering churches across the world, Ecclesiastical is an insurance company with a difference, writes Margaret Canning
The financial services industry isn't the cuddliest sector out there and insurance probably isn't the consumer's favourite out of all facets of financial services.
But Ecclesiastical Insurance, the largest British-owned independent insurer in the UK, is one which claims to have a caring ethos informing its dealings.
It was set up in 1887 to protect the Anglican Church and it still insures around 95% of England's Anglican churches.
English Heritage is also a major client, as are schools and charities.
It also has a lot of business in Northern Ireland, where its turnover is around £4m. Its biggest market here is the charity sector, with around 100 charities in Northern Ireland using Ecclesiastical, followed by churches.
Michael Tripp, group chief executive of the Gloucester-based business, visited Northern Ireland recently to address the CO3 awards and conference for leaders in the charitable and voluntary sectors, collectively known as the 'third sector'.
Mr Tripp - who has probably heard every possible joke about someone with the surname 'Tripp' working in insurance - explained the ethos of the company.
"It's more than just an insurance company because it's owned by a charity, Allchurches Trust, and at the heart of it is the good of the community it serves," he said.
"Many people think of financial services organisations as money-grabbing and I genuinely don't think they are.
"That's their reputation but that's not Ecclesiastical because the charitable ownership gives an aura that makes a difference.
"We have a vision which is to advise and protect those that enrich the lives of others so it's not just about selling insurance, it's advising and protecting.
"It's trying to make a difference to those communities, in particular the church and faith community, and the charity community, and schools."
Old buildings have become another specialism, resulting from the experience of underwriting church buildings over many years.
"That has helped us build up a real knowledge about old and special buildings so we use that as the core of our expertise," he said.
But despite making the headlines recently, the problem of lead theft from church roofs is not new.
"Someone recently showed me a board minute from 1935 when they were discussing the problem of the theft of lead from roofs, so it's not exactly a new problem," said Mr Tripp.
"I think it is something that happens in a recession and it comes about as a result of that global need for metal - particularly the second hand market, if you want to put it that way."
Rather than insuring against the theft of lead they are now attempting to educate churches about how they can prevent lead theft.
"That can include security devices for the most vulnerable churches, the use of Smartwater (product applied to church roofs which identifies stolen lead in the event of an attempted sale), CCTV and alarms.
"It's also a matter of trying to lobby the second hand dealer market to make sure that's properly controlled." But Ecclesiastical has had to take a hardnosed approach to church insurance because of the continuing problem of stolen lead.
"We had to put restrictions on cover because you can't go on paying, paying and paying ... it has to be balanced over time. It's about giving people incentives to help themselves," said Mr Tripp.
"We've tackled the problem more through underwriting than putting prices up."
Ecclesiastical has been operating in Northern Ireland for around 30 years out of its 125-year history and also has a presence across Australia and Canada.
The devastating earthquake which struck Christchurch, New Zealand in 2010 also resulted in its biggest ever gross loss of around £61m.
Ireland represents "an important opportunity" and having a separate Irish operation is a "statement of importance," Mr Tripp said.
The Irish economy still weighs on the business yet Mr Tripp said recession can present an opportunity to a conscientious business operation.
"I think it's an opportunity for a business like Ecclesiastical because when times are difficult it's important to have an organisation that is empathetic and can try to be about ideas and not just premiums," he said.
Churches throw up unique dilemmas, presenting issues with the congregation and the lay-out of the church, as well as relating to the church hierarchy.
Mr Tripp said terminology and knowledge comes into play, such as understanding precious objects in the church are more likely to be stolen and how they can be protected.
Relationships with ministers are also important, though some churches are insured through their diocese.
It has some Catholic churches on its books but the Catholic Church Insurance Association dominates the field.
Ecclesiastical also underwrites many Methodist churches and "half of the synagogues" in England. "A church building is a place of worship, whatever the faith background," Mr Tripp said.
There is also a strong link between the purpose of churches and links to schools and the wider community.
"It's about the community use of space. The pastoral nature of teaching means there's a sort of a empathy there and that's similar to the charity world," Mr Tripp said.
"It's people that look after others. It's a fascinating world."
Their board includes deputy chairman Sir Philip Mawer, a former secretary-general of the General Synod of the Church Of England, while chairman Will Samuel is a merchant banker by profession.
Mr Tripp stressed that it's still a commercial organisation, even though it's owned by a charity. But a charitable ethos influences the type of people who choose to work there.
"Because we're owned by a charity we attract people who want to do the right thing but you operate in a commercial world and there are real commercial pressures. The secular pressure is definitely there but you don't keep your values without working at it," he said.
Growth areas in the UK which he thinks will also be applied to Northern Ireland are a property owners' product, for organisations such as the Crown Estate which own a whole series of properties and require blanket cover.
Rural estates and accompanying old buildings are another possible growth area.
English Heritage is an existing client but the National Trust sadly isn't. "We'd love to do the National Trust, that would be ideal. They're with Aviva but we've got our eye on that one," said Mr Tripp.
Their ethical investment line is also growing. But to mix God and Mammon, "an organisation has to be run very professionally and absolutely rigorously managed. I came from working as a partner in Ernst and Young".
Organisations must not work in an old-fashioned way, he added.
"I actually think professional discipline as found in professional services is entirely compatible with ethics. Ernst and Young was a very good firm with very good ethics in it so from that point of view, the ethics and wanting to do the right thing for clients is actually very strong there," he said.
"From that point of view, they're not chalk and cheese. But on the other hand there are dimensions that Ecclesiastical has that others don't.
"There is a genuine desire to help customers in firms like Ernst and Young but the aura of charity ownership for Ecclesiastical does make a difference."
Its 900 staff regularly raise money for charity and for its 125th anniversary, they gave each member £125 to invest in the charity of their choice.
"It's about shared values and making a difference and life being more than just money. We are not just selling a product," said Mr Tripp.
Maintaining their proud philanthropic ideals
From humble beginnings in 1887, Ecclesiastical Insurance has grown into Britain's biggest independently-owned insurer. In 2010 it had a pre-tax profit of £50m, out of which £19.25m was donated to its charitable owner, Allchurches Trust.
It was set up by church people and given the austere title of Ecclesiastical Buildings Fire Office.
Now it has diversified from being purely an insurer of church buildings against fire risk into insuring schools, charities and heritage buildings and has branched out into financial services, risk management and investments.
But it vows that the philanthropic ideals which drove its birth are still important.
The company said: "Our founders had the idea of insuring churches and church buildings and ploughing any profits they made back into the charitable work of the church - a commitment that we're proud to say we still keep today."