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Insurance and Isas boost mutual growth

SCOTTISH Friendly has underlined its reinvention as a modern mutual by more than doubling its sales on the back of innovation in the insurance and investment markets.

BRIGHT FUTURE: Fiona McBain promised the mutual would continue to diversify and to surprise. Picture: Ashley Coombes
BRIGHT FUTURE: Fiona McBain promised the mutual would continue to diversify and to surprise. Picture: Ashley Coombes

Scotland's largest financial mutual, led since 2006 by Fiona McBain, has announced a record haul of £20 million for 2013, a rise of 135% on the previous year's £8.5m, in like-for-like sales of core life, pensions and protection products.

It developed its partnerships with websites such as comparethemarket.com to sell life and critical illness insurance, and launched a unique Isa platform which smashed its first year's target of £750,000, racking up £3.3m of sales.

The Isa and Junior Isa quickly displaced the society's traditional tax-exempt savings plan as Scottish Friendly's principal product, whilst targeting the same low contribution market (from £10 a month).

Neil Lovatt, sales and marketing director, said the bulk of the sales growth had come in the protection business, where Scottish Friendly had teamed up with Beagle Street (better known for its 'meerkat' comparison site) and Australian group Neilson Financial Services, which runs the Smart Insurance and Sorted brands.

A deal with distributor Hello enabled the mutual to penetrate the Irish financial services market, while further growth came from a partnership with Glasgow-based Golden Charter, the leading independent in the UK funeral plan market.

"This is the first full year, and about 50% of all our business now comes from these protection products," Mr Lovatt said.

The core saving and investment business had grown by around 20%, he added, thanks to a 54% increase in online sales, which now accounted for well over half of the group's overall business.

After the financial crash, Scottish Friendly grew its assets under administration from under £1 billion to £4bn and its staff from 100 to 260 as it developed a clever wrap administration platform, which bagged Aviva and Nucleus Financial as major customers.

Two years ago, the business was sold to Citi along with the transfer of 134 staff but Ms McBain, who was not available yesterday, promised that the mutual would continue to diversify and to surprise. Last year's accounts revealed that the society had banked over £20m from the deal. It currently employs 92 in Glasgow.

The success of the My Isa and My Junior Isa plans launched a year ago "has surprised even me", Mr Lovatt said.

The plans use a quirk of the Isa rules which allow savings plans with built-in life insurance to be held separately on a single Isa platform, allowing individual pots to be held for different family members. Scottish Friendly has used its wrap platform expertise to offer Isas with multiple plans which can be managed online.

The greater simplicity of the products, compared with the old tax-exempt plans, has also enabled the mutual to revive some of its traditional paper marketing channels at lower cost, alongside the booming e-business.

Mr Lovatt said: "What we are trying to do is use all the wrap technology, and apply all of that to the mass market."

Scottish Friendly's assets grew from £924m last year to just over £1bn, including £580m in the with-profits fund which is still the most popular investment option among the 12 on its Isa platform.

Mr Lovatt said the £10 a month minimum showed that the friendly society was still offering "absolute bread and butter saving for everyone", and its charges were in line with the market.

On the current year, he said further partnerships were being pursued. "We have got quite a few on the go, two of which we expect to drop within this quarter.

"The business is entirely scaleable, and we are expecting to see growth this year though not as spectacular (as last), through a combination of diversification and growth from existing channels."

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