BLM boss: insurance is transforming and this firm is going global

BLM’s senior partner Mike Brown is intent on leading his insurance-focused firm into the big league.

Insurance-focused Berrymans Lace Mawer has been flying quietly and steadily under the radar for years. But its merger with Scotland’s HBM Sayers last week (1 May 2014) and subsequent rebrand to BLM is part of a quiet, but nonetheless very real, effort to make more of a noise.

Leading the effort is senior partner Mike Brown, who was elected in 2012 (27 March 2012). Brown says the HBM acquisition and a steady shift to a more corporate structure are part of BLM’s aims to be bigger within its chosen core market.

“Looking to 2020 we’re determined to become one of the leading global risk and insurance law businesses. That may sound ambitious, it could be considered foolhardy by some, but you have to aim high. If you set the bar low, you’ll almost always reach the bar but if you aim higher, you’ll achieve much more,” he says.

Brown is unprepared to reveal vital statistics on the firm’s performance until the figures have been audited, but he is willing to commit that both turnover and profit will be up for 2013/14.

In the previous year, the firm saw turnover rise by 4.3 per cent from £81.2m to £84.7m but net profit slid 8 per cent from £15.1m to £13.9m and average profit per partner (PEP) dropped by 13 per cent from £248,000 to £215,000.

Brown admitted at the time that the squeezed profit margin was the result of continued “downward pressure on fees, with a greater volume of cases for less money and strong demand for advice on a fixed fee basis.” So what’s changed in a year?

According to Brown, the firm’s anticipated performance is primarily the result of efficient working and staying aligned to its specific niche. He is adamant the firm is a risk and insurance specialist and will not stray from that discipline.

“If you have a niche, as we do, then you have a big marketplace and you can drive efficiencies and increase your profits,” he says, adding BLM’s chosen market demands efficiency and that is motivation enough for the firm to endeavour to deliver it.

“We know what we do and we don’t claim to do anything else. There’s strength in being able to claim to be very expert in one area, you gain honesty and credibility by doing that.”

While all this sounds rather safe and obvious, the discreet subtext of Brown’s commentary on the firm’s future is more interesting. He’s not a man to make a song and dance of things but it is clear BLM has not merely undergone a facelift in the wake of its latest acquisition.

Bigger and perhaps brasher firms – Parabis, DWF and Irwin Mitchell for example – have been extolling the virtues of a corporate structure and culture for years, and set themselves apart by doing so.

BLM, on the other hand, is undergoing a more subtle transition. Even the rebrand was virtually imperceptible – most people knew the firm as BLM anyway.

Under the surface Brown has been installing a new executive board, which consists of himself and eight elected partners, responsible for strategy and policy. A new partnership agreement reflects the centralised system of decision-making, although a full partnership vote will still decide the outcome of a few key decisions and there remains some scope for challenges. “Rather like shareholders can in a corporate,” he says.

All this silent momentum has instilled confidence at BLM and Brown has high ambitions for the future. “BLM today is, I believe, the UK and Ireland’s leading risk and insurance business. We’re going to build on that by gaining more clients and more work,” he says.

So how is all this to be achieved in notoriously competitive marketplace?

“We need to grow the firm’s profitability so that we have money to invest in the business,” he explains. “We need to be able to get a return on investment for partners but also to grow the firm, which means we want to invest in the right people and the right locations.”

The right people, he says, may not necessarily be lawyers. Brown is just as keen to ensure that BLM has the right operational expertise as the right legal expertise. As he puts it, it’s all part of turning BLM into a “legal business”, rather than a ‘law firm”.

A number of new senior operational staff have arrived over the last 12 months, including new information technology and human resources directors, and a new finance director in the form of former Baker Tilly Manchester equity partner Mark Blakemore.

Last year also saw BLM start trading in earnest from its Dublin office which was launched in October 2012 (1 October 2012) and whose turnover was not included in the last set of results. The firm also opened a Lloyd’s of London desk in July 2013 (10 July 2013) in a bid to plug into the subscription insurance market, and lined up the HBM Sayers deal, the apparently “modest” cost of which will appear in the firm’s 2013/14 financials.

Although Brown says that BLM is unlikely to pursue the path of serial bolt-ons like some of its peers, he admits the next 12 to 24 months may include “a few more relevant but modest combinations”.

He prefers the term ‘combination’ to merger – it’s more co-operative, less aggressive – and in the context of this conversation, a hint at the brand-awareness principles employed in more corporate environments. 

It seems clear that under Brown’s leadership, BLM is ready to strike out from the shadows to achieve its goals.