Andrew Bibby


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Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Profile of a chief executive:

Andrew Haigh (Engage Mutual, UK)

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published by ICMIF (International Cooperative & Mutual Insurance Federation) in Voice magazine, 2012

Read through ICMIF's latest Members' Key Statistics booklet, and one fact jumps out of the pages. There, right at the top of the table of fastest growing ICMIF members in developed nations, is the name of the UK company Engage Mutual Assurance. Its growth between 2009 and 2010, at least according to ICMIF's statisticians, was a whopping 408%.

Andrew Haigh, Engage Mutual's Chief Executive, smiles politely, and suggests that the headline figure might be a little misleading. There's a simple explanation, he says: it's just because his organisation has recently completed a number of acquisitions and partnership deals.

Nevertheless, Engage Mutual's recent progress has been attracting attention and comment. One local business reporter who went to interview him wondered aloud if he was about to meet a predator. The question was posed: Was this man ready to gobble up yet more of his competitors?

Sober-suited and calm in his manner, Andrew Haigh would probably not welcome the reputation of being unduly aggressive in his approach to his competitors. Nevertheless since he took over the top job at Engage Mutual in 2002 he has certainly overseen some big changes. The first, in April 2005, was particularly significant, in that it was a root-and-branch rebranding exercise which involved the actual creation of the Engage name. Previously (and indeed if we're being legally minded, still today, since Engage Mutual is simply the trading name), the mutual went by the name of the Homeowners Friendly Society. It was not the snappiest of names – and it also suggested that anyone who wasn't choosing to buy their own home might as well take their business elsewhere. The creation of Engage Mutual brought a new opportunity to build the organisation's profile.

Although Homeowners itself was only set up in 1980, it is part of the UK's group of friendly societies, most of whom have roots back in the nineteenth century when there was no welfare state to help you if you fell sick or had an accident, or to help your family if you died prematurely. British friendly societies, as a sector, were relatively unambitious during the last century, helped to survive partly by a valuable tax concession and – in latter years – by the chance to benefit from a government-funded endowment scheme for all children (recently withdrawn). The issue facing the senior management of every friendly society is what their role should be in the twenty-first century… or indeed if they still have a role at all.

Engage Mutual, under Andrew Haigh's leadership, has developed a clear idea of what it wants to do and the sort of business it wants to be. Those acquisitions, for example, are the result of a strategy to gain scale and develop a new market area. “We made the decision three or four years ago that we wanted to enter the health product area, as we felt that it was a good fit with what we were trying to do to help our members. It's clearly more effective to do that through acquisition that by trying to build from scratch. It was then a case of finding the right partners and the right opportunities,” Andrew Haigh says.

In fact, a number of opportunities came along. In 2010, Engage Mutual took over a private healthcare provider called PHSA. More recently, it has worked with another mutual in the health sector, Benenden, providing the administration for some of their products.

But Engage Mutual has also looked to build its non-health business, through the acquisition of the long-term investment insurance business of another mutual Ecclesiastical and of the sales team of the friendly society National Friendly. “We face the same challenges which all businesses face, which is really about getting the scale of the organisation to a point where it can be truly efficient. On our existing business, we try to continue to scale that, to help build our efficiency,” Andrew Haigh says.

So is he there yet? Is the spate of acquisitions over? Andrew Haigh chooses his words carefully. “We're always open to conversations, but the strategic priorities right now are very much about making sure that those acquisitions are properly settled in to the organisation,” he says. Elsewhere he has suggested that acquisitions only really work when both organisations involved have shared values and where both sets of members clearly benefit from the move.

Engage Mutual has now reached the point where it has over half a million policy-holders, a rapid growth from the 180,000 a decade ago. Group assets stood at GBP 946m (USD 1.47 bn) at the end of the 2010 financial year, up by 50% on the figure a year earlier. Engage Mutual is based in the northern English spa town of Harrogate , where it currently employs about 150 staff.

Andrew Haigh is very strongly committed to Engage's status as a mutual. “I can't think of a time when the mutual proposition has been more appropriate, more needed and in fact more wanted. I think people want to deal with organisations that they really feel they can trust, organisations that they really do have a say in and organisations which are really focused on their needs. The mutual proposition is absolutely right at the moment. With all the difficulties we have been through globally economically, I think we've found our moment,” he says.

He is working hard to try to build the sense of ownership among his policy-holders, and he hints that major developments are on the way. “The real challenge is how do you bring an organisation like ours and turn it from being a product provider into being a real community, a community of members who have a relationship with us as providers but also with each other. Watch this space over the next year or so and you'll see a gradual development of what Engage Mutual is doing, something which I hope will be very exciting,” he says.

Engage Mutual uses a number of traditional distribution channels including financial advisers to sell its products, and has also partnership links with Legal and General, Yorkshire Bank and Clydesdale Bank (both part of the National Australia Bank) and a national UK building society. Direct sales by mail, telephone and over the internet are particularly important. “We're very much pushing the organisation towards a primarily digital approach. The internet is increasingly important to us – by far the biggest proportion of our new business comes digitally,” Andrew Haigh says.

Engage Mutual has the ambitious vision statement of being ‘the best customer owned business', with the commitment that it ‘places the customer at the centre of everything it does'. Delegates at ICMIF's recent Manchester conference had the opportunity to hear of one innovative way in which the company is trying to listen to its members. Andrew Haigh offered an interesting presentation on Engage Mutual's Feedback Tool, a simple digital tool on the desktops of all staff which is designed to capture all comments about the company which come through from customers. “Really pertinent feedback comes in regular customer conversation, in a totally unstructured way. The Feedback Tool collects all these comments: it could be something you overheard on a bus or in a café, it's what people are saying about us that our staff have picked up,” Andrew Haigh explained to his audience. The data, no matter how apparently trivial, is recorded and analysed, and made available for all employees, including senior management, to access. Already, the Feedback Tool has led Engage Mutual simplify the procedures it requests for death claims. It has also led to a change in the way bank direct debits are recorded: “It's reduced the number of direct debit cancellations by fifty a month,” Andrew noted.

Andrew Haigh's own background is unusual, in that he is an engineering graduate. After only a brief period working as a trainee engineer, however, he moved into marketing, working for, among other companies, Volvo, British Airways, NCR Corporation and Barclays Bank. He came to what was then Homeowners in 1998, and joined the board as Sales and Marketing Director a year later. Three years later he was at the helm.

His commitment to the principles of mutuality mean that he has also taken on some national commitments. He serves as a director on the board of Mutuo, the UK think-tank which has been making strong interventions with the British government to support cooperatives and mutuals. He is also on the board of the Association of Financial Mutuals, the recently formed trade body which brings together the country's mutual insurers and the friendly societies.

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