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All change at assureweb

There was confirm-ation last week of what must be one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets this year.

The existing insurer share-holders Aegon, Clerical Medical, Friends Provident, Norwich Union and Scottish Widows have bought out the Sesame share in Assureweb, providing yet another interesting twist in the tale of the portal’s ownership. The more I look at the deal the more I see the potential for further musical chairs in the industry’s e-commerce market.

The exact financial details of the transaction are not being disclosed, although a formal announcement to the City from Sesame’s parent Misys states: “The disposal of Sesame’s stake in Assureweb is likely to give rise to a small accounting loss.”

Apparently, under the new ownership, there will be no change to the current business model, funded by a mixture of subscriptions from those providers which use it to deliver services to advisers, together with transaction charges for the delivery of electronic applications to insurers. Assureweb will continue to be free to advisers.

The rationale behind the development of portals was, and continues to be, delivery of electronic new business to providers. Nigel Hopwood, who took over as AssureWeb managing director just three months ago, believes he can grow the business significantly through additional use of the company’s trading partner interface and Assureweb-powered e-business services.

These allow business partners, both software providers and distributors, to integrate Assureweb more deeply into their own systems. The objective being to achieve a more seamless interaction.

According to Hopwood, the fact that Sesame are no longer seen as a dominant shareholder within Assure-web should make them more attractive to other distributor firms. Sesame commercial director Charles Bryant confirms the service will continue to be the portal of choice for Sesame Office.

Equally, he believes the fact that Assureweb is solely a portal and is not offering any client-management services, an obvious reference to The Exweb Gold and Officeweb product from the Exchange, which could be seen as competing with other system providers’ propositions, makes Assureweb the natural partner of choice for other software vendors.

It appears the company will continue with the current 12-month business plan which was recently approved by its shareholders, although the governance structure is in place to raise additional capital from its shareholders should it be needed. This will see the existing quotation and new submission services extended to include new business tracking and contract enquiry services. The latter has been a very obvious omission from the Assureweb proposition for some time.

This all sounds very plausible but there are many questions about these changes which remain unanswered. Not least how will other major providers who are not shareholders feel about THe deal?

Citing European Union competition laws, Hopwood is adamant that shareholders will get no preferential treatment over other life offices. I have known Nigel for the best part of 10 years and I have every respect for his honesty and integrity and am sure he believes he can maintain such a position. This will be no mean feat. Imagine a situation, say, for example, in March next year four life companies want to launch post-A-Day pension products, two are Assureweb shareholders, two are not, and there are only sufficient resources to get two providers’ products ready for A-Day. Prioritise your shareholders and be accused of favouritism, alternatively put the non-shareholders first and you have to explain to the people who own your company why their com-petition got their products live and they did not.

This is the sort of dilemma that the new shareholding structure throws up, yet it is essential that Hopwood can maintain the confidence of non-shareholding providers such as Axa, Legal & General, Prudential and Standard Life. What the industry absolutely does not need now is a polarisation of resources around different portals. You need look no further than the mortgage industry to see how this can constrain progress. In the last few years, we have seen the emergence of a competitive market between portals and it would be little short of disastrous if this were to disappear. Apparently, the business plan does not include the development of a wrap-type service. Given that so many people see wrap as the future of the industry, this may be a significant oversight.

As far as attracting electronic new business is concerned, I have little doubt that deeper integration with advisers systems is the key to delivering significant volume. But given that despite £26m having been invested in evolving Assureweb since the original buy-in by life offices three years ago, The Exchange has still managed to maintain its chargeable service as the most widely used portal among advisers despite Assureweb being free. It must be questioned if software vendors will recognise that building links with the services that their customers most use may be more important than dealing with a less popular portal they find less threatening.

I am also concerned about the prospects for Assureweb’s future relationship with Sesame. It is widely recognised that the majority of quotations obtained by Sesame members are actually delivered over The Exchange. Against this background, if Assureweb could not become the portal most used by Sesame members when it was part of the group, I cannot see how this will change now they have separated. Indeed, it would be entirely natural if, after a suitable period, Sesame were to start discuss-ing deeper integration with The Exchange if member demand warrants it. After all, by poetic irony, most of the senior management at the Exchange these days are ex-Assureweb staff.

Such changes need not necessarily be one way. Bankhall use Exchange to deliver quotations to their IFAs via Bankhall Online, at some point this contract will no doubt come up for review. Free of its Sesame share-holding, Assureweb may be well placed for this and Hopwood, having previously run Bankhall Online, may be well placed to pitch for it.

Overall, I think the new ownership structure at Assureweb raises as many questions as it answers. Only time will tell if the non-shareholding providers can be kept onside, equally despite having tens of millions of insurers money pumped into it during the last eight years, Assureweb has yet to capture more than a minor share of the market. There is a view that despite far more meagre budgets, Webline has made far more impact. The plans being outlined for the next 12 months make sense, but whether they will enable Assureweb to challenge the dominance of The Exchange remains to be seen.

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