'Our multi-trip insurance policy, at €19.99, really became a significant game changer among travel agents'
BLUE Insurances is a dynamic independent insurance brokerage. Set up in 2003 by joint managing directors Ciaran Mulligan and Rowan Devereux, the company specialises in niche insurance products including travel, gadgets, pets, weddings, car hire, motor breakdown and, most recently, health. Later this year the pair will enter the home and motor insurance sectors as well as expand their international operations.
Blue Insurances employs 30 staff in its head office in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Turnover has grown steadily from €3.5m in 2004 to an impressive €19m in 2012. The company currently trades in Ireland, the UK and Australia.
The insurance sector is a very crowded and competitive space, so what made them set the company up in the first place, I ask.
"We both have been working in the insurance sector since we finished school," Ciaran tells me. He had really wanted to study marketing but missed out by a few points in his Leaving Cert. However, he quickly turned his attention to the world of work when he joined the insurance industry, first with leading brokers Coyle Hamilton, and later with Willis Corroon and Kindlon Insurances.
Rowan Devereux had been working in the UK for Primary Insurances until moving to Galway where he established Global Intermediaries Travel Insurances. The two had got to know each other over the years through the industry, and in 2003 they decided to pool their experience and resources to launch Blue Insurances.
Where did they come up with the name? "The colour blue represents the sky and the sea, and both are synonymous with holidays," says Ciaran. "And people can remember a colour sometimes whereas they might not readily remember the name of a company," Rowan adds.
When they first opened for business, in 2003, they had just two staff. They focused almost exclusively on the travel insurance market, and during their first year they managed to pick up the contract to service Budget Travel's insurance business.
In an innovative move to carve out a greater share of the market, they invested in the development of a separate travel insurance website solely for travel agents and tour operators who could log on and issue policies directly to their own customers. It proved a smart move and was a first in the industry.
Soon afterwards, they developed their own bespoke insurance policies which they "white labelled" for tour operators and travel companies to sell as their own branded products. They quickly became the first company in the market to generate significant online business in the travel insurance industry.
"Even though we were a very small company at the beginning, we were determined to project a very professional image and to punch above our weight," says Ciaran.
It's a dilemma faced by most start-up companies and is often referred to as the dichotomy of size: when you are a small company you have to project the image of being a much larger company than you really are, and when you get to be a large company you have to project the image of retaining the same intimacy and personalised service that you had when you were a much smaller company.
After only their first year in business, they were awarded the Best Travel Insurance Company award by the Irish Travel Trade Industry.
"It really gave us the recognition and impetus to drive on," Ciaran explains.
Soon, however, the pair began to realise that business from travel agents was beginning to slow down.
"People began booking online, directly with the airlines. This eliminated the need for many to go through travel agents and so, as a result, we knew we had to reinvent our offering to the market," Rowan explains.
In 2007, Blue Insurances responded by launching a multi-trip policy. Rather than take out a single insurance policy for every trip the person was taking in a particular year, the multi-trip policy covered all travel throughout a given year. "We really revolutionised the online insurance business," says Ciaran. "Our multi-trip insurance policy, at €19.99, really became a significant game changer among travel agents," he adds.
With many customers already on tight budgets, the pair began to offer other insurance policies that covered such things as travel disruption in the event of bad weather, volcanic ash or departure delays that resulted in added expenses such as overnight accommodation in an airport hotel.
Following a number of high- profile cases, customers began looking for insurance to cover situations where an airline, car hire company or hotel would go bust after having already taken customers' deposits.
In 2009 the company launched backpackerinsurance.ie to cater for the rise in that market. They were fast becoming seen as differentiators in the industry.
"We even entered the skiing insurance business when increasing numbers of Europeans began suing those who knocked into them on the slopes," Ciaran explains. "While Irish people are generally happy to dust themselves down and laugh off such incidents, skiers from other countries increasingly pursue insurance claims."
More recently – and with the rise in the number of people with mobile phones, iPads and other devices – Blue Insurances shot to public recognition with its Gadget Insurance. "Our slogan is that you need gadget insurance just in case you drop it, smash it or lose it," Ciaran says, laughing. But it got them huge public recognition and won them much business.
Because the pair run an online business, they invested time in researching how people search for insurance. "We discovered that customers didn't search using an insurance company's name but by the type of insurance they were looking for," Rowan explains.
Armed with this knowledge, they registered up to 250 separate domain names such as weddinginsurance.ie, gadgetinsurance.ie and petinsurance.ie. They were now increasingly showing up at the top of customers' searches.
In 2011, the pair visited India for the first time as part of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year programme. "We carried out a lot of research when we were in India and found that, by 2014, there will be more than 400 million people in India who will be involved in travelling. That's a market worth targeting," Rowan says enthusiastically. They are planning to launch into the Indian market later this summer, trading under the name multitrip.in.
Not content to sit back, the company is growing its health insurance business and will be launching a domain called healthplan.ie in the coming months. "Health cover is a complex area and the various offerings from companies can be very confusing for customers," explains Ciaran. "So we will be offering two simple options. One is for private health and the other will be focused on cash payment plans."
He stresse: "We want to make it easy, accessible and affordable for customers to get health insurance."
What's next for the business? "This year is going to be one of the most exciting years for the company so far as we are planning to enter the home and motor insurance sectors," says Ciaran.
In addition, the pair are in discussions with US operators about launching their gadget insurance business in the US market. "Given the size of the market and the fact that the US is the home of technology and electronic gadgets, it makes sense to have a presence there," Ciaran says.
They are also exploring entering the United Arab Emirates market, and further increasing their share of the Australian market, which they entered in 2010.
As I tour their offices, I meet the various teams who look after the different segments and regions of the business – including Maeve Slamon, who looks after operational issues, and Dave Moore, the company's IT director. Ciaran and Rowan are quick to praise their staff. "We have an amazing team who are loyal, hardworking and expert in what they do," Ciaran says.
But what's their long-term objective? Is it to be bought out?
"It's not just about money for us," says Ciaran. "We want to build a strong brand and continue to attract customers who want to do business with us.
He explains: "We are open to a potential exit in two to three years' time. But not before we have made the company into a global business with market share in countries such as the US, India, Australia and the United Arab Emirates."
While Ciaran didn't have the opportunity to do his marketing degree at university, he has learned marketing at the coalface where it really counts. He and Rowan have together built a highly successful company from scratch by focusing on specific niches within the insurance industry.
They have developed and devised innovative solutions to meet the changing needs of their customers.
They have set clear goals for their business and their team and have driven hard to achieve growth year upon year. And they have shown immense courage in entering new sectors and entirely new markets.
Having met these two progressive entrepreneurs, I have no doubt but that they are set for even greater success.