Julie Gibbons, managing director of AbbeyAutoline insurance broker, describes the merger of Abbey and Autoline, which completed last year, as "more like a zipping, rather than a crunching".
She says the transaction, which was finalised in September, makes the business stronger and the biggest insurance broker in Northern Ireland, with more than 50 years' experience.
Prestige Insurance Holdings, the parent company of Abbey Insurance, acquired Newry-based Autoline Insurance at the end of 2018.
Since then, the two businesses have been aligning their operations with completion finalised in 2020.
"Our timing really gave staff a great lift during the pandemic," Julie says. "It energised our image in the market and has really expanded our offering.
"When both businesses came together, we knew there would be growth. They were complementary to each other rather than overlapping. We identified a lot of synergies and we zipped together, rather than crunching together. It's exciting."
Julie says Autoline brought a strong commercial element to the union, while Abbey offered a strong taxi client presence.
Both firms are home-grown broker businesses who have developed side by side for over almost 50 years.
The result of the deal is a broader range of products, which includes car and home insurance, along with travel, van, motorbike, taxi, farm, and business insurance.
Reflecting on business over the past year, Julie says: "Our motor side of the business has been very resilient and a common trend across the sector has been renewal retention rates holding up. That's because clients were going through a period of uncertainty and they wanted to stick with what they knew. Car insurance premiums have gone down too and that's because there is a lot less traffic on the road and a lot less accidents," she says.
"Travel has been adversely impacted obviously while taxi insurance took a bit of a hit and what happened within our team was our advisors took on a real consulting role, advising and helping those drivers with things like reduced cover.
"The same was the case with our SME business insurance staff."
The company played a key role in supporting its business clients over a challenging 12 months, "acting on behalf of the client fighting their corner with a business interruption claim", Julie says.
"That saw mixed success with claims being paid by insurance companies as the Supreme Court decision was dependent on the strength of each insurer's specific policy wording. Claims are still ongoing, and we continue to be supportive of clients who report claims of this nature," she adds.
Such has been the heightened need for insurance throughout the pandemic, Julie believes it will stand the broker market in good stead for future business.
AbbeyAutoline has 22 branches and 470 staff across the business.
Julie believes that the importance of those bricks and mortar sites will persist for a long time to come, even with our increasingly digitally focused world.
"We are a broker, the person in between that offers that value added service, that fights the client's corner when dealing with the insurance company and I do think that people are looking to brokers more, now they realise the complexity of insurance cover.
"We have seen this advent of online companies and cost comparison websites, but people are grasping the benefits of having a human there. At the end of the day an insurance policy is a legal contract so to have a professional advisor helping you with that really makes a difference," she says.
"And the irony of it is, I do think in the early days of the pandemic, it had to be all about digital.
"People were at home, our branches were closed, and people were pushed online but now consumers and businesses have a preference of humans before algorithms."
Julie, who grew up in Rostrevor in Co Down, says there are abundant opportunities in the insurance sector.
She's keen to promote the sector to incoming talent as AbbeyAutoline looks to grow its inhouse academy.
"We are very passionate about training people and one of my goals is to expand the academy and to show that you can have a really identifiable career path in insurance.
"There is nearly a lack of understanding about how exciting careers in financial services are, particularly in insurance and I would love more schools and career teachers to be aware of that."
Julie studied Law and French at Queen's University Belfast but her family's background in business saw her move away from the legal profession.
She adds: "My dad had his own building company and mum ran her own deli. Business studies really interested me, and I thought business offered more potential to use your personality."
Among her previous roles, Julie worked at Microsoft in Dublin as operations manager as well as holding a post in a high-tech start-up in Chicago after which she worked at KMPG Consulting in Dublin.
KPMG put Julie through an MBA at University College Dublin (UCD).
After her role at Microsoft Julie went it alone, setting up her own consultancy firm, where one of her first clients was Autoline who eventually offered her the post of operations director.
That was back in 2005.
"I liked everything about Autoline, it was a really entrepreneurially-led company founded in the 70s that really valued staff and customers.
"It's the same for Abbey and collectively we're a real local broker and a people business," she says.
Looking to the rest of the year and further ahead. Julie says her job will be about growth.
"We see lots of opportunities within both the personal line space that will allow us to really provide the customer with more choice, more advisors and better buying power as a bigger group.
"We also want to make sure that the market realises what a large knowledgeable commercial team we have, and we are looking for a commercial director and account executives for that side of the business.
"We're delighted that we have managed to be resilient through this past year and we don't take that for granted. We've worked hard for it. My vision is to continue to grow, be relevant to our customers and build our profile as a sustainable business."
Among the firm's work in building its profile is the extension of its partnership with Ulster Rugby until 2022/23.
The deal will see AbbeyAutoline continue with exclusive naming rights of the Family Stand at Kingspan Stadium. Both teams will work together on activities, events and content that will benefit Ulster Rugby fans and AbbeyAutoline customers.
They will also be launching a range of exclusive benefits for Ulster Rugby season ticket holders.
"We have established a strong relationship with Ulster Rugby and its loyal and passionate fanbase over the past three years and we're delighted to extend this partnership until 2022/23 under our new name, AbbeyAutoline."
Julie adds: "We also can't wait to welcome back families and young people to the AbbeyAutoline Family Stand, when it's safe to do so, to experience the excellent family-friendly atmosphere."