A united Britannic

Britannic, traditionally limited to life assurance services, has dramatically broadened its horizons, effectively making the in-house legal department group-wide. Mary Murphy meets the head of legal to see how she coped with the changes

Today’s Britannic is unrecognisable from the company of two years ago. Back then, it dealt solely in life assurance, with all profits achieved through the efforts of a direct salesforce. However, since 1998 it has experienced an extraordinary change in focus, moving away from its traditional customer base. In the first year of the new millennium only 69 per cent of its efforts went into life assurance and pensions, while unit trusts and ISAs now make up 24 per cent and specialist annuity 7 per cent of the company’s business.

In line with these extensive changes, just over a month ago Britannic rebranded all four of its operational arms to bring them under the Britannic Group umbrella. Evergreen Retirement Assurance was relaunched in May 2000 as Britannic Retirement Solutions and First Active Financial took the new name Britannic Money, joining Britannic Assurance and Britannic Asset Management in an effort to create a sense of continuity and to link the company’s different factions.

Anna East is head of legal and company secretary. She has worked in the legal department for more than 12 years and has witnessed the huge changes that have taken place over the past few years. “Britannic has been transformed over the last 18 months to two years from a service life and pensions provider with a direct sales force around the country,” she says. “What we’ve tried to do is diversify from pure life and pensions products and expand into a creative niche market. We’re expanding our product range and the way in which we sell our products to become a proper financial services group.”

Last year saw Britannic buy a 60 per cent stake in First Active Financial, a flexible and current account mortgage specialist, for £52.5m. Britannic Money, as it was renamed, is now attempting to diversify and expand its core creative niche market. The company has also begun to make use of independent financial advisers for the first time, which accounted for more than 30 per cent of Britannic’s record £613.3m new single retail business last year. Traditionally, it had depended completely on its own direct sales force.

The company has taken this remarkable step to move away from its traditional C/D social group customer base, which denotes the lower end of the financial scale, to the mid and upper end of the market. This came particularly through its newly-procured operational areas. East says: “Some of the other companies we’ve acquired are catering for a different area. For example, Evergreen, now Britannic Retirement Solutions, is catering for more affluent people coming up to retirement. And Britannic Money deals mainly, though not exclusively, for the financially sophisticated.”

East’s office has been at the centre of these developments and coordinates the company’s relationships with its external firms. External legal costs reached as much as £500,000 last year, with most of the business going the way of Britannic’s main firms – Clifford Chance, Pinsent Curtis Biddle, Maritneau Johnson and Wragge & Co.

East and her team deal with the majority of commercial contracts, trademarks and licensing, domain names and intellectual property work in-house, although they do turn to their firms for additional support, for example Richard Black and Jane Pittaway at Wragges.

The variety of work in the in-house environm

ent is one of the main advantages that East associates with her job. “Nobody here can stick to one thing. It’s one of the blessings if you like, though occasionally it can be one of the burdens. Clearly, the business is changing; as it changes it gives people the opportunity to do what they enjoy and what they’re good at. I think that should apply to our team as well as to everybody else.”

And it seems that her team is set to grow in the coming months. East aims to expand the in-house legal capacity as workloads increase. It is now likely that Britannic will recruit general commercial practitioners for work such as distribution agreements, or more particularly in the area of partnership, which is set to continue to be important in a company constantly looking to expand its customer base and markets.

Apart from its usual firms, Britannic occasionally looks elsewhere for advice. East says: “There are odd niches that other firms can fill – Kent Jones and Done are an excellent firm, very client-focused. They’re much smaller but have always provided us with an excellent service. We go to them for advice on tribunal work and things like debt collection and administering out branch office property legal work.” East has also used City firm Lovells, which advised on Britannic Asset Management’s unit trust provider, and CMS Cameron McKenna for the acquisition of direct property in the Britannic Asset Management arm, although the firms are not regularly used by the company for other matters.

East has built up a number of longstanding relationships that have been based on the firm showing an interest in the company and how it and its people work. “If you communicate well with the firms then they can provide the service you need. A lot of firms are very willing to do that, and clearly, any that aren’t will be dropped. The people we use regularly, we’ll have built up that kind of relationship with,” she says.

The company has particularly good relations with Wragges which along with Pinsents has provided East’s department with secondments. “If we can get to know quite a lot of people at the individual firms, it can help enormously, because they get to know the sort of thing you want from them. It’s important to have someone who slots in as part of the team rather than someone who provides you with advice that you then have to translate and work on, in the long term creating another job of its own.”

Changes within the company have had an effect not only on its reputation in the marketplace, but have transformed the way that its in-house legal function works. “My role has changed because I became company secretary at the beginning of last year, but really the whole department has changed,” she says. “Basically, instead of just servicing the needs of Britannic here in Birmingham, what we’ve done is transform it into a group legal function. So we do what we did before, but now we also coordinate the group.”

Britannic achieved very reasonable profits last year, despite an acceptance in the marketplace that the sector itself has had a bit of a bumpy ride. Forecasts for the first six months of 2001 are good and Britannic is looking staunchly to the future. East says: “We want to maintain and consolidate, to strengthen both our team and the business of going forward. You never know what’s going to occur; I don’t know if more acquisitions will take place, but that’s been the policy over the last year or two, and it may well be what we continue to do.”
Anne East
Head of legal and company secretary

Organisation Britannic
Sector Financial Services
FTSE 250 rating 122
Market capitalisation £2bn
Employees 3,600
Legal capability Three
Head of legal and company secretary Anne East
Reporting to Chairman and chief executive Harold Cottam
Main location for lawyers Birmingham and London
Main law firms Clifford Chance, Pinsent Curtis Biddle, Martineau Johnson and Wragge & Co