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ABL: onwards and upwards for a leading insurance giant

ABL has grown into a leading Northern Ireland insurance brokerage and risk advisory business working with some of our biggest firms, employing more than 130 staff, and handling a portfolio of more than £120m. Its new managing director, Shauna Graham speaks to Ulster Business about its recent acquisition of Willis Towers Watson’s NI business and further growing its reputation as one of the market leaders here


Shauna Graham, managing director, ABL

Shauna Graham, managing director, ABL

Stephen Carlisle, Shauna Graham and Maurice Boyd, ABL Group

Stephen Carlisle, Shauna Graham and Maurice Boyd, ABL Group


Shauna Graham, managing director, ABL

Sitting in ABL’s shiny new head offices at City Quays 1 in the heart of Belfast Harbour, overlooking the lough, Titanic Belfast and the world-famous Samson and Goliath cranes at Harland & Wolff, it’s clear this is a company with big goals and aspirations.

Shauna Graham is the woman who will help take the insurance brokerage and risk advisory business to the next level, following its recent acquisition of Willis Towers Watson (NI).

“To be heading up ABL is a fabulous opportunity,” Shauna says. “We are now the largest commercial/corporate broker in NI and I believe we are the best.”

And her new role as managing director is clear – bringing together the newly acquired Willis Towers Watson NI business with the rest of the ABL business and growing, expanding and extending its reach and reputation as a leader in the insurance broking sector.

ABL is part of ABL Group which in turn is part of Global Risk Partners (GRP) Group, one of the largest independent insurance intermediary groups in the UK.

“When you looked at the two businesses, we were doing similar things but with expertise in different parts of the market so they complement each other very well,” Shauna says. “My job is now to harness all of that knowledge and experience and bring it together,” she says.

That includes appointing a new executive team to head up the newly combined business.

Shauna started with what became Willis Towers Watson back in 2000 – going straight into the firm after studying at Queen’s University.

And just as the company acquired Willis Towers Watson, Shauna, who now lives in Donaghadee with her husband Dave, daughter Lily and two Springer Spaniels, marked more than two decades working with the company.

“During that time I have worked across a range of roles: from trainee, to broker, team leader and manager, account director, head of operations before being deputy head of office prior to the acquisition” she said.

Shauna began her career with the new firm as head of the ABL Risk Solutions business, before taking up the reins in her role as overall managing director of ABL. The insurance broking business deals with a host of areas, including personal, commercial, corporate, claims and risk management.

She says the acquisition is a growth story and signals an investment in the future and the coming together of two large insurance businesses into one giant of the sector.

With the new company structure in place, Maurice Boyd now sits as group chief executive of the overall business, with Stephen Carlisle as group managing director

“Maurice and Stephen have been a huge support to me so far,” Shauna says. “They have been very hands-on and have grown the business considerably over the last few years. It’s great to be able to rely on them as I move forward in this new role, as they have been so close to the clients and our team here.”

Shauna says the company is now stronger than ever, with expertise and specialists across a wide swathe of commercial clients – from SMEs to large businesses.

“We work across almost every insurance sector,” Shauna says. “And we have expertise in each and every single one. That includes a strong proposition around personal lines, SMEs, mid-market and corporate, for example. We also have an in-house dedicated claims and risk management team which is a key part of our service proposition.

“Clients have different needs within each of those areas and we are focusing and aligning the right people and expertise to offer the best solutions in each one.

“Our scale now means we are able to specialise in multiple areas simultaneously – from construction, to transport to agri-food to public sector. There is no better qualified insurance firm in the country.”

ABL Group works with some of Northern Ireland’s biggest firms and most-recognisable companies across the region.

So, what sets it apart from its competitors, aside from its size and growing portfolio?

There are a number of things that set it apart, Shauna says. “Firstly, our scale as a team of 180-plus professionals is one of the biggest in the country but also our capacity as part of GRP, with its links to the Lloyd’s and London insurance markets. But perhaps most importantly, it’s our ambition. There is a determination to work together to grow our business and be the best we can be.

“For ABL and the wider ABL Group, there was no downtime amid the pandemic and continuing to provide key services to its clients became paramount. ABL quickly adapted to hybrid-working which has enabled us to maintain our standard of service.”

ABL Group has plenty of experience in integrating acquired teams and significant books of business. It bought highly regarded local brokerages McGrady Insurance in Downpatrick and Digney Grant in Newry, both of whom continue to trade as part of the ABL Group under their original names. The group also acquired and integrated AON’s Northern Ireland operations and clients.

“Part of my role is to bring the ABL business together as one, which is why I’m so excited to move into our new headquarters,” Shauna said.

“We need a place, a flagship and a hub to bring everyone together. We like the flexibility of hybrid-working but in person relationships are at the heart of what we do and will always remain so.”

ABL has experience in integrating acquired teams and significant books of business, having previously acquired brokers Digney Grant and McGrady Insurance.

While ABL Group has completed several acquisitions over the last few years, Shauna says the takeover of Willis Towers Watson’s Northern Ireland business is unlikely to be the last.

“We are keen to grow our corporate business, and the reason you work with those clients is to do with your expertise, your sectoral knowledge and your ability to solve the difficult and unique problems they present.

“Given the exceptional level of expertise in our business and our access to exclusive insurance products thanks to our relationship with GRP, we have the ability to provide competitive deals with the highly bespoke offering corporate clients expect.”

Client and revenue growth isn’t the only thing on the firm’s agenda. ABL Group’s move to one of Northern Ireland’s most prestigious and in-demand office developments at City Quays 1 is yet another signpost that it’s got a strong future ahead and further big plans on the horizon.

“We want to attract and retain the best talent and offer people a great career. We already have a best in class training and accreditation program and we want to build on that. Part of what we are building here in our new home at City Quays is to have a really strong career path for all of our colleagues.

“Growing the business is all part of the plan but the first step is making the most of our existing talent and attracting more people into the business. Like everything at ABL, it starts with the people.”