Any colour as long as it’s black

Ask brokers or insurers what SMEs want and they’ll generally tell you it’s value for money, great service and the swift processing of claims – all things they pride themselves on already. But ask the SMEs themselves and, while they do want all those things (who doesn’t?), they also have other requirements the industry either doesn’t seem to have picked up on, or for which it hasn’t found an easily marketable answer. Can big business ever really sell the services SMEs want? I investigated insurers’ attempts to produce standard policies that satisfy everyone.

“I’ve seen 45 minutes of curling since I got here”

Even the most obsessive-compulsive bridezilla would be out of her depth in the world of events insurance. Brokers who specialise in major events start earlier, plan more thoroughly, produce more paperwork, and obtain more detailed weather forecasts. And no event is more thoroughly insured than the Olympics – which will have been a relief to the organisers of the Vancouver Winter Games when they ran out of snow. I spoke to the broker who was running the behind-the-scenes operation to find out what happened

The case of the kamikaze pigeon

With a few pages to fill in a hurry, Insurance Times asked me to call some claims experts and ask them the maddest claims they’d ever heard – and whether or not they turned out to be true. The most ludicrous was probably the one about the man who claimed that, on Christmas Eve, he was doing some painting at the premises of his printing firm – the next thing he knew, he woke up and his trousers were on fire (paid!). The saddest was the story of the old lady who was convinced that her neighbour was climbing into her attic and wearing out the print in her books by reading them. But I’m particularly curious to find out which Northwest London-based rock star paid £25,000 for a worthless bit of carpet…

Fishburn Hedges makes a difference

In his brilliant book on modern journalism, Nick Davies demonstrates how PR firms manage to get spurious stories reported around the globe as no one has the time to check them out. I found a case of flat earth news in action when Insurance Times asked me to write this article on the apparent threat of burglars using social networking sites to plan their robberies. Insurer Legal & General had released a report co-authored with a celebrity “burglar” which had been covered by national newspapers and websites around the world. But despite the fact that Legal & General’s director of underwriting had been quoted widely discussing charging householders with teenagers more for their insurance, he couldn’t provide any evidence of this actually happening. Neither could the celebrity burglar, a veteran of numerous PR campaigns since he went straight 20 years ago. (What exactly are the CPD requirements for burglars?) And neither were any of the police forces I contacted or the Home Office aware of it either. It turns out the whole thing was the idea of Legal & General’s PR company, Fishburn Hedges.

No wonder the Americans are worried

Insurance Times’ Lobby series concluded with my look at what new legislation the European Commission was planning to throw at insurers. The answer, I found, is an awful lot, on everything from financial regulation to anti-discrimination. UK politicians may talk a good game but they have little to do the rules that really govern the way businesses work – and how much we pay in premiums. And our leaders will have even less influence if they’re hanging out with far-right fringe groups, rather than people like Merkel and Sarkozy.

Grilling the Tories on insurance

Finally! The Tories have outlined some policies. They weren’t quite so forthcoming last week when I was trying to find out exactly what they were going to do about some rather arcane areas of interest to insurers, for Insurance Times’ lobby series. But I did get to speak to some of the less familiar faces on their front bench, including their go-to man for motor insurance, Robert Goodwill. Eurosceptic steam-train enthusiast Goodwill has a model engine with livery that says “Keep The Pound” – could anything BE more Tory?

It could happen to you

I’d almost forgotten this article about the growing crime of cannabis farming – until the Chinese take-away over the road was shut down and taped off for exactly that reason. Seasoned insurance claims managers talk of being staggered by the damage the farmers wreak to their rented properties, ripping out all internal walls and filling the place floor-to-ceiling with their lucrative crops. You’d never have known from the outside…

The rich will always be with us

Everyone’s jumping on the sustainability bandwagon these days – and insurers are no exception. In June, I wrote for Insurance Times’ Property Focus on their unlikely forays into Energy Performance Certificates for buildings, as well as the Teflon-resilience of the super-rich in the recession, and the cast of thousands working behind the scenes to settle a big fire claim.

The mystery appeal of the £1440bn market

Last time I wrote about the SME market for Insurance Times, small businesses were expected to be the biggest losers in the recession. When I revisited the issue in May, it turned out things weren’t so bad – though that could be simply because it’s so very big. In particular, the big three brokers are desperate to build their presence in a market that represents £1440bn a year and 99.9% of private companies, and are trying to use the UK’s many small brokers to help them. It’s not going that well – the likes of Aon, Marsh and Willis appear to have as much trouble getting in touch with the broking minnows as they do with their lucrative customer base.